Dutch Pro-Farmer Party Sweeps Elections, Upsetting the Status Quo

Dutch Pro-Farmer Party Sweeps Elections, Upsetting the Status Quo

A small pro-farmer party has swept the Netherlands’ provincial elections into the largest in the Senate, channeling its deep dissatisfaction with the Dutch government into a sharp challenge to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government.

The results put the party, the Farmer Citizen Movement, which has fewer than 11,000 members according to its website, on track to become a key player in a government body that approves or rejects legislation coming from the House of Representatives.

Some Dutch voters said they viewed the party’s success as a victory against the country’s elites and government. They said she shows support for preserving rural life in the Netherlands and especially the agricultural economy, although voters from all parts of the country, including suburbs, supported the party.

But the win could make it more difficult for Mr Rutte’s government to pass tough legislation to cut nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands by 50 per cent by 2030, tackle climate change and bring it in line with European Union requirements to protect nature reserves bring to. The prime minister’s party, which does not have a majority in the Senate or House of Representatives, needs a coalition vote to pass legislation.

The pro-farmers party, known by its Dutch acronym BBB, opposes the plan, saying it could endanger farmers’ operations in a country known for its agribusiness. To meet the government’s emissions reduction targets, thousands of farmers will need to significantly reduce the number of livestock and the size of their farms, say farmers and their supporters. If they can’t help meet the government’s target, they may have to shut down their operations altogether, they say.

Mr Rutte, who is up for election in just a few years and is one of Europe’s longest-serving politicians, having been elected in 2010, described the results as a “cry against politics”, according to the Dutch news service ANP.

Caroline van der Plas, co-founder and leader of BBB, said after the vote: “They couldn’t ignore us anymore. But now they definitely can’t.”

The European Union has started the transition to greener forms of energy. But financial and geopolitical considerations could complicate the effort.

Ben Apeldoorn, a dairy farmer in the province of Utrecht who voted for the Farmers’ Party, said the victory felt like “a victory of the common man over the elite”.

“I’m pleasantly surprised,” he said. “As farmers, we felt let down by political society.”

The Farmer Citizen Movement did not exist until four years ago. The party, which had zero seats before the election, won at least 16 in the 75-seat Senate, according to polls and projections. A bloc formed by Labor and Green parties left of center had 15 seats, local news reports said. (BBB holds a seat in the 150-seat House of Representatives.)

According to Dutch public broadcaster NOS, the BBB, which presents itself as a provincial party, seems on track to become the largest party in all but one province. The counting of votes was still completed late Thursday evening.

In the Dutch provincial elections, which are held every four years, voters choose the legislature for the country’s 12 provinces, who then choose the members of the Senate, which will take place in May. With BBB’s victory, the fate of the government’s plan to drastically cut nitrogen emissions is in question.

Bart Kemp, the leader of Agractie, a farmers’ advocacy group founded in 2019, says the party’s victory means “the Netherlands has taken a big step towards being more sane”. He added: “The government has unrealistic plans.”

Research from 2019 shows that the Netherlands produces, on average, four times as much nitrogen as other European countries. Agribusiness is responsible for most of the country’s nitrogen emissions, much of it from waste from the estimated 1.6 million cows that provide the milk used to make the country’s famous cheeses like Gouda and Edam.

Scientists have long sounded the alarm about the urgent global need to reduce harmful emissions. Too much nitrogen acidifies the soil, reducing the amount of nutrients available to plants and trees. This in turn means that fewer plant species can grow together. Nitrogen emissions also cause fewer fungi in the soil, making it more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions like drought or rain.

Excess nitrogen in the ocean can also help create conditions in which vital organisms cannot survive.

The nitrogen-reduction plan sparked nationwide protests last year, with people burning manure and hay bales and hanging upside-down flags along highways.

Christianne van der Wal, Minister for Nature and Nitrogen in Mr Rutte’s government and a member of his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, acknowledged that many Dutch people were opposed to the government’s nitrogen emissions plan.

“We’ve known that for a long time,” she said, calling it a complicated subject that would have a major impact on people’s lives. But, she added, “at the same time, there is no other choice.”

Farmers say they have always played by the rules and tried to find innovative and more sustainable ways to produce and ensure safe and quality food. They say the government’s plan, which includes the possibility of forced takeovers, made them feel unwanted.

“Everyone in the Netherlands cares about nature, including farmers,” said Ms van der Plas, who holds BBB’s only seat in Parliament. The Netherlands simply has to follow European rules for preserving its nature reserves, she added, although the bloc hasn’t spelled out exactly how to do so.

It is unclear whether the government proposal will be voted on in its current form in the Senate.

Ms van der Wal, the nitrogen minister, said it was up to the provinces to find policies to prepare for reducing nitrogen emissions.

“All parties, left or right, for or against the nitrogen approach, have plans for their provinces: building houses or the energy transition,” she said through a spokeswoman.

“But without reducing nitrogen emissions,” she said, “you can’t do that.”