Usually in European elections the insurgent candidates come from the outer reaches of the political spectrum: the far left or, more often of late, the far right. This one comes solidly from the centre. He could hardly be less fringe if he tried.
Days after Pieter Omtzigt, a Dutch Christian Democrat MP for 18 years, announced in August he was founding a new party to “do politics differently”, it was topping the polls. Two days from the vote, it is vying for the lead in the parliamentary election.
The outcome of Wednesday’s ballot remains far from certain. But analysts say the meteoric rise of Omtzigt’s New Social Contract (NSC) reflects his personal reputation, the political space he occupies, his promise of democratic reform and, not least, the fragmented state of Dutch politics.
With many people still undecided and polls suggesting tactical voting may prove a decisive factor in the ballot, Omtzigt – who has ruled out entering a coalition with the anti-Islam Geert Wilders – may yet benefit from last-minute allegiance-switching aimed at heading off a possible far-right surge.
The 49-year-old is perhaps best known for his key role in toppling the government of Mark Rutte in 2021 over a child benefit scandal in which more than 20,000 families were wrongly accused of fraud, many on the basis of ethnicity.
But he had long been “a parliamentary terrier”, said Rem Korteweg, a senior fellow at Clingendael Institute, an international relations thinktank. “He believes in parliament holding government to account, and he made sure it did … Many voters tend to view Omtzigt more as a parliamentarian than a politician.”
Omtzigt’s reputation is one of “authenticity, principles … consistency”, agreed Sarah de Lange, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. “He’s seen as a defender of ordinary people against abuses of power by the state.”
His “principled outsider” image was further burnished after the 2021 election, when his capacity to cause problems for any new government featuring his Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party was seen as so great that a negotiator sounding out possible coalition permutations was spotted leaving a meeting with a note that read: “Omtzigt: post elsewhere”, presumably, outside the Netherlands.
Omtzigt took time off from politics and soon afterwards left the CDA to sit as an independent. “He suffered a burnout, but it did his image no harm at all,” Korteweg said. “The guy who was so principled, so much potential trouble, that the country’s powerbrokers basically wanted to get rid of him.”
A string of government scandals throughout the four consecutive coalitions headed by Rutte, who eventually became known as “Teflon Mark” for his ability to survive them, goes a long way to explain Omtzigt’s appeal. Where he stands on the political spectrum, and what he is promising, helps further.
“He’s got a centrist programme that can appeal across the board,” said De Lange. “I think actually what he’s offering is a very modern interpretation of the Christian Democrat tradition: an effort to balance state, the market and society.”
A devout Catholic, Omtzigt’s platform marries relatively left-leaning economic policies – higher taxes on the wealthy, fewer tax breaks for companies, improved workers’ rights, a higher minimum wage and more support for low earners – with social views that are “actually quite right-leaning”, Korteweg said.
On cultural and ethical questions – migration, abortion, euthanasia, trans rights – he is “very clearly conservative”, said De Lange. “He wants, for example, an immigration cap, maybe as low as 50,000, for all categories: asylum seekers, foreign workers, students. That’s a long way lower than where we are now.”
Surveys show the left-right policy mix appeals to Dutch voters, while many are also drawn by Omtzigt’s promised political reforms, including moving to a constituency-based electoral system, strengthening parliament’s role and establishing a constitutional court to supervise politicians.
History is not short of outsider candidates who rose to prominence via a fed-up Dutch electorate: the far-right populists Pim Fortuyn, who was shot dead in 2002, and Wilders, who may yet spring a surprise this time round. In provincial elections, Thierry Baudet’s far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD) did well in 2019, and the rural revolt was led by the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) this year.
Their success is partly down to the Netherlands’ electoral system, one of the most purely proportional in Europe, and the highly fragmented political landscape: 26 parties are running in next week’s election, and 18 could win seats in parliament. As Korteweg put it: “You can win here with 18% of the vote.”
Analysts are heartened that the insurgent making the headlines this year is from the centre rather than the extremes – a sign that voters want change, but not necessarily the radical right. The NSC’s eminently respectable lineup of candidates includes civil servants and local politicians and MPs from rival mainstream parties.
“Omtzigt may present as an outsider, but he’s really tapping into a long Christian Democrat tradition in the Netherlands,” said De Lange. “People forget the CDA was the country’s largest party as recently as the 1990s.”
His surge in popularity, however, remains relative. Despite its 13 scandal-tainted years in government, support for Rutte’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), now led by the the justice minister, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, is holding up strongly and roughly matching that for the NSC.
Polling averages currently have the NSC level-pegging with the VVD on 18%, with a green-Labour (GL/PvdA) alliance headed by Frans Timmermans, the former EU commissioner, just behind on 16%, followed by Wilders, who may be closing the gap. Who will finish first, and what form the eventual coalition will take, is anyone’s guess.
Korteweg cautioned against high expectations. Like all Dutch politicians, Omtzigt – who has said he would be prepared to be the prime minister in a “cabinet of experts” – will face the reality of a political process rooted in coalitions, concessions and compromises.
“By the time coalition agreements are finally signed, there’s not a great deal of anyone’s actual manifesto left in them,” Korteweg said. “Would an Omtzigt-led cabinet really mean major policy change? It’s far from certain.”
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