A farmers’ protest party in the Netherlands has caused a shock after winning provincial elections this week just four years after their founding. Could their rise have wider implications?
The Farmer-Citizen Movement or BoerburgerBeweging (BBB) grew out of mass demonstrations against the Dutch government’s environmental policies, protests that saw farmers using their tractors to block public roads. The BBB is now set to become the largest party in the Dutch senate.
The developments have thrown the Dutch government’s ambitious environmental plans into doubt and are being watched closely by the rest of Europe.
The movement was powered by ordinary farmers but has become an unlikely front in the culture wars. Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen have voiced support, while some in the far right see the movement as embodying their ideas of elites using green policies to trample on the rights of individuals.
On Wednesday, the Farmer-Citizen Movement landed a large win in regional elections, winning more seats in the senate than Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative VVD party.
The first exit poll showed the party was due to win 15 of the Senate’s 75 seats with almost 20 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile Rutte’s ruling VVD party dropped from 12 to 10 seats – leaving it without a Senate majority. Results on Thursday showed the BBB party had won the most votes in eight of the country’s 12 provinces.
Wednesday’s election win is significant as it means the party is now set to be the largest in the Upper House of Parliament, which has the power to block legislation agreed in the Lower House – throwing the Dutch government’s environmental policies into question.
As the election results emerged overnight on Wednesday, BBB leader Caroline van der Plas told domestic broadcaster Radio 1: “Nobody can ignore us any longer.
“Voters have spoken out very clearly against this government’s policies.”
Newspapers described the election outcome this week as a “monster victory” for the Farmer-Citizen Movement, which has enjoyed support from sections of society who feel unsupported by Rutte’s VVD party.
For Arjan Noorlander, a political reporter in the Netherlands, the provincial election results this week have made the country’s political future very hard to predict. “It’s a big black hole what will happen next,” he told CNN.
“They don’t have a majority so they would have to negotiate to form a cabinet and we have to wait and see what the impact will be.”
Tom-Jan Meeus, a journalist and political columnist in the Netherlands, believes Wednesday’s result is reflective of a “serious dissatisfaction” with traditional politics in the country.
“This party is definitely part of that trend,” he told CNN.
“However, it’s new in that it has a different agenda from previous anti-establishment parties but it fits in the bigger picture that has been around here for 25 years now.”
Meeus believes that the shock rise in support for the BBB party largely comes from those living in small, rural villages who feel disillusioned by government policies.
“Although it’s a small country, there’s this perception that people living in the western, urbanized part of the country are having all the goods from government policies, and people living in the countryside in small villages believe that the successful people in Amsterdam, in the Hague, in Utrecht are having the goods, and they suffer from it.
“So the feeling is that the less successful, less smart people are trapped by a government who doesn’t understand what their problems are.”
Noorlander agrees the main topic they’ve been talking about recently is the position of the farmers in the Netherlands, because of “the pollution and environmental rules mainly made in Brussels by the EU, they were pushing against that.”
“They want farmers to have a place in the Netherlands. That’s their main topic but it became broader in these last few months. It’s become the vote of people living in these farming areas, outside the big cities, against the people in the big cities making the policies and being more international.”
The Farmer-Citizen Movement was established four years ago in response to the government’s proposals for tackling nitrogen emissions.
The Dutch government launched a drive to slash emissions in half by 2030, pointing the finger at industrial agriculture for rising levels of pollution that were threating the country’s biodiversity.
The BBB party has fought back against the measures – which include buying farmers out and reducing livestock numbers – instead placing emphasis on the farmers’ livelihoods that are at risk of being destroyed.
Farmers have protested against the government’s green policies by blocking government buildings with tractors and dumping manure on motorways.
Meeus believes that this week’s election win for the BBB means the agenda to tackle the nitrogen crisis is now in “big trouble.”
“This vote obviously is a statement from a big chunk of the voters to say no to that policy,” he said.
According to Ciarán O’Connor, a Senior Analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says the BBB have built a platform off the back of the protest movement for their party being the representative of the ‘true people.’
The BBB, he says, “have been one of the leading driving forces behind getting people out to protest but also shaping the ideologies and beliefs that power a lot of the movement; rejecting or disputing climate change or, at least, measures that would negatively impact farmers livelihoods and businesses; wider EU skepticism; burgeoning anti-immigration and anti-Islam views too.”
Former US President Donald Trump has promoted the protest at various points during his speeches in the past year. At a rally in Florida last July, he told crowds: “Farmers in the Netherlands of all places are courageously opposing the climate tyranny of the Dutch government.”
The Farmer-Citizen Movement has also won support from the far-right.
A report from The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism describes how what began as local protests got the attention of extremists and conspiracists, in particular seeing it as proof of the so-called “Great Reset” theory of global elites using the masses for their own benefit.
According to O’Connor, the movement aligns with a populist viewpoint of climate action as a new form of tyranny imposed by out-of-touch governments over ordinary citizens.
“One of the tactics used by the Dutch farmers’ protest movement has been using tractors to create blockades. International interest in the farmers’ protest movement, and this method of protest, really grew in 2022 not long after the Canadian trucker convoy that was organized and promoted by a number of far-right figures in Canada, the US and internationally too,” he said.
“For many far-right figures, this movement was viewed as the next iteration of that ‘convoy’ type of protest and they viewed it as a people’s protest mobilising against tyrannical or out-of-touch governments.”
For some analysts, however, for the far right to claim the Dutch protests is premature.
“I wasn’t incredibly impressed by that,” Meeus said. “Generally the perception of the problem that was in the heads of the far-right people from Canada and the United States was pretty far off, as far as I’ve seen.
“It remains to be seen whether the Farmer-Citizen Movement will present itself as a far-right party.”