Later this month the Netherlands—an increasingly influential European Union member, particularly in the wake of the United Kingdom’s departure—will hold parliamentary elections. As the largest country to hold a parliamentary election since the pandemic began, Dutch efforts to administer its voting processes while simultaneously combating autocratic efforts to undermine and interfere in them will be closely scrutinized. However, regardless of the election results, the Netherlands is likely to learn lessons that are valuable to its democratic allies that continue to face threats from malign actors seeking to undermine their processes and erode their institutions.
If the polls hold, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) will win roughly twice as many seats as its nearest rival in the lower house of parliament, putting Rutte first in line to form the country’s next governing coalition and begin a fourth term in office. This would be noteworthy considering his government resigned in January over a scandal involving tax office attempts to root out fraud among parents claiming child benefit payments, leaving Rutte as a caretaker leader. Thousands of parents—most with an immigration background—were wrongly accused of fraud with childcare allowances and were forced into debt when they had to pay back the received benefits. A parliamentary inquiry concluded last year that tax office policies that included racial profiling violated “fundamental principles of the rule of law.”
Irrespective of the outcome, the election could have significant consequences. The far-right (and Kremlin-backed) Party for Freedom (PVV) appears set to gain seats and become the county’s largest opposition party. While the PVV is unlikely to end up in the government, its popularity could impact the policies of mainstream rivals seeking to capture right-wing votes, with consequences that could extend beyond the country’s borders to the EU.
Dutch society appears to face growing threats from domestic actors seeking to weaken democratic norms and institutions, particularly in the context of the coronavirus crisis. In January, the Dutch government instituted strict coronavirus restrictions, including the country’s first nighttime curfew since World War II, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. In response, a mix of anti-government groups and hooligans initiated the country’s worst unrest in decades, looting businesses, setting fires, and throwing rocks at buildings and the police.
There is also the risk that Rutte (and/or other prominent Dutch legislators) will fall victim to a leak of hacked information on the eve of the election. Shortly before its last parliamentary elections in 2017, the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) announced that Russia had been part of an extensive effort to hack the email accounts of Dutch government officials.
Even a large-scale information operation, cyberintrusion, or other attack at this point is unlikely to affect Rutte’s ultimate victory, despite the childcare allowance scandal and the violent protests over coronavirus restrictions. The Prime Minister’s popularity remains high, the Dutch government has done a credible job educating the public about the threat of election interference, and Dutch national security officials continue to send clear signals designed to deter autocratic actors even as they vigilantly monitor networks for signs of infiltration. Last month, many political parties and Internet platforms, including Facebook, Google, Snapchat and Tiktok, agreed on a Code of Conduct for online political advertisements during the campaigns for these elections—the first of its kind in the European Union. Civil society groups in the Netherlands like Kieskijker and DROG are also helping to monitor disinformation before it can spread, and the Dutch continue to employ a technology-free approach to elections to reduce the likelihood that the country’s election infrastructure will be hacked or tampered with.
That said, there are concerns over the administration of the upcoming elections. Some cities and medical experts have called on the government to delay elections over fears it will spike infections and keep voters at home, even if that means the country continues to be run by a caretaker government as it seeks to recover from the pandemic. To help address uncertainty around the pandemic, the Dutch government has made a number of significant changes to their elections, including expanding vote-by-mail operations, opening polling stations two days earlier than normal, and recruiting scores of new workers and voting locations.
But these changes could create additional vulnerabilities if not implemented properly. For example, to reduce the risk of coronavirus spread, the government is allowing all 2.4 million voters over the age of 70 to cast their votes by mail—a privilege normally only granted to nationals living abroad. Expanding postal voting during the pandemic can help ensure safe voting and boost voter confidence when election officials have a reasonable opportunity to modify their election systems to adapt to the change. It is not clear, however, that the Dutch government has had such an opportunity here. In a recent small-scale experiment with 12 senior residents in The Hague, half of the votes submitted were not valid due to issues such as ballots being put in the wrong envelope. If problems like these occur on a similar scale during the upcoming elections, voter confidence could be shaken, especially if bad actors seize on the failures with that goal in mind.
Extending the in-person voting period and increasing the number of polling locations should reduce the risk of coronavirus spread, but finding the necessary workers and locations during a pandemic isn’t a given. Many locations that ordinarily serve as polling places can’t be used for this election because they’re either too small to keep voters physically distanced, or they are located in high-risk locations, such as senior facilities. And many volunteers who ordinarily work at polling stations during elections may be less willing to serve due to the fear of risking illness.
The interests of autocratic actors go beyond the elections themselves. They seek to exacerbate existing fissures in Dutch society, thereby undermining a government they perceive as hostile and paving the way for more authoritarian alternatives. Like their counterparts in the United States, France, Germany, and other western nations, autocratic efforts are designed to erode Dutch confidence in democratic institutions, with the goal of weakening the governments that embody and preserve those institutions and paving the way for an alternative.
Even if the upcoming election takes place without any discernable evidence of interference, autocratic actors’ interest in meddling in the Netherlands is unlikely to wane. Cyber attacks, disinformation operations, social media campaigns, financial pressure, and other forms of influence represent a long-term challenge to all western democracies. Autocratic actors seek to encourage discord and amplify distrust in the parties that are governing western societies and cause people to lose faith in their democratic institutions. They will continue to pursue these goals regardless of whether Prime Minister Rutte secures four more years in office.
Western governments, civil society organizations, and media companies need to continue to improve their collaboration, sharing lessons learned in the aftermath of successful operations against them to implement effective countermeasures and deterrents. If the Netherlands’ election goes smoothly, Amsterdam will have learned some useful lessons, and it should share that hard-won knowledge with the other 12 EU countries set to cast ballots later this year.