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The Netherlands kicks off what is bound to be an important and historic electoral year. With the French and the Germans also casting their ballots in 2017, Europe might look and feel very different by the end of the year.

13 million men and women are eligible to vote in the Netherlands. They must choose between 1,114 candidates, spread over 28 political parties.

But at first glance, there should be little reason to change course. The country is doing well: in 2016, the economy grew by 2.1% – it has grown for 11 quarters in a row. Consumer spending is growing. The unemployment rate is dropping and job growth is at its highest rate in five years.

The Netherlands is back to being an economically healthy country and one of the strongest economies in the world. The coalition of Liberals (VVD) and Labour (PvdA), led by Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte, is responsible for this success. The coalition was formed after the September 2012 election and it is the first cabinet this century to complete its full period.  Let’s make the Netherlands great again? Mission accomplished.

But the upcoming election is not about the economy. When you dig deeper, you find that the Dutch are in the midst of a severe identity crisis and an overall general feeling of discontent.

The Netherlands is a country once known and praised internationally for its entrepreneurial spirit, tolerance, solidarity and diversity. A country once known for looking beyond its borders – a big reason for its prosperity – is openly discussing rebuilding frontiers and looking more and more inward. Fear is leading the way; the Dutch are in desperate need of hope and change.

“The Dutch are in the midst of a severe identity crisis and an overall general feeling of discontent”

At this stage of the campaign, no-one seems to be able to address both the hopes and fears of the electorate. You are either pro-fear or pro-hope, and fear is currently winning. The polls show a country that is moving increasingly towards the Right, with the far-right PVV, led by Geert Wilders, leading the polls, followed closely by the Liberals.

Throughout history, the two biggest parties have included one from the Left and one from the Right. Having two right-wing parties leading the polls is unprecedented.

On the Left, there is no clear frontrunner. The Greens (GroenLinks) have a new party leader, Jesse Klaver, and stands at a record high in the polls. With grassroots and online campaigning inspired by the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, the party has organised so-called ‘meet-ups’ hoping to convince people to ‘vote for change’.

Labour, traditionally one of the biggest parties, is at a record low. They too have a new party leader: the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher. The PvdA is being punished for joining the Liberals in government, but the party has also lost the loyalty of voters with a migrant background. For decades Moroccan Dutch and Turkish Dutch have backed the PvDA. For many of them, backing the party is no longer an option.

How migrants will vote is something to keep an eye on. Migrants are done with being ‘migrants’. In recent years these people, largely born and brought up in the Netherlands, have been raising their voices, (re)claiming their rights and questioning the Dutch status quo. The discussions, protests and arrests in recent years over the presence of ‘Zwarte Piet’ – a blackface companion of Saint Nicholas – is a prime example.

“Migrants are done with being ‘migrants’ – how they vote is something to keep an eye on”

The process of shedding off a solely ‘migrant’ identity and embracing and representing multiple identities has been reflected in politics as well. Denk (‘Think’), a new party formed by two former PvdA MPs, is attracting a large section of the bicultural Dutch people from the PvdA. But the pro-immigrant and anti-racism party is also attracting another group: bicultural people who have never voted before, but are motivated to do so for the first time.

According to the polls, Denk could get two seats in the parliament. But here’s the tricky part: the group Denk appeals to is not the group that gets polled. The party might become the game-changer of this election.

Most voters are yet to make up their minds. The post-election political landscape could be completely different to the one the polls are showing now. In recent years, the PVV’s support was inflated in the polls, but the party ended up with far fewer seats in parliament.

Even if the PVV does become the biggest party in this election, it is unlikely that Geert Wilders will become the next prime minister, as most parties have ruled him out as a coalition partner. It is more likely that we will get a third cabinet led by Mark Rutte – although he will need at least three, possibly four other parties to form a cabinet and reach a coalition agreement.

The current polls show that it won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. Forming a cabinet this time around may take a very long time. And new elections may even follow soon after.

Welcome to the new world of Dutch politics.

IMAGE CREDIT: Alexandru Nika/Bigstock