On a recent farm tour to the Netherlands, my guide gave me an interesting update on the much discussed farmers’ party, also known as the BBB.

He explained that they were crashing in the polls ahead of their general election. This came as a bit of a shock after all the coverage in Ireland of their rapid rise.

Yet, the results from the election in Netherlands last week showed just how much they slipped. The party managed to fall from 22% in the polls pre-election to a mere 5% of elected representatives.

So how did a movement that did so well in the previous upper house election to become the largest party in their equivalent to our Seanad, fail so badly in the general election?

Rise of the far right

A group of farmers I spoke to on that trip felt there was not a sole reason but a collection of factors for the lack lustre performance of the BBB.

Despite being a well liked figure in general, many felt the BBB leader Caroline van der Plas had not performed well in televised debates or in important interviews.

The largest factor though has been the emergence of yet another populist party and the rise of the far right onto the Dutch political landscape.

The new party, named New Social Contract was founded only three months ago, by a former party colleague of van der Plas.

Many Dutch voters flocked to it after it became clear that the BBB leader, somewhat strangely, stated her support for the new party founded by her former colleague and therefore struggled to differentiate her party’s policies from theirs.

Rise of the ‘farmers’ party’

Before looking for lessons from the rise and decline of the BBB, we should ask how applicable the Dutch political landscape is to Ireland.

Unlike Ireland, modern politics in the land of the tulip is best described as fractured and rapidly changing. In the 2021 election, three brand new parties alone managed to gain nearly 10% of the seats.

The fertile ground for the rise of the BBB began when serious splits developed in one of these popular new parties, the far right ‘Forum for Democracy’, over allegations of racism, homophobia and antisemitism particularly against their leader/founder.

Widespread Dutch farmers protests over nitrogen (N) limits proved the catalyst for the formation of the BBB which followed a generally populist line with a broadly anti-immigrant and euro-sceptic view.

However the rapid growth also caused a significant issue during the general election. While united on the matters of N limits and more broadly farming, stances on other domestic issues were less clear.

The ‘fall’ of the BBB

Although in many respects a new party gaining seven seats (5%), six new seats along with MP van der Plas’ existing seat, would be very respectable by most metrics, the fall in support from the first polls has been catastrophic.

Starting the election polling at approximately 22% as the campaign progressed, the steady fall of the BBB reflected the rise of far right ‘Party for Freedom’ lead by the man described as Dutch Trump, Geert Wilders, and the rise of New Social Contract.

NSC notably rose to take 20 seats despite only being three months old, but the big winner on the day and now most likely to be prime minister, was Geert Wilders and his party.

Timmermans effect

Many who follow farm policy and EU politics will be familiar with the name Frans Timmermans.

The former vice-president of the EU Commission was deeply controversial among farmers and many blamed him directly for the nitrogen issues.

Despite this, the left wing parties he returned to (a labour/green party partnership), had a lead which rose to 15.7% of the vote, triple that of BBB.

Future for Dutch politics

Due to its position in the Dutch upper house, despite its poor performance, BBB may yet enter government with far right PVV or other centre right parties.

However, if so, it will be a distinctly junior coalition partner. Nor will this government be guaranteed to be friendly to farmers.

Privately, some farmers admitted to me their concerns around Wilder’s PVV and New Social Contract.

Both parties voted against continued glyphosate licensing and are notably more restrictive than previous government parties on farm animal welfare, including proposing ‘animal welfare police’.

It would seem that’s one thing distinctly clear from this election. Even with as strong a headwind any ’farmers’ party’ has ever enjoyed and an electorate willing to support new parties (something lacking in Ireland), parties solely focused on farmers are far more likely to fail than some online chatter would imply.