A small pro-farmers party has swept provincial elections in the Netherlands to become the biggest in the Senate by channeling wide dissatisfaction with the Dutch government, in a sharp challenge to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s administration.
The results put the party, the Farmer Citizen Movement, which has fewer than 11,000 members, according to its website, on track to become a major player in a government body that approves or rejects legislation that comes out of the House of Representatives.
Some Dutch voters said they viewed the party’s success as a victory against the country’s elites as well as the government. They said it showed support for the preservation of rural life in the Netherlands and the farming economy, in particular, though voters from all parts of the country, including suburban areas, supported the party.
But the victory could make it difficult for Mr. Rutte’s government to pass a strict law to cut nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands by 50 percent by 2030, to fight climate change and place it in line with European Union requirements to preserve nature reserves. The prime minister’s party, which does not have a majority in the Senate or the House, needs a coalition vote to pass laws.
The pro-farmers party, known by its Dutch acronym BBB, opposes the plan, saying it could imperil farmers’ operations in a country renowned for its agricultural industry. To reach the government’s emission-reduction goals, thousands of farmers would have to significantly reduce the number of their livestock and the size of their operations, farmers and their supporters say. If they cannot help meet the government’s target, they may have to close down their operations altogether, they say.
Mr. Rutte, who is not up for election for a few more years and is one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, having been elected in 2010, called the results a “scream at politics,” according to the Dutch wire service ANP.
Caroline van der Plas, the co-founder and leader of BBB, said after the vote: “They already couldn’t ignore us. But now, they definitely can’t.”
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Ben Apeldoorn, a dairy farmer in the Utrecht Province who voted for the pro-farmers party, said the win felt like “a victory of the common man over the elite.”
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” he said. “As farmers, we felt abandoned by the political society.”
The Farmer Citizen Movement did not exist until four years ago. The party, which had zero seats going into the election, won at least 16 in the 75-seat Senate, according to exit polls and projections. A bloc formed by left-of-center Labor and Green parties had 15 seats, local news reports said. (BBB holds one seat in the 150-member House of Representatives.)
Now, BBB, which presents itself as a party of the countryside, appears to be on track to become the largest party in all but one province, according to the Dutch public broadcaster NOS. Vote counting was still wrapping up late Thursday night.
In Dutch provincial elections, held every four years, voters choose the lawmakers for the country’s 12 provinces, who then pick members of the Senate, which will be done in May. With BBB’s victory, the fate of the government’s plan to drastically cut nitrogen emissions is in question.
Bart Kemp, the chairman of Agractie, a farmers interest group founded in 2019, says the party’s victory means “the Netherlands has taken a big step toward being more reasonable.” He added, “The government has unrealistic plans.”
Research from 2019 shows that the Netherlands produces, on average, four times as much nitrogen as other European countries. The agricultural industry is responsible for the largest share of nitrogen emissions in the country, much of it from the waste produced by the estimated 1.6 million cows that provide the milk used to make the country’s famed cheeses, like Gouda and Edam.
Scientists have long sounded the alarm about the urgent global need to reduce harmful emissions. Too much nitrogen acidifies the ground, which reduces the amount of nutrients for plants and trees. That, in turn, means that fewer kinds of plants can grow together. Nitrogen emissions also cause less fungus in the ground, which makes it more vulnerable to extreme weather such as drought or rain.
Excess nitrogen in the ocean can also help create conditions in which vital organisms cannot survive.
The nitrogen-reduction plan led to nationwide protests last year, with people burning manure and hay bales and hanging upside-down flags along highways.
Christianne van der Wal, the minister for nature and nitrogen in Mr. Rutte’s government and a member of his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, acknowledged that many Dutch residents were against the government’s nitrogen emissions plan.
“We’ve known that for a long time,” she said, calling it a complicated issue that would have a major effect on people’s lives. But, she added, “at the same time, there’s no choice.”
Farmers say they have always followed the rules, trying to find innovative and more sustainable ways of producing and ensuring safe and high-quality food. They say the government’s plan, which includes the possibility of forced buyouts, made them feel unwanted.
“Everyone in the Netherlands cares about nature, including farmers,” said Ms. van der Plas, who occupies BBB’s only seat in the House. The Netherlands simply has to follow European rules for preserving its nature preserves, she added, even though the bloc has not stipulated how exactly to do so.
Whether the government’s proposal will come up for a vote in its current form in the Senate is unclear.
Ms. van der Wal, the nitrogen minister, said it was up to the provinces to find policies to prepare for the reduction of nitrogen emissions.
“All parties, left or right, pro- or anti- the nitrogen approach, have plans for their provinces: the building of houses or energy transition,” she said through a spokesperson.
“But without the reduction of nitrogen emissions,” she said, “that simply won’t be possible.”