Protest Vote May Elevate a Centrist in Dutch Election

After 13 years with Mark Rutte as their prime minister, the Dutch will cast their ballots on Wednesday in a national election that is expected to scatter votes across the spectrum. But there is one man who has emerged as the campaign’s chief protagonist.

It is Pieter Omtzigt, a longtime parliamentarian and founder of a new party, who says he wants to overhaul the Dutch political system from the political center — appealing to voters increasingly disillusioned with the establishment yet wary of extremes.

Mr. Omtzigt, 49, has offered voters a novel mix of left-leaning economic policies and right-leaning migration policies, packaged in a party he created this summer, called New Social Contract.

“It’s a protest party in the political middle,” said Tom Louwerse, a political scientist at Leiden University who created a website that combines and summarizes polls.

Yet it is one that does not pit the elite against the common man in the way populist parties often do, political analysts said. While anti-establishment votes in many European countries have often gone to right-wing parties, Mr. Omtzigt’s presence seems to have provided an alternative to Dutch voters who don’t feel quite at home in the far right.

The Dutch election is shaping up as one of the most significant and competitive in years. It is being held two years ahead of schedule, after Mr. Rutte’s government collapsed in July when the parties in his coalition failed to reach an agreement on migration policy.

Mr. Rutte, who is serving as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed, was considered a mainstay of Dutch politics. But trust in the leader who was nicknamed “Teflon Mark” has suffered because of several scandals, including a lack of action by his government after earthquakes caused by decades-long gas production in the northern province of Groningen damaged thousands of homes.

Mr. Rutte was also a strong voice for fiscal restraint inside the European Union, especially after the British exit, allowing the Netherlands to punch above its weight on E.U. budget matters.

Those are big political shoes to fill, and the race remains unpredictable, analysts said, with three or four parties closely jockeying near the top of polls in the homestretch.

In recent days, the far-right Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, has inched up at the expense of Mr. Omtzigt’s party. The other contenders include a Green-Labor coalition on the left led by Frans Timmermans, a former European Union climate czar; and Mr. Rutte’s party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.

No one party is expected to win an outright majority, making it likely that whoever comes out on top will have to govern in a coalition, which could take weeks or months to hammer out.

Mr. Omtzigt has been somewhat coy as to whether he would serve as prime minister, but he has emerged as the campaign’s most popular figure, said Asher van der Schelde, a researcher for I&O Research, an independent Dutch polling organization.

“He is considered by Dutch people as a man with integrity who can enact change,” Mr. van der Schelde said. “The campaign really revolves around him.”

Even as he runs as a change agent, Mr. Omtzigt is also regarded as a safe pair of hands. A former member of the center-right Christian party, he spent the better part of the past two decades in the House of Representatives in The Hague. The familiarity may be reassuring for a relatively conservative country that is looking for change but also security after Mr. Rutte’s long tenure.

In recent years, Mr. Omtzigt has built a reputation for holding those in power accountable. He rose to prominence in 2021 after he played a pivotal role in uncovering a systemic failure by Mr. Rutte’s government to protect thousands of families from overzealous tax inspectors.

As a result of that scandal, Mr. Rutte’s government resigned in 2021, only to be easily re-elected. The scandal added to a growing distrust of the Dutch government, experts say.

“There’s a lack of checks and balances in the Dutch political system,” Mr. Omtzigt said in a phone interview. Among the changes he is proposing is the creation of a constitutional court that would perform a role similar to the Supreme Court in the United States, adjudicating whether laws jibe the Constitution.

“His style, compared to hard-core populists, is a bit more intellectual,” said Gerrit Voerman, a professor at the University of Groningen who is an expert in the Dutch and European party system.

“You could say that the sentiment of distrust in the government has reached the political center,” Professor Voerman said. “Criticism of the government isn’t specifically left wing or right wing.”

But even as he has promised “a new way of doing politics,” Mr. Omtzigt is himself very much part of the establishment. He holds a Ph.D. in economics from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, and he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Exeter in England.

The way the government is run doesn’t work for many people, Mr. Omtzigt said. He also said that many politicians were out of touch with what citizens were worried about.

Migration is one of the major issues in this election. Dutch citizens across the political spectrum are in favor of curtailing migration to some degree, pollsters say, including in some cases the number of labor migrants and foreign students.

But immigration is not the first issue on Dutch voters’ minds — it’s the country’s housing crisis, which Mr. Omtzigt has linked to an influx of migrants who are competing with Dutch citizens for living spaces.

“Everyone’s talking about the rights of migrants,” Mr. Omtzigt told a Dutch political podcast this month. “Nobody is talking about the rights to a secure livelihood for those 390,000 households that don’t have a home in the Netherlands.”

New Social Contract says it wants a “conscious, active and selective migration policy,” and proposes a maximum migration balance of 50,000 people per year. (In 2022, that number — the difference between people emigrating and immigrating — was roughly 224,000, according to Statistics Netherlands.)

“It seems that some politicians are out of sync with citizens’ concerns,” Mr. Omtzigt said.

The lack of clarity about whether Mr. Omtzigt wants to become prime minister or serve as his party’s leader in the House of Representatives has hurt his popularity over the final days of the campaign, pollsters say. But on Sunday, he told Dutch television that he would be open to leading the country under certain circumstances.

Mr. Rutte’s successor as the lead candidate of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius, has criticized Mr. Omtzigt for his lack of decisiveness.

“Leadership is making decisions,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter, in a thinly veiled criticism of Mr. Omtzigt. “If you don’t want to be prime minister, fine, but just say so.”