GEENPEIL (“no poll”) is a new Dutch political party that has the unusual distinction of having no programme. Instead it promises to ask its members how to vote on every bill, via an online interface. Its founder, Bart Nijman, thinks this will help solve the biggest problem in Dutch politics: the sense many citizens have that they are ruled by an arrogant, unaccountable elite. On March 6th GeenPeil’s campaign rolled into Heerhugowaard, a town of red-brick modern developments 30km (19 miles) north of Amsterdam. Some of the entourage went to canvass voters while Mr Nijman stayed on the bus, typing ceaselessly on a laptop.

“We want to make democracy more flexible,” says Mr Nijman. An editor at, a popular and deliberately offensive right-leaning news website, he entered politics in 2015 by launching a campaign for a referendum on the European Union’s association agreement with Ukraine. (Dutch voters rejected the agreement, only to see their prime minister negotiate a few provisos and sign it anyway.) Mr Nijman’s take is much more nuanced than that of Geert Wilders, the populist leader of the Freedom Party, who blames the Netherlands’ problems on Muslims, immigrants and the EU. But one point on which he agrees with Mr Wilders, and other populists across Europe, is that “citizens don’t feel like they’re being heard.”

GeenPeil is one of a raft of new parties competing in the Netherlands’ parliamentary election on March 15th. Many Dutch call it the strangest race they have ever seen. Other newcomers include the Forum for Democracy (FvD), headed by Thierry Baudet, a swaggering Eurosceptic intellectual; For the Netherlands (VNL), a tax-cutting, anti-immigration party headed by a sassy news-comedian; Denk (“Think”), a party that appeals mostly to immigrants from Turkey and Morocco and their offspring; and the Dutch Pirate Party. Because the Netherlands has no minimum threshold for entering parliament, any of these parties could win seats.

International interest has focused on the possibility that Mr Wilders might come first, adding another populist win to last year’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. That may yet happen, but Mr Wilders, who led the polls for much of last year, has been sliding. The Liberals, the centre-right party of the prime minister, Mark Rutte, now lead with about 17% support, ahead of the Freedom Party’s 16% (see chart). And Mr Wilders is unlikely to enter government: every other big party has ruled out a coalition with him.

The broader story in the Netherlands is one of popular frustration with the normal process of governance. That will make it hard to run the country no matter how the vote turns out. GeenPeil will probably not win a seat, but Denk, the FvD and VNL have a good chance of doing so. The number of parties in parliament could rise from the current 12 to 14 or more. Small, single-issue groups like the Party for the Animals and 50Plus, a pensioners’ party, are likely to gain seats as well. The result could be a fragmented parliament roiling with anti-establishment sentiment, but unable to voice it coherently.

Too bold for the polder

“As a country made up of minorities, we hate the idea that anyone’s voice is not heard in The Hague. But we also want our own voice to win,” says Tom-Jan Meeus, a columnist at NRC Handelsblad, a daily. The contradiction is “very Dutch”.

Dutch political culture is renowned for its “polder” model, in which disparate interest groups hammer out compromises through interminable negotiations. It is also notably detail-oriented. At the start of each parliamentary election, the government’s Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis reviews the budget plans submitted by political parties and calculates their effects. This analysis underpins the parties’ jockeying for weeks afterwards.

A debate between the party leaders on March 5th was dominated by clashes over the bureau’s scoring. The candidates argued about the merits of turning the car-ownership tax into a tax on mileage, and similar proposals. Their command of policy was impressive, but the debate failed to generate thematic conflicts that would allow any leader to pull away from the pack. In previous elections, the right and left have usually produced one large party each. Not this time. “I’ve never experienced an election like this, where there is no competition developing between the top two parties,” says Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, an MP for the left-liberal D66 party.

One reason may be the Netherlands’ strong economy (see article). GDP grew by 2.1% in 2016, and the government’s preliminary estimates show that it ran a small budget surplus of €200m ($210m). The prospect of winning budget goodies (spending or tax cuts) might reduce tactical voting, thinks Tom van der Lee, a candidate MP for the GreenLeft party. “Voters think, why should I pick my second-favourite?”

Yet the chief reason for the lack of a competitive race is the strange absence of Mr Wilders. He has declined to join any of the debates so far, instead campaigning chiefly through Twitter. That has sabotaged Mr Rutte’s plan to confront him and pose as the populist’s main opponent. Mr Wilders will take part in a final one-on-one debate with Mr Rutte, on March 13th. “That is the only hope to create that battle,” says Henri Kruithof, a former spokesperson for the Liberals.

Without much excitement in the campaign, the mainstream parties’ support bases have solidified. The Christian Democrats, the left-liberal D66 party, the environmentalist GreenLeft and the Labour Party are all polling somewhere between 8% and 12%. At that rate, the Liberals would need at least three other parties to form a coalition; they might need to perform the ideological acrobatic trick of teaming up with GreenLeft. That would require long negotiations and produce just the sort of compromise government that many Dutch have grown sick of.

If Heerhugowaard is any indication, mainstream voters are already voicing arguments once heard only on the extremes. Ruud Bakker, who sells cleaning supplies in the town’s weekly market, is a lifelong Liberal voter who says he once hosted a family of Chechen refugees. This year he may vote for Mr Wilders or for Mr Baudet’s FvD. “We used to be very liberal in this country,” he says; now he worries that Islamists will try to “take over” and “tell our women how to dress”.

For now, the polls show Mr Wilders’s support continuing to sink. But some Dutch wonder whether the country is in for a Trump-style surprise. Because the Freedom Party has been shut out of coalitions, a vote for it carries little cost. Sywert van Lienden, a former political activist now working for the mayor of Amsterdam, says he has heard even dissatisfied D66 supporters considering a protest vote for Mr Wilders. “When the curtain closes, you never know how strong that ‘fuck ’em’ factor will be.”