In the Netherlands, governing means losing votes


Picture of Hans Vollaard
Hans Vollaard

In the fragmented world of the Dutch party politics, there is no safe space

Hans Vollaard is a Lecturer of Dutch and European Politics at the Institute of Political Science at the Leiden University, the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, being part of the government means losing votes. This was once more illustrated by the March 2017 elections to the lower house of the Dutch parliament.

The governing Labour Party (PvdA) lost 29 of its 38 seats – an unprecedented loss for a single party. The liberal -conservative VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte also lost eight seats but remained the largest party, with 33 out of 150 seats.

In electoral terms, governing has become increasingly unattractive for the Dutch parties, although taking part in the government does, of course, also offer a good opportunity to shape policy. So how will the Dutch parties deal with these conflicting incentives towards government and opposition during the current coalition formation process?

Until the parliamentary elections of 2010, the Dutch coalition formation process started with the monarch being advised on the formation of a coalition by the chairs of both chambers of the parliament, the vice-president of Council of State (the government’s most important advisory body), and the leaders of the elected parties.

But since 2012 the Dutch lower house, the Tweede Kamer, has taken charge of the process. The day after the 2017 elections a meeting between the chair of the lower house and the leaders of the elected parties resulted in the appointment of an ‘explorer’ (verkenner) proposed by the VVD – their own Health Minister, Edith Schippers.

Even if the tradition has it that the largest party takes the initiative in the coalition formation process, there is no guarantee that it will be part of the government. After the elections of 1977 and 1982, the PvdA – the largest party at the time – did not become part of the government.

Parties like coalition partners that are ideologically close

In this year’s elections, the Eurosceptic populist Socialist Party (14 seats; down one), the GreenLeft party (14 seats; up ten), and the new migrant party Denk (three seats) informed the explorer of their preference for a six-party Christian-left coalition without the VVD.

But the economically and culturally right-wing Christian-democratic CDA does not like this combination. Quite understandably, the PvdA is also not much in favour of governing right now. And last but not least, it is rather unlikely that the largest party in both chambers will be excluded from the government, given the current fragmentation of the Dutch parliament. The inclusion of the VVD in the new government seems therefore almost unavoidable.

Most parties also indicated that they did not want to govern with the second-largest party, the anti-Islam and anti-EU Freedom Party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders (20 seats; up five). The parties did so on principle, citing ideological differences. The VVD and CDA also referred to the fall of their minority government (2010-2012) amidst an economic crisis, after Wilders withdrew his support.

Parties like coalition partners that are ideologically close. It allows them not only to shape policies to match their own preferences, but an ideologically coherent coalition government limits the possibility for conflict. In a competitive electoral market, it also means that their main competitors are sharing the burden of governing ‒ which is losing votes. It is therefore no surprise that the economically right-wing VVD and CDA and the pro-market liberal D66 party (19 seats; up seven) prefer to work together, despite some policy differences.

However, a fourth party is necessary for a majority, not only in the second but also in the first chamber of parliament, which has the right to approve or reject bills that passed the second chamber. But which party will fill this role?

D66 distinguishes itself from VVD and CDA on issues of migration, environment and European integration, to name just a few areas. The party would therefore prefer the GreenLeft party to join. This combination of four parties is also more likely to keep a majority after the First Chamber elections in 2019.

Even if governing means losing votes, being in opposition is no guarantee for electoral success either – in the fragmented world of the Dutch party politics, there is no safe space

However, there are big ideological differences between the right-wing parties and GreenLeft when it comes to sustainability, migration and income policies in particular. This is quite a challenge, especially when major revisions of the taxation and pension systems lie ahead. Nevertheless, the leaders of these parties have agreed to start negotiations led by a so-called ‘informer’, Edith Schippers. GreenLeft leader Jesse Klaver and the majority of his voters perceive participation in government as a mean to steer policies in the direction they prefer. But joining the government would make it vulnerable to its electoral competitors: the PvdA, the Socialist Party and the Animal Rights party (five seats; up three).

For its part, the VVD would be vulnerable to competition from the Freedom Party. It remains therefore to be seen whether these four parties succeed in forming a government.

Other options are still open. The ChristianUnion (five seats) ‒ centrist in social-economic terms, pro-environment, and conservative on ethical issues ‒ can also provide the support needed to achieve a majority in both chambers. But its participation in government can be problematic because of its opposition to proposals to widen possibilities of euthanasia, supported by D66, GreenLeft and VVD. That leaves the option open for a minority government of CDA, VVD and D66, which could win majority support in both chambers of parliament with ad hoc agreements with the GreenLeft and ChristianUnion as well as other constructive parties, such as the orthodox-Protestant SGP (three seats).

One thing is certain: the coalition formation process may take some time. This is not news for the Netherlands, which is used to this: it has a post-war average of three months between the elections and the installation of a new government.

The new coalition government will also shape the parties’ chances in the next election. If the new coalition government includes the PvdA’s competitors – GreenLeft, D66 and CDA – the electoral prospects of the PvdA increase.

But even if governing means losing votes, being in opposition is no guarantee for electoral success either, as the Socialist Party illustrated in March 2017. In the fragmented world of the Dutch party politics, there is no safe space.

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