Politics of the Netherlands: An Overview

The first country we will focus on in 2017 is the Netherlands, since their election on the 15th of March will be the first major one of the year.

The politics of the Netherlands is fascinating due to the structure of their elections.  As a Constitutional Monarchy, the Netherlands does have King, Willem-Alexander, but for all intensive purposes the country is a parliamentary republic.  Because of this, our analysis will focus on the parliament and prime prime minister.  We cannot ignore that the country is one of the core members of the European Union as well a member of the Eurozone, two facts that have far reaching implications for Dutch politics, especially with the growing Euroskeptic and Right-Wing Populist parties across Europe and the Netherlands as well.

We will discuss this year’s election in our next post, but before we can have a real preview we need to understand where Dutch politics is at the moment.  As the Netherlands holds elections every 5 years, their most recent parliamentary elections were in 2012, but there was also a more recent European parliamentary election in 2014 that we can use for this analysis.

Before we look at the 2012 election, we’ll cover a quick overview of how the Dutch elections work.  The Dutch have a bicameral legislature, with the House of Representatives (Lower House) selected via proportional list by constituency with a 0.67% cutoff and the Senate (Upper House) selected by the states.  In plain English, seats in the House of Representatives are granted based on the results of the party, not individual candidates, as voters select a party.  Any party that receives 0.67% of the vote or higher receives an approximately proportional number of seats out of the 150 seats in the chamber.  This is an extremely low cutoff for a proportional style of election, as most countries set their cutoff much higher, often around 5%.  This means there are many more parties in the Dutch lower house than in most countries, creating possibly complicated situations when it comes to forming coalitions.  Why is this?  The Prime-Minister, the executive of the Netherlands, is selected by a majority House of Representatives, so parties that consist of over 50% of parliament must form a coalition to select the Prime Minister and ensure he has a stable government.  When there are more parties, it can often require more than two parties to form a coalition, making things more difficult.  The Senate has no role in this process and does very little besides approve what the House of Representatives passes, and it cannot submit legislation of its own.

Starting with the Dutch parliamentary election of 2012, we can analyze the status of the government and see how the same parties did in the 2014 election.  We will go further in depth about each party’s results in the party by party analysis of future post as an overview will work here (a table of the results is provided below).  Going into the 2012 election, the government consisted of weak right-wing coalition led by the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).  Mark Rutte, head of the VVD, managed to form a coalition with the center-right to center leaning Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Right-Wing Populist Party for Freedom (PVV), with the latter being merely “support” and receiving no cabinet positions.  He became the first VVD Prime-Minister ever but only lasted two years as his fragile coalition fell apart, triggering early elections.  The PVV was angered by Rutte’s attempts to cut the budget using austerity measures and pulled their support for the coalition.  This caused questions about what type of government would result from the 2012 election if the right-wing couldn’t unite.

Map of the 2012 Dutch General Election.  The VVD (Dark Blue) and Labour (Dark Red) parties had the most success and formed a coalition.                   Map from Wikipedia

The 2012 election was a reassurance for the VVD, as they gained 10 seats additional seats, while the PVV lost 9 of its seats and the CDA lost 8.  With 11 parties making it into the parliament, reaching the 76 seats required for a majority would be difficult, even with the VVD’s winning of 41 seats.  Potential center or center-right coalition partners would not be enough, especially after the CDA lost over a third of its seats and the main opposition, the Labour Party, gained 8 more seats to reach 38.  As a result of the Netherlands’s low cutoff (0.67%) for parties to make it into parliament, the VVD were having difficulty finding a partner they could work with.  Weak coalitions and early elections are common in the Netherlands because of this low cutoff.  The VVD was forced into what could be considered a “Grand Coalition” or “Purple Government” between itself and the Labour Party, reaching a majority but having very different ideologies.  Features of the coalition agreement included EU required budget cuts and preventing officials from rejecting same-sex marriages.  The election was also seen as a victory for the EU within the country, as the Euroskeptic PVV lost support significantly, while the VVD and Labour parties strongly favored the EU.  (If you’d like a more in-depth analysis of the 2012 election, a great page is here)

The 2014 European elections reflected the 2009 European elections, but were very different from the 2012 domestic results.  These differences are mainly caused by the EU parties that the domestic parties are a part of.  The Netherlands is given 26 seats in the European parliament, distributed proportionally (differently than the domestic cutoff).  The Christian Democratic Appeal was aligned with the largest center-right European parliamentary group, the European People’s Party, and received the largest % of the vote in the 2009 elections (20%).  In this election, their election failure from 2012 continued here as they dropped to 15% of the vote, finishing second behind Democrats 66, a center-left liberal party that is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe parliamentary group.  Due to the differences between European and Dutch elections, there isn’t too much we can learn from the results themselves, but the trends can show us where public opinion has trended.  Notably, the Labour party dropped 2.5%, falling to single digits and falling behind the Socialist party, which gained 2.5%.  This was not a good sign for the Labour Party, which has been one of the Netherland’s strongest parties for decades, and it foreshadows their problems that we will discuss more in our next article on the 2017 election.  The Party for Freedom also lost 3.5%, seemingly showing a drop in their popularity, or at least increased loyalty to the EU, as the PVV is a Euroskeptic party.  The VVD, also part of the ALDE group with Democrats 66, finished in 4th, with their results almost the same, a 0.6% gain.  While these elections can’t show us what will happen in the future, they foreshadowed the Labour party’s future struggles, but not the rise of the PVV that we will speak about in the next post.

Perhaps surprisingly, the coalition of the VVD and Labour parties has lasted the full five years.  The chaotic government formations that are prevalent in Dutch politics are unlikely to end anytime soon.  This makes the Dutch elections some of the most fascinating in Europe and the rest of the world.  We’ll preview the 2017 election in our next post.  Hopefully this has been a helpful overview for you.  It should be enough to give you a general idea of what is going on without getting lost in the details.  If you want to get lost in the details, then look for our posts on each individual party, as we’ll provide overviews as well as details on their positions.


Author: Brendan Noble

I am a political consultant, data-analyst, Hillsdale College economics alumnus, and conservative-libertarian. Twitter: @Brendan_Noble

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