Now that we’ve set up the background and overview of Dutch politics, we can now take a took at their upcoming parliamentary elections, which will take place on March 15th of this year.
As discussed in our earlier overview, forming a coalition is tricky business in the Netherlands. Even after parties have formed a coalition, their agreements often fall apart, causing early elections. This all comes from the low cutoff point (0.67%) that a party must achieve to enter into parliament and receive proportional representation. As a result, there are 11 parties in the Dutch parliament instead of the between 3 and 7 in many other proportional system with a higher cutoff. While it allows people to have a wider variety of parties to choose from, it also causes chaos when forming a government, something that may be very relevant come March 16th when the winner is trying to form a government.
Today is January 15th in the Netherlands. In two months Dutch voters will go to the polls and vote for a new parliament. Will the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and Labour Party coalition be renewed for another term? Will the right-wing populist and Euroskeptic “Party for Freedom” (PVV) upset the pro-EU balance of power? Let’s take a look at how things currently stand with two months to go.
Before we look at the opinion polls, let’s see what issues are central to the Dutch election. Credit goes to Hans Vollaard of Leiden University for much of the following information on the issues. While there are a variety of issues that matter in any election, immigration, the EU, and austerity are central to this one. The VVD, as Vollaard describes, “is in favour of fiscal austerity and a (European) free market, while it also advocates tough anti-crime and anti-terrorism policies, and is strict on migration and integration”, while Democrats 66 is very in favor of multiculturalism, and PVV is anti-Austerity, Euroskeptic, wants to ban the Koran, shut down Mosques, and ban immigration from Muslim countries. With such a major party holding very different positions from that of the VVD and other center-right parties it is difficult to imagine how they ever reached an agreement back in 2010. The retirement age is also extremely important, and, according to Vollaard, the Socialists, PVV, and 50Plus want it to remain 65 while the VVD and Labour government has started the process of raising it. The Socialists are also pushing for reforms in the healthcare field, which is currently based on market competition, and instead push for more state control. Because of these issues, the election is extremely divisive, which shows up extensively in the polls.
Most opinion polling is done in an interesting fashion in the Netherlands: by number of seats projected instead of % of the vote, so most of my analysis will be focused on those numbers. What do these opinion polls tell us about the fate of the VVD-Labour “Purple Government” (thank you to contributors to Wikipedia for providing opinion polling here)? They tell us the coalition is doomed. The VVD used to consistently lead in the polls, but since September of 2015, the PVV has consistently been the top party, with the VVD falling into second and only occasionally beating the PVV (normally in Ipsos polls, a group that has consistently shown right-wing populist parties at lower numbers than other polling companies). Now, if Ipsos is right, then the battle for first place is going to be extremely close between the conservative-liberals and the populists, yet even if they are right then forming a coalition is going to be very difficult.
There are 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives. This means a coalition need 76 seats to reach even a weak majority.
According to the trend of recent polling, of which there is plenty, the PVV will receive between 26 seats (if you listen to Ipsos) and 36 seats (they hold 15 seats currently). (March 9th update) Since the PVV peaked in December, they have steadily dropped in polls and are now projected to receive 20 and 28 seats compared to the 15 that they currently hold. Even Ipsos is showing the PVV around 29 seats in their most recent poll: bad news for the VVD and the EU. You may wonder why this is bad, as a strong right-wing government could possibly be formed. That is possible, but after the failed coalition between the VVD, Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), and PVV following the 2010 election and the PVV’s refusal to form a coalition with anyone after 2012, it’s unlikely that the PVV and VVD would be willing to form a coalition. Even if they did, the VVD is expected to drop from the 41 seats they currently hold down to between 23 and 28 (with Ipsos showing them around the 28 mark). This means that these two large parties would combined only have between 49 and 64 seats, with the most likely outcome somewhere in the mid 50s. They would likely require 20 or more additional seats to reach a majority, but considering the PVV’s rather extreme rhetoric and unwillingness to work with anyone, it’s unlikely they could convince enough parties to work with them (since they’d likely lead the negotiations after receiving the most votes). This all but takes away any possibility of the anti-austerity and anti-EU PVV managing to unite the right-wing and form a government.
What about the left-wing parties? They don’t look any better. Labour has fallen apart just like their coalition partners. They currently hold 38 seats in the House of Representatives but are likely to fall to around 10 seats or even potentially single digits. For decades they’ve been the leaders of the left, but their support has crumbled. While the VVD’s voters seem to have gone directly to the PVV, Labour’s seem to have been split between two smaller parties, 50PLUS (a pensioners’ party) and the GroenLinks Party (Green Left). The Socialists are also projected to drop from 15 seats down to around 11 or 12, which is significant when it comes to forming a slim majority. The support for left-wing parties is much more spread out since Labour has fallen apart. If you combine Labour, GroenLinks, and the Socialists (the three main traditional center-left to left-wing parties) then you reach a measly 35 seats, not even 25% of parliament. If they reach out even more and try to work with 50plus (which is questionable but possible) and the liberal center to center-left D66 (not the conservative-liberal VVD), then things still don’t look good. Add to that 35 the Democrats 66’s (D66) projected 15 seats and 50Plus’s 10 seats then they are still 16 seats short with 5 parties already in the coalition. They would have to stretch to add Christian Democratic Appeal’s (CDA) 15 seats, which wouldn’t be jumping with joy to work with the Socialists, and either the Party for the Animals or the Christian Union (CU), which wouldn’t be very excited about this coalition either. That, or they’d need the VVD to join in, but that would make VVD the largest member of the coalition, giving them the Prime Minister position, which the Socialists are unlikely to accept. If the leftists managed to gain a few more seats they might only need the CDA, but that’d still be 6 parties (more than half the parties in parliament). This stretch seems too far to be reasonable, and it probably is. I can’t see the CDA willing to work with the Socialists and GroenLinks. Even if they managed to form the coalition, it would not last long, because it couldn’t last long. Socialists, social-democrats, liberals, and Christian Democrats are not compatible in a single coalition.
We’ve removed any possibility of a right-wing coalition, Purple Coalition, and a Left-Wing/Liberal/Christian-Democrat coalition, so there only seems to be one possible outcome, and it isn’t much better. The VVD, despite it’s fall, is still the second largest party and the largest that is willing to negotiate. A coalition is possible if they begin with the Christian Democrats (CDA and CU), reaching between 42 and 48 seats. Then they reach out to the other liberal party, D66, reaching between 60 and 66 seats. Depending on where they are in that range (or even above or below) and how well other parties did, they would need either 50Plus or Labour (or both) to get over 76. This also would require at least 5 parties if not 6, but it is more reasonable outcome considering there is precedent for liberals, Christian Democrats, and Social Democrats working together (example: Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany, while Liberals often work with both sides in many countries). Now, this is basically an insane coalition that would fall apart quickly, but it’s more reasonable than Socialists working with Christian Democrats and Liberals. There are only so many cabinet positions to give out to coalition partners, and there’s not many parties likely to want a “support” agreement (coalition agreement but they receive no cabinet positions).
This would be possibly the craziest coalition in Europe, and if it (or the Left-Wing/Liberal/Christian-Democratic coalition) happens there will be very lengthy negotiations and, even if those succeed, the coalition will inevitably fall apart. There will be simply too many ideologies in the government. That is not how government formation is supposed to work, and the system simply cannot handle it. Early elections after 2017 are likely to be the inevitable result. The PVV, like many other anti-EU right-wing populist parties, is causing chaos in government formation. There will be much uncertainty, as anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment is high in the Netherlands as it is across Europe. A victory by the PVV will cause complex coalition negotiations in the Netherlands, and potentially point to trouble in the other parliamentary elections in France, Germany, and elsewhere this year. There’s two months still to go, but unless there is a major change, the Netherlands are politically in for a very interesting 2017.
In our next few posts will will discuss the specifics of each party: their election results, ideologies, liberty ratings, and projections.