On the eve of Dutch elections, a primer (and a prediction) on cabinet formation

In most countries, an election is the decisive moment in forming a government.  After the election results are in, it’s usually immediately clear who will become the next president or prime minister or chancellor (or so on).  Even in countries with complex parliamentary systems, where coalitions still take time to negotiate, it’s typically pretty clear to spot which party will emerge to form the government.

In the Netherlands, however, the election is more prologue than main event: no single party has won a majority of seats in the Dutch parliament since 1900, so the main government-forming exercise is the complex negotiation that follows Dutch elections.  While not as tortured as recent Belgian political negotiations, Dutch cabinet negotiations typically take around three months to complete — and that’s only when the coalition formation process is fairly routine.

The last government, a minority coalition headed by Mark Rutte, was sworn in only in October 2010, following elections earlier in June.

This year, two thing augur a relatively longer (than shorter) period of cabinet negotiations:

  • First, poll volatility and the likelihood that a large number of parties are expected to win double-digit numbers of seats in the 150-member Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the Dutch parliament, will make the arithmetic of forming a majority government even more difficult.
  • Second, MPs eliminated the role of the monarch from the cabinet formation process in 2010, which will now be headed by the chair of the Tweede Kamer, Gerdi Verbeet, instead of Queen Beatrix (pictured above), leaving the process more uncertain and less transparent than in years past.

In years past, the Dutch monarch (since 1980, Queen Beatrix) has typically initiated the process by meeting with each of the party leaders and appointing an informateur, typically a senior statesman, to explore the possibility of various governing coalitions.  Coalition negotiations can go through several stages of informateurs — for example, in 2010, the Queen ultimately appointed five different informateurs, including three who served in the role twice.  Thereupon, the monarch appoints the formateur — typically the leader of the largest party in parliament — to negotiate the details of the coalition agreement among the coalition partners, including the governing agenda for the coalition, appointments to the cabinet and other issues.

This year, the process is a bit more unsettled — it will be Verbeet and parliamentarians who can shape the agenda of the negotiations, which could result in delays as everyone navigates a new process, and which some critics believe could make the cabinet formation process less transparent.  Although Queen Beatrix was widely seen as steering the 2010 negotiations away from any PVV participation in government (and that bias was one of the reasons MPs voted to strip the monarchy of its role in cabinet formation), it is not necessarily the case that parliamentarians will have any less bias in choosing informateurs.

The final TNS Nipo poll forecasts the following results for tomorrow’s election (similar to results from other polls):

  • 35 seats for Rutte’s free-market liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy).
  • 34 seats for the social democratic Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA, Labour Party), which has seen its support rise with the success of its leader Diederik Samsom in the recent debates.
  • 21 seats for the anti-austerity, leftist Socialistische Partij (SP, the Socialist Party), a marked decline from a month ago, when it led polls, before its leader Emile Roemer made some anti-European comments and was seen as having stumbled in the debates.
  • 17 seats for the populist, anti-Europe, anti-immigrant Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, the Party for Freedom) of Geert Wilders, a sharp decline in seats.
  • 13 seats for the progressive/centrist Democraten 66 (Democrats 66).
  • 12 seats for the conservative Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal), a sharp decline.
  • 6 seats for ChristenUnie (CU, Christian Union), a smaller, vaguely center-left, Christian democratic party.
  • 4 seats for GroenLinks (GL, GreenLeft), the Dutch green party.
  • 4 seats for 50PLUS, a new party founded in 2009 by former Labour politicians.
  • 2 seats for Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP, the Reformed Political Party), a Calvinist party that’s in electoral alliance with ChristenUnie, but is typically a ‘testimonial’ party uninterested in joining coalitions.
  • 2 seats for the Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD, Party for the Animals), another ‘testimonial’ party focused on animal rights and welfare.

If those polls are correct — and, I’ll caution, polls still show many undecided voters — I see three potential coalitions:

  • a centrist, pro-Europe ‘purple’ coalition, largely between the VVD and Labour,
  • a more leftist anti-austerity coalition, largely between Labour and the Socialists, and
  • an unlikelier VVD-led pro-austerity coalition without Labour.

It seems more likely than not, however, that Labour is headed back into government as either the leading party or a supporting coalition member of the next government.

‘Purple’ coalition.  The media has played up the likelihood of this coalition, so named because it would be comprised of the ‘red’ Labour and ‘blue’ VVD.  Labour prime minister Wim Kok governed from 1994 to 2002 under a similar coalition, and the CDA and Democrats 66 have indicated they would likely support such a coalition.  Together, Labour and VVD are projected to win 69 seats; with the CDA and Democrats 66, a purple coalition would command a projected 94 votes — a stable majority government, and that’s without including any of the smaller parties.

The biggest obstacle to a purple coalition is the distance between Rutte and Samsom on the issues — it is easy to see how a purple coalition could get held up over agreeing an agreement as to the government’s agenda.  Rutte has campaigned on the issue of bringing the Dutch budget within 3% of GDP by 2013; Samsom has argued for a more gradual approach.  Furthermore, while a purple coalition would be more pro-Europe than a more leftist coalition, Rutte and Samsom are at odds over future bailouts for Greece (Samsom supports, Rutte opposes).  Both Rutte and Samsom have argued that a ‘purple’ coalition would be difficult, while Samsom has said that a coalition with Labour would be like entering into a warm bath.   A further difficulty with a ‘purple coalition’ is that it would not currently command a majority in the upper house of the Dutch parliament.

Anti-austerity coalition.  The core of this coalition would be Labour and the Socialists (presumably with Samsom as prime minister, unless somehow the Socialists emerge with a larger number of seats tomorrow).

Samsom, who is more leftist than his predecessor as the Labour leader, would likely find the Socialists more simpatico in terms of governing philosophy.  Both parties agree that they would like to cut the Dutch budget more gradually over a longer period of time than the VVD.  Samsom, who’s firmly pro-European, would likely spar with Roemer mostly over future bailouts to Greece and other countries at the periphery of the eurozone.

The trickiest challenge for this coalition is arithmetic.  Together, Labour and Socialists are projected to win just 55 seats together, leaving them 20 short of a majority government.

Although the PVV has taken a sharply anti-austerity (and anti-European) stance in the election, it remains a fairly toxic brand, especially on the left, and it seems incomprehensible that either Labour or the Socialists would want to join a formal coalition with the PVV or even enter into a ‘toleration agreement’ like Rutte’s 2010 government, whereby the PVV agreed to provide support for government policies from outside the government.  Nonetheless, the PVV seems more likely to support a Labour budget than a VVD budget, and a Labour-led government need not enter into a formal arrangement with the PVV as Rutte’s government did in 2010.

Furthermore, Democrats 66 leader Alexander Pechtold and CDA leader Sybrand van Haersma Buma have both said they will not support a leftist coalition with the Socialists.

Perhaps Samsom and Roemer could command the support from the Greens, the Christian Union and 50PLUS to pull closer to a majority.  But in a world where the PVV, Democrats 66 and the CDA are unwilling to join a coalition, it seems likely that this option would be a minority government at best — so Dutch voters would head back to the polls if Samsom couldn’t pass his budget or if the coalition crumbles over future eurozone bailouts.

Another VVD-CDA coalition.  Under the projections, the current VVD-CDA coalition would command just 47 seats, not even a third of the parliament.  Given that the PVV brought down the current government over the 2013 budget and budget cuts, it is inconceivable that the PVV would support a new Rutte-led coalition, from inside or outside the government.  In any event, even with the PVV’s support, the coalition could rely on just 64 votes, according to the projections.  And even if a VVD-CDA coalition (without Labour) could convince Democrats 66 to join, it would command just 60 seats.

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