Dutch elections

For once a non-technical post about the elections in Holland that are taking place today. I'm not sure how many of my readers are interested in this subject, but since I myself am fascinated by the weird turn the elections are taking, and I'm sure that at least some people will share this fascination once I explained it, I'm going to post about it anyway.

Rather lengthy. If you're not interested, ignore.

Electoral system

First of all, especially for my American and British readers, a short introduction to the Dutch electoral system. We don't work with electoral districts, as the US and UK do. Instead, everyone votes for a party (or rather, a person who's on a party list). Each party gets the amount of seats its percentage of the vote entitles it to. Since parliament contains 150 seats, one seat equals 0.66% of the vote; or roughly 70,000 to 80,000 voters (depending on the turn-out).

The advantage of this system is that even small parties that represent no more than 1 or 2 % of the electorate, have seats in parliament. That's why even the SGP, an orthodox Calvinist party that does not allow women to take on functions in state or party and that views television as the Devil's eye, has held two to three seats ever since 1918, even though it has a majority in only a few villages and towns, and is distinctly unpopular in the big cities.

For the same reason, animal rights party PvdD is likely to gain one or two seats in parliament this election.

Obviously, since even smaller parties are represented in parliament, Dutch voters generally don't feel obliged to vote for a big party, and no single party has ever had a majority in parliament all by itself. In the 1986 and 1989 elections, centre-right CDA (Christian Democrats) gained 54 seats (or slightly more than one third of the vote). This is the best score any party ever had in Dutch parliamentary history, and it turned out to be an exception rather than a rule.

As a consequence, all Dutch governments are coalition governments of two, three, sometimes even four or five parties. That's quite all right with us; we're used to this system. In fact, we feel that such coalition governments do a better job of representing the people than any single-party government does.

The voters have no influence on coalition discussions—the politicians take the lead and present the new government after a few months of negotiations.

After every election, the largest party is allowed to start trying to form a coalition. Currently the centre-right CDA is the largest, and it will likely remain so after the elections, even though it might lose a few seats. Historically, the CDA always had the choice between centre-left PvdA (Labour) or right-wing VVD, the second and third parties of the country. In the eighties, especially, CDA leader Ruud Lubbers could (and did) switch from left to right and back to left as the occasion warranted. This usually gives the CDA a position of power that goes beyond its number of seats.

Note that the largest party occasionally fails to form a coalition. In 1977, PvdA was the largest party and the clearest winner in the elections, but it failed to form a coalition and in the end a right-wing CDA + VVD government was formed.

The largest party in government (which does not necessarily mean the largest party in parliament!) is allowed to nominate a prime minister.

A bit of history

To properly appreciate the current state of affairs, it's necessary to start with a bit of Dutch parliamentary history.

1977-1994: CDA dominance

As I said, in the late seventies and eighties, centre-right CDA was predominant in Dutch politics. In fact, from 1977 to 1994 CDA leaders Van Agt and Lubbers were prime ministers, in a coalition with either centre-left PvdA or right-wing VVD. This was the Normal State of Affairs.

1994-2002: Purple

All this changed in the 1994 elections. The CDA made a few very bad choices during the campaigning, and people were tired of them anyway. As a result the CDA dropped from 54 to 34 seats, a revolution in Dutch politics. Simultaneously, PvdA dropped, too, leaving centre-right VVD and centrist D66 as the great victors of the election. The result was the first so-called "Purple" government consisting of PvdA, VVD and D66. It was called Purple because it was a mix of Red (PvdA) and Blue (VVD). This, in fact, was the first Dutch government since 1918 that did not include the CDA or one of its predecessor parties.

The Purple success was repeated in the 1998 elections.

2002: the Fortuyn revolt

The times were changing, however. People became dissatisfied with the established political parties, partly because these parties largely ignored problems caused by Islamic (especially Moroccan) immigrants. Whether these problems were really as large as frightened right-wingers maintained, or whether they were caused by only a small group of immigrants while the vast majority lived a normal life, the fact remains that many people started to worry about them while the established parties did essentially nothing.

As a result, a new political movement was started that eventually found its leader in Pim Fortuyn, a charismatic, openly gay, Catholic publicist and speaker who supported the liberal Dutch drugs policy (In which other country would such a person become a right wing leader?). He proved to be extremely popular, especially with dissatisfied centre-left PvdA voters who'd lost confidence in their party, and with right-wingers that saw Islam as a threat to Western cultural values.

After a round of vicious in-fighting Fortuyn left the original new party and founded his own, the LPF (Lijst Pim Fortuyn), which shot up in the polls. The established parties tried to laugh him away, but that only reinforced his charisma and position.

Then, on 6 May 2002, eleven days before the elections, Fortuyn was murdered by an animal rights activist; the first Dutch political murder since the 1672 assassination of Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis.

Partly due to the fact that Fortuyn's name was already on the ballots, the LPF gained an unprecedented 26 seats in parliament, while PvdA, especially, lost heavily. Since the CDA could now position itself as a reasonable, centrist party, it also gained heavily and returned to its position of pre-eminence in the centre of Dutch politics. Party leader Jan Peter Balkenende started negotiations, as was the inalienable right of the CDA leaders in days gone by.

The result was the right-wing Balkenende-I government, consisting of CDA, LPF, and VVD. Although the LPF members of parliament made noble noises about "protecting Pim's heritage", they quickly fell to squabbling and in-fighting, and the government fell after only 86 days in office. New elections were decided upon.

2003: right wing majority

These 2003 elections returned a slight but definite right-wing majority in parliament. LPF lost 18 of its 26 seats, which went back to the PvdA. Since this is the parliament that's going to be replaced today, it's useful to take a quick look at its make-up (parties ordered roughly from left to right):

2003 election results
Left wing SP9 0 59 + 17
GroenLinks8 - 2
PvdA42 + 19
Centrist D666 - 1 6 - 1
Christian ChristenUnie3 - 1 5 - 1
SGP2 0
Right wing CDA44 + 1 80 - 15
VVD28 + 4
LN0 - 2
LPF8 - 18

(If you know a bit about German politics, equate GroenLinks with Die Grünen, PvdA with SPD, CDA with CDU/CSU, and VVD with FDP).

Note the Christian parties. Although they're right-wing when it comes to ethical issues such as abortion, they can be pretty left-wing about economical issues. Thus they're not easily fitted into either the Left or the Right. Back in 2003 that did not matter, but after today's elections it might.

With these results, a right-wing coalition was clearly called for. Nonetheless, CDA leader Balkenende decided not to invite the LPF into the government, since it was this party's fault that the previous government collapsed. Instead, he opted for centrist D66. Thus the government Balkenende-II (CDA + VVD + D66) was formed.

2003-2006: new positions

This government has not been the luckiest in Dutch history. First of all its popularity began to drop steadily pretty soon after its formation. Next, coalition party VVD became the main battlefield of the moderate vs. the extreme right. Some members are thinly disguised centrists, while others are more in line with the LPF when it comes to Islamic immigrants. In fact, VVD MP Geert Wilders left his party to sit as an independent member, and his brand new right-wing party is poised to gain a few seats in today's elections.

Predictably, the LPF itself fell to squabbling and quarreling even more, until nobody could follow the amount of splits and new parties that grew on the extreme right. Three of them (including Wilders) are serious candidates for a few seats in parliament.

In June, centrist D66 quit the government, which resulted in the temporary minority government Balkenende-III (CDA + VVD) and new elections. This was the start of struggles within the Left and the Right blocks. These struggles have similar causes.

First, the Right. Hard-line right-wing minister Rita Verdonk of the VVD was narrowly defeated in the internal leadership elections by centrist Mark Rutte, and this seems to have been a bad choice for the VVD. Right-wing voters are leaving the VVD for the host of small parties on the extreme right, while there is no corresponding influx of centrist voters.

The fundamental problem on the Right is that there should be a small, anti-Islam party to the right of the VVD, but the politicians on the extreme right have such inflated ego's that they can't cooperate and fall to squabbling and quarreling about 45 minutes after the elections.

In the run-up to the elections, similar things started to happen on the Left, too. Traditional centre-left PvdA is being attacked by the relative new-comer SP (Socialist Party; first seats in parliament in 1994), mostly because PvdA party leader Wouter Bos is too centrist—exactly the same problem the VVD is facing. In contrast, SP leader Jan Marijnissen has proven to be far more effective in gaining the hearts and votes of Left wing people.

Despite the Left as a whole gaining about 8 seats, the PvdA is poised to lose a few seats. The entire Left gain, plus about 5 seats from PvdA, will probably end up with the SP.

2006 elections

In summary, the Right loses seats to the Left. Within the Right, VVD loses seats to the extreme right, while within the Left, PvdA loses seats to the extreme left. The cause is the same: the party leader is (perceived as) too centrist. Dutch voters are moving away from the centre.

Of the large parties only the CDA is relatively immune to these changes, but nonetheless its vote is slipping, too. The reasons behind this are complex, and I'll discuss them in more detail below.

First, however, the outcome of yesterday's most reliable poll:

2006 election results; poll
(source)
Left wing SP23 + 14 67 + 8
GroenLinks7 - 1
PvdA37 - 5
Unaligned;
probably Left
PvdD (animal rights) 2 + 2 2 + 2
Centrist D663 - 3 3 - 3
Christian ChristenUnie6 + 3 8 + 3
SGP2 0
Right wing CDA41 - 3 70 - 10
VVD23 - 5
LPF (now called LVF)1 - 7
EenNL1 + 1
PVV (Wilders)4 + 4

Do you see the problem? Neither the Left nor the Right are going to have a majority. In the elections a few seats will move from one party to another when compared to this poll, but only within the Left and Right blocks. Changes from Left to Right or vice versa are extremely unlikely.

The coalition: CDA + PvdA?

The traditional solution to this problem is a coalition government of CDA and PvdA, the two largest parties. However, there are quite a few problems with this solution, the most important being that nobody, neither politicians nor voters, really wants it.

Voters want a definite choice for either the Left or the Right, and a CDA + PvdA coalition is not going to give them that. As a result, both parties are poised to lose a few seats, since voting for them would only speed up the formation of a centrist, vague coalition. Far better to vote for a clearly Left or Right party—at least, that's what many voters feel.

The second problem is that this coalition would have a majority of only three seats, which in Dutch politics is considered unstable. Although members of parliament are elected on a party list, thereafter they hold their seats on personal title. Thus, any member of parliament may switch parties while retaining his seat, as Wilders did when he moved from the VVD to start his own party. If even three left-wing PvdA MP's or right-wing CDA MP's would disagree with the government, the majority is lost and a very unstable situation would follow.

Balkenende-II had a majority of only three, reduced to two after Wilders' defection. The LPF and the Christian parties voted with the government from time to time, but "from time to time" is not a stable basis for a government.

Third party?

Inviting a third party into a CDA + PvdA coalition would help some. Centrist D66 is an obvious candidate, while some consider the ChristenUnie (Union of Christians) a good choice. Even small Left winger GroenLinks (Green Left) might be invited.

No alternative

There is no real alternative to such a centrist coalition. Left and Right coalitions with the ChristenUnie have been considered, but apart from the fact that such coalitions probably won't get a parliamentary majority, either, the ChristenUnie is too right-wing on ethical issues for the Left parties and the VVD, and too left-wing on economical issues for the Right parties.

The outcome of the elections is roughly clear; see the table above. Nobody, however, can predict what will happen after the elections. Only one coalition is really possible, but nobody wants it. That's the current state of affairs in Dutch politics.

Tomorrow I'll post the result of the elections, plus my thoughts on possible coalitions. (And for the record, I voted SP. I've done so in the 1998, 2002, and 2003 elections, too.)

Update: unconfirmed results

A CDA + PvdA coalition will not get a majority, either. We need three parties at least to form a government. PvdA lost five more seats than expected, three of which went to the SP and two to anti-Islam Wilders. In addition, Wilders took all seats from the other extreme right wing parties, as well as one additional seat from VVD.

2006 election;
unconfirmed results
Left wing SP26 + 17 65 + 6
GroenLinks7 - 1
PvdA32 - 10
Single-issue PvdD (animal rights) 2 + 2 2 + 2
Centrist D663 - 3 3 - 3
Christian ChristenUnie6 + 3 8 + 3
SGP2 0
Right wing CDA41 - 3 72 - 8
VVD22 - 6
LPF0 - 8
PVV (Wilders)9 + 9

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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1 Posted by Joost de Valk on 22 November 2006 | Permalink

I hope you're wrong and that the left-wing get's a majority :) other than that: excellent article, and i'd love to see more of those :)

2 Posted by matt snider on 22 November 2006 | Permalink

I'm a little worried about a system that has an 'animal rights' party. I hope they think about human rights as well...

3 Posted by Joost Diepenmaat on 22 November 2006 | Permalink

Good summary. On a side note: as far as I know the last (few) election(s) the SP did better in the polls than in the final results (with voters probably moving to the the PvdA as a more "strategic" choice). If that is still true today, the PvdA might end up being the biggest party.

And I agree with the other Joost :-)

4 Posted by Joost Diepenmaat on 22 November 2006 | Permalink

@matt snider:

There is no need to worry about any party, even if they're completely crazy (I'm not implying the PvdD is crazy) - "extremist" parties tend to fetch only a few seats.

5 Posted by juliette on 22 November 2006 | Permalink

Thanks for this very informative and well written article - finally something I can point my foreign friends to to explain the Dutch system.

I was the last to vote in my local office this evening and still hadn't decided what to vote until I was standing in front of the machine... Found it a very difficult choice to make this time - more so than in most other elections especially - as the most likely coalition you rightly point to is - IMHO - undesirable.

Now all we can do is watch the results stream in on the tele (or rather in my case: watch the live tele broadcast on my computer).

My personal hope is for a PVDA-VVD-SP coalition as I honestly believe this could bring a good balance between a socially and economically strong Netherlands, but I very much realize that the chances on such a coalition are very small.

Looking forward to reading what you have to say about the results tomorrow.

6 Posted by Malcolm on 22 November 2006 | Permalink

I lived in the Netherlands during the Paars years and have been somewhat surprised about the relative chaos (by Dutch standards) that has followed.

A question I'd love to hear some answers to: why the ascendancy of SP and the fall of GroenLinks?

GroenLinks always seemed very keen to form coalitions with more centrist parties. Has this been their undoing with an electorate frustrated with compromise?

I haven't followed SP, but in the late 90s I felt they had populist, nationalist and xenophobic tendencies (unlike the firmly bourgeois and cosmopolitan GroenLinks). Is this perhaps what's struck a chord in post-Fortuyn Netherlands?

7 Posted by Wim on 22 November 2006 | Permalink

Hi Peter-Paul, thanks for your well-written update about the indecisiveness of our home country. (kikkerland) I hope there will be more collectiveness in the fight for a sustainable life in Holland's natural environment. I recently visited my family, near Dordrecht in the South West and felt like a fish on dry land, gasping for fresh air. It seems that not only the natives have become intolerant - Mother Nature is sick of it too!
It is time for charismatic leaders to acknowledge our inconvenient truths (http://www.climatecrisis.org/) and lead a movement of divers cultures forward into an awareness age. (without losing their ipods…)


From South-West Victoria, Australia

8 Posted by Albert W. Demello on 22 November 2006 | Permalink

All I can say is that it is nice to see that constant change, and getting nowhere is not the sole prerogative of my own (U.S.A.) government.

9 Posted by Joris on 23 November 2006 | Permalink

Very nice and clear article PPK, hope it´s as understandable for outsiders as well.

@Matt snider:
The rise of the Animal Rights party may have something to do with it's leader: Marianne Thieme : http://dump.geenstijl.nl/mediabase/6554/d3fed5dc/index.html

10 Posted by Wilco on 23 November 2006 | Permalink

Great article PPK, puts a good perspective on things.

Personally I'm quite happy with the outcome of the election. For one because PvDA and CDA have no chance of working it out on their own. And because CDA and VVD aren't likely to end up on this gouverment.

It's not going to be easy to form this gouverment but I think we're going to see right and left working together, having no choice but to come up with the compromise both can live with. The hardest problems always have the highest rewards.

11 Posted by Alex Lein on 23 November 2006 | Permalink

It's official, this site has now replaced my previous homepage (http://localhost/) because it combines my two loves, webdev and politics (go figure).

This was a good read too, but I am eager for an update on the state of affairs.

I've got a few articles from Canadian newspapers that report about the culture-conflict between immigrant Muslims and the current social climate in the Netherlands, but is the PVV really an "anti-Islamic" party?

12 Posted by juliette on 23 November 2006 | Permalink

@Alex: yes, PVV is really anti-muslim and could well be called a one-issue party just like PvdD, althought they rather not want to be called that.

I personally find it scary to see PVV get 9 seats: makes me worry about the state of mind of part of our population.

13 Posted by Frenzie on 24 November 2006 | Permalink

I don't think they're anti-Muslim, I'd say at worst anti-Islam.

14 Posted by Frenzie on 24 November 2006 | Permalink

Crap. Sorry, I worded that wrong. But I mean that in general speech "Muslim" is meant more for Arabic-looking and not so much for someone who practises the Islam religion.