Dutch politics: government formation and the Ins and Outs

As promised, I will continue my reporting of Dutch politics. Because right now the situation is confused even for Dutch standards, and foreigners won't easily get the finer points of our ten-party system, I'm also preparing a load of background articles. Today the first installment: The Ins and Outs, in which the three large parties and their dance around the centre of power are introduced.

Meanwhile the situation remains confused. After Wednesday's elections (results) nobody has the faintest idea what kind of government we're going to get.

CDA + PvdA

Before the elections everybody assumed that we'd get a coalition of the two largest parties, centrist-christian CDA and leftist-socialist PvdA. Nobody really wanted such a coalition—both voters and politicians wanted a clear choice either for the Left or for the Right. Nonetheless the likely outcome of the elections left little other choice than such a centrist-vague coalition.

CDA + PvdA + ?

Unfortunately CDA and especially PvdA lost heavier than expected, and right now they have 74 seats in parliament, two less than the minimum majority of 76 out of 150. They need another party. But which one?

One strong custom in Dutch government formation is that the new government should contain at least one election winner. There are four of them:

Of these four, PVV is Out. It's a right wing party, and government is likely to become centre-left. PvdD is also Out; single issue parties never make it to government. Remain SP and CU, both with left economics.

+ SP

Currently a CDA + PvdA + SP coalition is being investigated. Neither PvdA nor CDA are truly happy with the prospect, but there are a few subtle political reasons that might make it a good choice nonetheless.

First of all, 9 out 16 new SP seats came from the PvdA for reasons explained at the bottom of the Ins and Outs page. The SP has become the main competitor for the PvdA on the left.

Before the elections, SP leader Jan Marijnissen expected roughly the following to happen:

  1. CDA + PvdA are forced to form a centrist-vague government.
  2. The SP would attack this government from the Left (while simultaneously the VVD and Wilders would attack it from the Right.)
  3. In the next elections, even more PvdA voters would move to SP, making the SP larger than the PvdA.

However, during the election campaign CDA leader and prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende succeeded in blackening PvdA leader Wouter Bos. According to Balkenende, Bos was untrustworthy because he changed his viewpoints too often.

This strategy succeeded, but not in the way Balkenende envisioned. Left voters indeed decided to abandon Bos, but they subsequently moved left to the SP, and not, as Balkenende had hoped, right to the CDA.

And now Bos is having his revenge. When the election results had become clear, he proposed the CDA + PvdA + SP coalition, and moved out of the way to let CDA and SP talk. If it succeeds, this clever strategy would make sure that

  1. SP would become part of government, would sully its principles by compromises, and would not become as large a threat to the PvdA as when they'd stay in opposition.
  2. CDA would have to compromise even more and would have to abandon its centrist economics, which would not sit well with CDA voters.
  3. PvdA would become the reasonable centre party in government, leaving the extremist viewpoints to SP and CDA.

In short, Bos expects both SP and CDA to lose votes to him in elections after a CDA + PvdA + SP coalition. Thus Bos made Balkenende's strategy back-fire with a vengeance, and he might emerge as the winner after all.

Of course neither CDA nor SP are unaware of these facts. Both, however, are forced to smile and eat dirt, CDA because it's the largest party, SP because it's the largest winner, and these parties are generally expected to form a government. After all, what's the point of being in parliament if you don't want to be in government?

Balkenende and Marijnissen will have to extricate themselves from the proposed coalition, but without losing face. Not an easy job.

However, there's a second point that merits attention. Back in 2002, CDA and VVD were in a similar position relative to right-wing LPF (0 to 26 seats). The three parties formed a government, which subsequently blew up because the LPF was unable to maintain internal party discipline, causing the voters to notice that the LPF wasn't really fit for government. In the 2003 elections the LPF dropped from 26 back to 8 seats.

Although the SP has very strict party discipline, forcing them into government in order to show the voters just how radical they are might be a good strategy. CDA and PvdA would have to tease SP into blowing up government on a radical issue. Historically, parties that blow up a government lose in the subsequent elections.

This second strategy would give CDA and especially PvdA more votes in the next elections. Note that PvdA wins in both scenarios. Effectively, a CDA + PvdA + SP coalition would heavily favour the PvdA in the next elections.

+ CU

Therefore, SP leader Marijnissen may decide not to bother with government after all, extricate himself without losing face, and leave CDA and PvdA to form another coalition. If that happens, the CU is the next best choice.

CU party leader André Rouvoet is pantingly eager to participate in government; in fact he proposed a CDA + PvdA + CU coalition on election night. And it's true, the CU has never had a better chance. Its leftist economics would fit well with the PvdA, while its conservative ethics would fit well with the CDA, making the CU a natural in-between for the two large parties.

Nonetheless, there are a few obstacles, too. First of all the CU has only 6 seats (compared to SP's 25). That's enough for a majority in parliament, but it would make the CU by far the smallest coalition member; and historically small coalition members tend to be sandwiched back into electoral losses by the large members.

Secondly, CU is a strict Christian party, who'd love to abolish things such as euthanasia and gay marriage. The Christian parties (CDA + CU + orthodox Calvinist SGP) have only 49 seats in parliament, and all other parties from extreme left to extreme right would immediately combine against any attempt to turn back the ethical clock. Therefore the CU will probably not get what it wants here. Nonetheless, how well will that sit with its voters? Besides, how well would PvdA like to be the only non-Christian party in government?

Finally, CU's leftist economics could be a problem for the CDA, especially since the CU just might become a reasonable alternative to left-wing CDA voters.

All in all, a CDA + PvdA + CU coalition would be fraught with dangers, too. Although these dangers are mostly aimed at the CDA, the PvdA would have to deal with an SP in opposition, which, as we've seen, is the largest danger they could face.

+ GL or + D66

There are two other possible coalition candidates: left wing GL (GroenLinks; Green Left) and centrist D66 (Democrats). Both are small parties (7 and 3 seats, respectively), and both lost seats in the elections. Although both, and especially D66, are acceptable coalition partners to CDA and PvdA, and neither form a threat to the big two, a CDA + PvdA + GL or CDA + PvdA + D66 coalition would consist exclusively of losers; and that's Not Done in Dutch politics.

In short, government formation is going to become a drawn-out process that could easily take months.

Provincial elections

In fact, the parties might decide to stall the formation for months. In March, provincial elections are planned, and although the provincial parliaments are by far the least important in Dutch politics, they have the right to elect members of the Senate. It would not do to form a government, only to allow voters to vote against it and lose a majority in the Senate only a few weeks later.

It is likely that the votes in the provincial elections will be a reaction to government formation; and it's likely that the voters won't like whichever compromise the parties devise. Thus it might be better to postpone formation until after these elections.

Expect many more posts on the government formation negotiations; they're not going to be easy.

This is the blog of Peter-Paul Koch, web developer, consultant, and trainer. You can also follow him on Twitter or Mastodon.
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Comments are closed.

1 Posted by Christopher Boomer on 27 November 2006 | Permalink

Ah for the prospect of an election whose result you could not predict(!)

The most unpredictable thing in Northern Ireland politics of recent years was on Friday, when a convicted terrorist walked into the Parliament Buildings carrying a bag and declared it to be full of explosives. He disrupted the usual tedium of "he did it", "no he did it", "no it was him: he started it, in 1974" and cleared the building.

Greatest pity is that the parties have not sat in any form of government for four years, yet they each still draw a huge salary.


2 Posted by Alper on 28 November 2006 | Permalink

It's funny how you say a CDA+PvdA+X coalition would consist of only losers.

The CDA does not seem to think it has lost and sees these results as encouragement to continue on this heading.

Strategic positioning or religious doublethink?

3 Posted by Frenzie on 30 November 2006 | Permalink

You can lose a little and you can lose a lot. CDA has clearly only lost a little, which I wouldn't interpret as losing either, more as a sort of "you're doing quite well, but watch out you don't mess up."