In order to properly prepare you for what’s going to happen after the elections it’s time to talk about coalitions. Dutch parties and voters have been thinking about them from the start, and they are everyone’s number 2 priority (number 1 being “How do I get as many votes as possible?” or “Which party shall I vote for?”)
Today we’ll start with a broad overview. Separate posts will discuss each of the five most likely coalitions.
This is the general left-to-right ordering of the major Dutch parties.
Thus, D66 has PvdA and CDA as neighbours, while the VVD has CDA and PVV as neighbours. This concept plays an important role in coalition theory.
(The witness parties don’t fit into this scheme. For instance, on an economic left-to-right scale the CU would be between D66 and CDA, but orthodox protestant CU will never ever exchange voters with ultra-secular D66.)
Generally, a party exchanges voters not only with its neighbours, but also with the neighbours of those neighbours. Thus the PvdA will also draw SP and CDA voters, but traffic with the VVD is generally absent.
As a special rule, SP and PVV also exchange voters because both of them are extreme protest parties. (The SP is currently toning down its protestiness, but although that increases its chances during coalition negotiations, it makes it less attractive for protest voters. Wilders is doing exactly the opposite.)
All this leads to the following scheme:
|Voters of||will consider|
It’s easy to see that part of the power of the centre parties PvdA, D66, and CDA stems from the fact they attract voters across much of the political spectrum. Wing parties SP, GL, VVD, and PVV have a less broad potential voter base.
(Remember that this is an abstraction only. Right now I myself am hesitating between SP and D66, and that does not fit into this nice, clean scheme of things. There will be quite a few more voters like me.)
With that in mind, let’s see what coalition theory predicts.
Thus coalition theory predicts a minimal-size coalition made up from ideological neighbours, preferably with no “holes” in it. In general this fits Dutch politics reasonably well.
Still, there are exceptions. Both Van Agt II (1981-1982; PvdA+CDA+D66) and Kok II (1998-2002; PvdA+VVD+D66) were oversized; D66 was not needed for a parliamentary majority.
In 1981 D66 was included because it had won seats while PvdA and CDA both had lost, and also in the hope that party leader Terlouw would keep the bitter rivals Van Agt (CDA) and Den Uyl (PvdA) from each other’s throats. (He didn’t, and that was that for Van Agt II. And for D66.)
The 1998 elections were about the continuation of the Purple coalition of which D66 was a vital ingredient, and the three parties had made their coalition preference known before the elections — an unusual occurrence. D66 simply had to be included.
Purple is also an example of a non-neighbouring coalition: between coalition partners D66 and VVD stood opposition party CDA. The coalition parties, especially D66, deliberately allowed this hole because their point was banishing the CDA from the halls of power.
Coalition theory predicts that the CDA would benefit hugely from Purple, being able to wage opposition “from the centre” and thus win back its voters. However, the CDA is an absolutely lousy opposition party, and in the 1998 elections it singularly failed to capitalise on its centre position.
The reasons it returned to power in 2002 had nothing to do with its brilliance in the opposition. In 2002 the CDA was available while being neither Purple nor Fortuyn. That was enough for centrist voters — any positive distinction was not necessary.
In similar situations, D66 did a lot better. The 1994 Purple coalition became possible only because D66 grew so huge in the elections, and that in turn was caused by the preceding CDA+PvdA coalition. Unlike the CDA, D66 is able to wage opposition “from the centre” and in 1994 it profited hugely.
Incidentally, D66 is in exactly the same position this cycle. If CDA+PvdA+CU Balkenende IV had crawled on for another year, D66 would have grown maybe even larger than the 1994 record of 24 seats. This very real danger was one of the reasons the PvdA blew up government. Despite that, D66 is still doing quite well in the polls. You now know why.
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the five most likely coalitions: left, centre-left, purple, centre-right, and right. The polls page contains their most recent scores.
Here I assume that a two-party coalition will not be possible, but that voters will rally to the broad centre parties in the weeks directly before the elections. Thus I assume a three-party coalition will be possible. Still, to be on the safe side I tried to find an extra party to reinforce each coalition.
Four out of five coalitions wholly consist of neighbours. The fifth, Purple, does not, because the point of the Purple coalition is excluding the CDA, and because precedent suggests the CDA doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do in opposition and will not capitalise on its position “in the hole.”
One thing is obvious: D66 figures in four out of five coalitions, and that makes its coalition preferences the most important ones in Dutch politics directly after the elections. This happened once before, in 1994, and the result was Purple.
Will D66 do the same this time? Nobody knows, likely not even the D66 leadership. There are just too many interesting options available. Centre-right is the least likely one, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment. Left won’t have the seats, but that will still allow D66 to choose between Centre-left and Purple, between CDA and VVD.
GL’s position, too, is strong. Although it only figures formally in the Left coalition, which is unlikely due to a lack of majority, it is the party of choice if either Centre-left or Purple has to be reinforced for lack of majority. It even has a chance to participate in Centre-right, although that will bring government policies far from GL’s electoral base and may be dangerous.
GL knows all this full well, and right now no three-party coalition (except the impossible PvdA+CDA+PVV) has a majority.
Still, as I said, I expect voters to move to the centre in the weeks preceding the elections, which will seriously hamper GL’s chances, especially when the negotiations result in a Centre-Left coalition. Purple, on the other hand, is a few seats below Centre-Left in all polls, and will remain so unless the VVD grows larger than the CDA. Thus, reinforcing a new Purple coalition is GL’s best bet right now.
You might notice that PvdA+CDA+VVD is missing. That’s because this “great coalition” is hideously forbidden in Dutch politics.
Despite all the complicated voter movements that this blog follows, despite the growth of and arguments with extremists parties, at heart the Dutch system is a three-party one with PvdA on the left, CDA in the centre, and VVD on the right.
The three-party system would implode if these three parties would participate in one coalition. If there’s no difference between the three, why choose between them? Better go to one of the extreme parties, who at least believe in what they say. Or to D66, comfortably ensconced “in the hole.”
The “great coalition” is only allowed in times of war or water-related disasters. At all other times it would destroy the Dutch party system from the inside. The last one dates from 1948, when Indonesia had to be given its independence. Political leaders from left to right wanted all parties to take responsibility for that shock to the national pride.
To close off, here’s a historical overview of all Dutch coalitions since 1973.
As you see, all coalitions have been tried at least once. Back in the eighties CDA and VVD held a majority by themselves, and the right-wing coalition became the norm (as it also had been in the sixties). Traditional right-wing voters cannot resign themselves to the fact that the days of the right-wing majority are over.
The left-wing Den Uyl government was something of a special case which we’ll eventually treat in the article series. The left block has never won a majority; the 75 seats of 1998 were its best score ever.
Also note that D66 has entered a coalition without the PvdA only once, in 2003. When all’s said and done the PvdA is still D66’s main electoral competitor, and the 2006 elections punished the Democrats severely. That’s why I feel Centre-right is the worst choice for D66.
That said, the PvdA only entered a coalition without D66 twice, in 1989 and 2006. The 1994 elections were D66’s finest hour and decimated the PvdA. 2010 will likely be less drastic, mainly because the PvdA has caused the fall of government.
The same goes for CDA and VVD. CDA entered government without the VVD only three times, in 1981, 1989, and 2006. The 1982 and 1994 elections were the best ones ever for the VVD. 2010 shapes up to be less historical, mainly due to the presence of Wilders’s PVV on the VVD’s right flank.
The CDA is curiously exempt from all these rules. 1994 was a huge defeat, but you’d expect them to win back VVD voters in 1998. That didn’t happen — as I said, the CDA mainly returned to power in 2002 because it was there while being neither Purple nor Fortuyn.
Five shorter posts will treat the five coalitions in more detail.
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This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.