The prime minister

During last Sunday’s debate there was some discussion about the VVD’s prime ministerial candidate. Custom requires the party leader to become the party’s candidate, but Dutch EU commissioner Kroes was mentioned as VVD candidate prime minister a few times.

Meanwhile Kroes has clearly stated she’s not interested, but this topic continues to garner much interest among political aficionados, and Rutte was attacked on it in the debates. Therefore it’s time to look at the position of the Dutch prime minister.

Formal powers

The prime minister is a first among equals. Although he’s supposed to coordinate government activities and represent the country abroad, he has no formal power over his fellow ministers. He cannot depose them; only parliament has that right.

Still, the post of prime minister is the most important one in the Dutch system, and it has grown markedly in stature during the twentieth century. Especially the left-wing Den Uyl government (1973-1977) was a breakpoint in this respect. Prime minister Den Uyl (PvdA) significantly expanded the de-facto power of the prime minister by meddling in the affairs of other ministers, most notably justice minister and great enemy Van Agt (KVP, later CDA). During his second government (1981-1982) Van Agt returned the favour when Den Uyl was minister of social affairs and labour.

Leader of the largest party

There’s another reason why the Den Uyl government constitutes a change: from then on the prime minister was always the party leader of the largest coalition party. Den Uyl’s predecessor Biesheuvel came from the ARP, which was the fourth party nationally and the third in the ruling coalition. Before that, the largest party (catholic KVP) occasionally allowed another party to nominate the prime minister, notably Drees (PvdA; 1948-1958), who occupied the top slot for ten years, even though the KVP was larger for eight of them.

The final change that occurred during Den Uyl’s tenure is that the prime minister is now always the party leader. Biesheuvel was not the ARP party leader, and of the whole string of catholic prime ministers from 1959 to 1971, none was party leader, either. KVP leader Romme (1946-1961) stayed in parliament, mostly because his ideas about corporatism were somewhat suspect in the eyes of his coalition partners and he was barred from government. Party leader Schmelzer (1963-1971) followed his example.

Occasionally the catholics allowed an anti-revolutionary to ascend to the top spot. This usually coincided with a very tricky political situation in which loss of face was all but guaranteed for anyone too much in the public eye. Thus the KVP would remain safe, leaving the ARP to bear the brunt of popular disapproval.

But from Den Uyl’s accession to the present day it has always been the party leader of the largest party who became prime minister: Den Uyl himself (PvdA; 1973-1977), Van Agt (CDA; 1977-1982), Lubbers (CDA; 1982-1994), Kok (PvdA; 1994-2002), and Balkenende (CDA; 2002-present).

In the current state of affairs that would mean that Rutte becomes prime minister. He leads the largest party, and right now a coalition without the VVD is not possible.

The prime-minister bonus

Apart from the obvious stature that comes with the job, and the numerous photo-ops with foreign leaders which cannot but help to define a statesman come the next elections, the leader of the largest party becoming prime minister has one extra advantage: the prime-minister bonus.

Conventional wisdom holds that whichever party is led by the sitting prime minister can look forward to about five to ten seats extra just because of that fact. This does not mean the party wins these seats; some parties (I’m looking at you, CDA) always deliver the prime minister anyway, but this mechanism allows them to hold on to those seats.


Drees was the first to benefit from this effect in the 1952 and 1956 elections, when the PvdA won. In 1956 it even became larger than the KVP. With this example before their eyes it’s curious that the catholics didn’t do the same. But almighty Romme was not to be denied: he remained in charge and in parliament, picking a new prime minister every four years.

In 1967 there was another case. Zijlstra (ARP) had become leader of a caretaker govermnent after Schmelzer’s Night, and was very popular personally. Although he made it clear he would not lead the ARP but would return to academia after the elections, Zijlstra netted his party two extra seats. This went entirely against the grain of the times; christian allies KVP and CHU lost heavily.

It was (again!) Den Uyl who formalised the system. After his tenure as prime minister he went into the 1977 elections with the simple slogan “Elect the prime minister.” Combined with his personal popularity this netted the PvdA 10 extra seats, for its historical high-water mark of 53. Unfortunately Den Uyl lost the formation; after five months CDA party leader Van Agt had had enough and instead went with Wiegel’s VVD. Van Agt, as leader of the largest coalition party, became prime minister.

Incidentally, the PvdA won these 10 seats not from the right, but from the left. In 1972 the combined extreme left (communist CPN, pacifist-socialist PSP, and radical PPR, who later merged into GL to better withstand the PvdA) had won 16 seats, of which they lost exactly 10 in 1977. Thus the prime-minister bonus is taken from the other parties in the same block, and not from the other block.

The next prime-minister race was in 1986, when CDA leader and prime minister Lubbers asked the voters to be allowed to “finish his job.” He also clearly stated he wanted to continue the coalition with the VVD. The result was that the voters transferred 9 seats from VVD to CDA. Again, the prime-minister bonus came from the parties in the same block.

Leadership switch

This system does not work after a leadership switch. Far before the 1994 elections Lubbers had announced he’d step down, and Brinkman had been chosen his successor. But Lubbers and Brinkman fell out, and days before the election Lubbers announced he’d vote not for Brinkman, but for the number three on the CDA list. This led to the downfall of the CDA: 20 seats lost; Purple government.

Kok (PvdA) used the prime-minister effect in the 1998 elections, but ran into the same problem as Lubbers in 2002. His chosen successor Melkert did a thoroughly lousy job in the debates against Pim Fortuyn, and the PvdA lost 22 seats.

Balkenende has been supported by the prime-minister bonus in the 2003 and 2006 elections. Especially in the former this was quite important: the day before the elections the PvdA was one to two seats larger than the CDA, but when all votes were counted it was the CDA that was two seats larger and Balkenende could stay.

It seems the bonus is not going to help Balkenende in the current elections, though. Despite him being prime minister the CDA currently stands at a loss of 17 seats; less bad than 1994, but still quite horrible. Balkenende’s Best-Before date has been reached, and Bos capitalised on this when government fell.

Balkenende personally slid down, and Bos simultaneously tarred his slated successor Verhagen. Thus the CDA was forced to go into the elections with a sub-optimal leader, and it has lost the prime-minister bonus.

This is the first time the sitting prime minister will take such a drumming at the polls — if the CDA doesn’t recover at the last possible moment.

A separate candidate

With all that history in mind, what does the Rutte vs. Kroes debate mean? Why have a prime ministerial candidate separate from the party leader?

First of all, a party leader can refuse to ascend to government and remain in parliament. Most famously, VVD leader Bolkestein (1990-1998) remained in parliament after he’d been one of the prime architects of the original Purple government. He felt that he could serve the VVD more efficiently there, and besides he was a proponent of dualism; the largely theoretical idea that government and parliament belong on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, and not as a Siamese twin in the middle of everything.

In the Wednesday debate D66 leader Pechtold repeated that in the (likely) event that D66 enters the coalition he will remain in parliament, for much the same reasons as Bolkestein. Besides, D66 currently has only three seats, and thus the majority of the new fraction will be novices in politics. Pechtold feels D66 has more than enough candidate ministers, but not enough parliamentary leaders.

So a party leader, especially of the VVD, can stay in parliament if he so desires. That’s not what Rutte said, though. In the Sunday debate he said he wanted to become prime minister “in normal circumstances.” When asked what constituted abnormal circumstances, he said he’d consider remaining in parliament if a complicated four-party coalition were formed. There’s something to say for that. Still, he did not mention the VVD+CDA+PVV coalition, which is not a four-party one but is, as far as I can see, the main reason for Rutte’s hedging.

Plan B

This affair has deeper grounds than mere tactics. Until fairly recently Rutte was considered a failure in VVD circles. The 2006 leadership struggle between Rutte and Verdonk had left the party dangerously split, and the leadership didn’t want to open old wounds by announcing yet another party leader election. Thus Rutte could stay — but the party needed a plan B.

That plan B consisted of retaining Rutte as party leader but inserting a new prime minister candidate into the race. The idea is that a popular candidate for the prime ministership will help win over doubters, while the retention of the party leader makes sure there is no internal dissent. Besides, the party now effectively has two candidates at the highest level, leading to an increase in media attention.

The PvdA experimented with a similar construct in 2003, when Bos was newly-elected party leader and the PvdA was slated to become the largest party. Bos refused to become candidate prime minister and instead appointed Cohen as such. In the end the CDA became the largest party, the PvdA/CDA negotiations failed, and Cohen remained in Amsterdam for seven more years. The PvdA’s intent was clear, though.

Then there’s the question of the delicate egos of the politicians. Currently the CDA would benefit from a similar action. If the party had appointed Leers candidate prime minister, something might have been saved. But Balkenende plays all or nothing — prime minister or all-out resignation. Ego politics.

Rutte will not have liked such a plan B; he’d want to prove that he can be a serious party leader in government, too. Besides, the VVD has never yet delivered a prime minister. The last prime minister from a VVD predecessor party was De Meester in 1905, and he was such a dismal failure that he was swapped for an anti-revolutionary in mid-tenure. (Liberal PM Cort van der Linden (1913-1918) was partyless.)


Still, Kroes is Kroes. Neelie Kroes was traffic and waterstate minister in the Lubbers I and II governments (1982-1989), and in 1991 she scandalously married Bram Peper, PvdA mayor of Rotterdam, one-time ideological opponent and future interior minister. This PvdA+VVD marriage was regarded with suspicion until the advent of Purple.

In 2004 she became European Commissioner for Competition, and she became the scourge of large semi-monopolists such as Microsoft, which she forced to open Windows for competing products. In the recent European re-shuffle she retained her position but was transferred to ICT and Telecom.

Although the Dutch press talked of a degradation, I think Kroes is actually eminently placed to guide the mobile space (including the mobile web) towards more openness. Since all this is important to my day job, I personally prefer Kroes to remain in Brussels and defeat, say, Apple’s ridiculous patents on gestures.

In any case, after a while she made it known she’s not available.

Balkenende I revisited

The final reason the VVD wanted a prime-ministerial candidate separate from the party leader was the possibility to repeat the Balkenende I government.

That government consisted of CDA, VVD and 26-seat newcomer LPF (minus Pim Fortuyn himself, who had been murdered). Within months the LPF had made itself completely impossible, CDA and VVD in parliament caused its fall to general agreement, and new elections were held in which the LPF dropped back to 8 seats and CDA and VVD eventually formed a coalition with D66.

A crucial role was played by VVD party leader Zalm, who’d stayed in parliament and pulled the plug from the government from there.

Something similar could be done to Wilders. If we get a repeat performance, it would be better if the PM were not Rutte.

Balkenende is still attacked on the fact that none of his governments have served the full four years, and Rutte might want to avoid that particular fate in the future. Hence another prime minister; hence Rutte’s desire to stay in parliament and decide on government’s fate from there.

Still, the question remains how likely all this is. First of all I don’t believe that Wilders truly wants to sit in government; it’d bind his hands too much, and he has more to gain from another spell in the opposition.

Secondly, the PVV is much, much more disciplined than the LPF was, and Wilders also knows what happened to Balkenende I. Maybe he’ll stay on for the full four years; stranger things have happened. On the other hand, staying on would require him to compromise, and that might not sit well with his voters. Another reason for Wilders not to enter government.

So all in all I think that a Balkenende I repeat performance is unlikely. But Rutte is quite right in planning for this eventuality, and his strategy of remaining in parliament while sending someone else to occupy the top spot is correct.

<— Undecideds in the polls | New Politieke Barometer poll —>

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.


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