The Senate

Until now hardly anyone has paid attention to the Senate, or, more formally, the First Chamber of the States-General. The 9 June elections are for the Second Chamber, but the First shares its legislative power, although it has no power of initiative and is limited to a simple Yes/No vote.

Current Senate composition

CDA
21 seats
PvdA
14 seats
VVD
14 seats
SP
12 seats
GL
4 seats
CU
4 seats
D66
2 seats
SGP
2 seats
PvdD
1 seat
OSF
1 seat

The Senate has 75 members; 38 are needed for a majority. In theory every party should have about half their number of Second Chamber seats in the Senate; in practice the numbers are different.

The Senate is elected by the Provincial States just after they themselves have been elected. Provincial elections last took place in 2007, and new ones are slated for May 2011. That means that until that time any new government is stuck with the old Senate that represents the old order of three years ago.

Relative to the current polls, CDA and SP are vastly over-represented, and D66 and especially Wilders’s PVV are vastly under-represented.

Back three years ago CDA and SP were still very popular, and that was reflected in their provincial elections score, and thus in the Senate. Conversely, D66 was almost dead, and its two senators came as something of a surprise. Back in 2007 nobody had assumed the Democrats still had that many faithful voters.

As to Wilders, he does not have any senators at all. This is a deliberate choice on his part: Wilders decided not to participate in the 2007 provincial elections because that would mean creating candidate lists in a hurry, without proper time to vet the candidates. This has always been the besetting sin of the extreme right: just rush into the elections with whatever candidates happen to be handy, and act surprised when the newly-elected representatives fall out with the party, party leadership, each other, or anyone else who comes in handily.

From an organisational point of view Wilders’s decision was correct. The downside, however, is that the PVV has no senators.

CU and SGP have rather more seats than their Second Chamber score would make you expect. That is because the orthodox protestants are very disciplined voters, and usually turnout in the provincial elections is pretty low. Thus CU and SGP win rather more seats than in the national elections, which translates to more senators than expected: 6 out of 75, where one would expect 4.

One seat in the Senate is taken by the OSF (Onafhankelijke Senaatsfractie; Independent Senate Fraction), supported by an amalgam of regional parties in the various provinces, as well as the Greens (as distinct from GreenLeft).

Finding a Senate majority

The polls page now includes the Senate score for every coalition, and as you’ll see a few of the majority coalitions in the Second Chamber are hampered by a lack of senators.

For instance, CDA+VVD+PVV would have only 35 senators, three too few. It’s even worse for the Purple PvdA+VVD+D66 coalition: it would command only 30 senators. More in general, every reasonable PvdA+VVD+? coalition lacks quite a few senators, as do most coalitions with D66.

In fact, the best way of a coalition getting a Senate majority is to include either CDA or SP. That could become a problem now that Purple is high on everybody’s wish list, and the SP is rapidly becoming marginal, being only interesting for a broad left-wing government that won’t have a majority in the Second Chamber.

Government without a Senate majority

So what happens when a coalition is formed that has no Senate majority? Problem is, nobody knows. This may sound strange, but it has never happened before.

In every single election since 1918 the winning coalition could also command a Senate majority, so the question was never asked. The Zijlstra KVP+ARP caretaker government of 1967 did not have a Senate majority, but that was OK because it didn’t have one in the Second Chamber either, and CHU and VVD were quite helpful, and new elections would be called pretty soon anyway.

So what happens when everybody wants to go Purple but the senators aren’t there? Possibly a deal with an extra party; maybe SP or CDA — although the latter would be odd, since the whole point of Purple is to get rid of the CDA.

Or maybe the Purple parties would try to shame SP and CDA into cooperating by invoking the national interest or something. That could help with a major economic recovery law, but I doubt whether it would extend to normal legislative work.

This situation would exist for about eight to nine months, from August or September when we have a new government to the provincial elections in May 2011. But that still would be quite unprecedented.

Or will any coalition that does not command a Senate majority be ineligible? I expect the CDA to argue that.

We’re heading straight into unknown constitutional territory, and what generally happens is that a forceful politician invents a new constitutional rule that is more-or-less fair but just happens to favour him. That rule will be enshrined as part of Dutch constitutional law.

Who will create the new rule? Cohen? Rutte? Balkenende? Wilders? I’d say this is the order of likelihood, but don’t want to commit myself any further than that.

Nobody can say anything useful about the situation. We just don’t know what’s supposed to happen next.

<— Pechtold names preference: purple-green | The 23 May debate —>

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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Comments (closed)

1 Posted by Raphael on 21 May 2010 | Permalink

Good to know.

Do you know any good sources that explain the details of how exactly the Senate elections work? I understand that they are elected by the provincial states under proportional representation, but some pages with election results give some fairly weird looking numbers of votes for the individual lists. And do I get this right that all states vote as one electorate?

2 Posted by ppk on 24 May 2010 | Permalink

The Senate is elected by the members of the Provincial States, whose votes are weighted for the population of the province they're in.

All parties submit a party list, and that's what the members vote for.

And yes, the members of the Provincial States function as one electorate.