Where the Dutch elections stand right now

With less than two days to go before the election, here’s the state of the race, with a quick introduction for the benefit of those readers tuning in only now.

The story so far

On Wednesday the Dutch will elect their 150-seat parliament. The exit polls, which are usually pretty decent, are expected around 21:00 CET, at which time we’ll know who’s won and who’s lost. Note that winning is defined quite differently than in the Anglo-Saxon world. Rabid right Islam-bashing Geert Wilders, in particular, will lose, even if he wins.

The Dutch elections are the first in a string of important European ones, with the French presidential (April/May) and parliamentary (June) elections, the German Bundestag (September), and possibly also Italian elections. All countries have a populist/fascist problem, but since the Dutch elections come first they might conceivably have some influence outside our borders. In this larger European context it would be very useful if we could keep Wilders from taking first place, even though it doesn’t really matter for our domestic politics.

Dutch elections are the most proportional in the world, since the entire country is one huge 150-seat electoral district, and about 67,000 votes, no matter where they were cast, will win a party one seat. In addition, the Dutch consider nine the minimum number of parties necessary to adequately represent themselves politically — and this year we’re likely going to have thirteen. As if that’s not enough, the largest party will have roughly 30 seats, or 20% of the vote.

Once the result is known we’ll enter a three-to-nine-month period of formation, when likely four and possibly as many as six parties must agree to form a coalition and decide which parts of whose platform will be executed and who gets which departments. The party leader of the largest coalition party will become the new prime minister.

Coalitions are usually comprised of two or three parties. For the last five-party coalition we have to go back to 1972, and the large number of parties we'll need this year is a cause for concern. New elections in 2018 are a distinct possibility.

Even if a party wins the elections in the sense of finishing in first place, it may still lose the formation. That especially applies to Geert Wilders and his PVV (Freedom Party), who may become the largest party in parliament but will find it very difficult to form a coalition when all other large parties have excluded him.

After the 2010 elections, right-wing parties VVD and CDA combined with the PVV to form the minimum majority coalition of 76 seats. The PVV supported government from parliament but did not formally participate. In 2012 Wilders walked out when he didn’t agree with VVD and CDA, and that still rankles in those parties. Although a repeat performance of this coalition is conceivable, VVD and CDA will need good and sufficient reason for trying it again. Failure to form a five-party government after three months of negotiations might constitute such good and sufficient reason.

The 2012 elections produced a race between right-wing VVD and centre-left PvdA (Labour) that benefited both at the expense of the other parties, but when all was said and done they had no other option than to form a coalition with one another. Both will pay the price in Wednesday’s elections: neither party’s voters are happy with the result, though PvdA voters are distinctly less happy than VVD voters. The PvdA is in for a historic defeat — the second one this century.

Both governments were headed by VVD party leader Rutte, who is campaigning for a third term as prime minister. So far it appears he’ll get his wish — if he can keep four or five parties in line.

Thirteen parties

The polls show a muddled field. Six parties will win at least about 10% of the vote, and the seven others will account for about 20% of the vote.

There has been no overall theme to the campaign, and a prime-minister race, where one left-wing party and one right-wing party call upon voters of other parties in their block to prevent the leader of the largest party in the other block from becoming prime minister, as occurred in 2012, has not materialised. Rutte tried to create a race between himself and Wilders, but since both belong on the right-wing and compete for the same voters the attempt was doomed to fail.

So Dutch voters are going to vote for the party they actually want to vote for instead of casting a strategic vote for the largest party in their block. This is a repeat performance of 2010, except with more and smaller parties.

This year, Wilders shrank on the right, while VVD remained constant and CDA grew. On the left the PvdA shrank a bit more, while D66, GL, and SP struggled, and failed, to become the left’s champion. For a moment GL appeared to succeed under their young Obama/Trudeau-inspired leader Jesse “Jessiah” Klaver, but his attempt has stalled.

(Confused? Read the party profiles I wrote for the 2010 and 2012 elections.)

On the other hand, GL has its most serious opportunity ever to end up in the coalition. A centre-right coalition of VVD, CDA, D66, and GL is the most likely outcome as the polls stand now, but the inherent tension between right-wing VVD and left-wing GL will be a serious problem, which increases the possibility of new elections in 2018.

Meanwhile the people will also elect orthodox Dutch Reformed and evangelicals, entitled angry elderly whose leader’s idea of a game changer is to fly around the country in a helicopter for no apparent reason, animal-rights activists, even more orthodox Dutch Reformed who close their websites on Sundays and are (unofficially) against women in politics, Turkish-Dutch with a possible Erdoğan fetish, and wannabe-upper class wannabe-incrowd right-wing Amsterdam intellectuals who organise Ukraine referendums and feel women want to be taken by force.

The polls

Polls 13/3
Party Seats ch
VVD 25 -16
PVV 23 +8
CDA 20 +7
D66 18 +6
GL 17 +13
SP 15 0
PvdA 11 -27
CU 6 +1
50Plus 5 +3
PvdD 4 +2
SGP 3 0
DENK 2 +2
FvD 1 +1

We have a choice. No wonder the voters are confused.

40 to 60% of Dutch voters (depending on which poll you follow) have not yet made up their minds. That doesn’t mean they’re hesitating between all 28 available parties. Instead, they have a short list of two to three parties, and when they’re polled they’ll usually name the one that’s currently at the top of their list. They may change their minds when they’re actually in the voting booth, though, and that’s what drives the uncertainty at this late stage.

If any parties have done well in the past week it’s CDA on the right and SP on the left. Party leaders Buma and Roemer have done better than expected in the debates, and have gained about 2 seats each as a result. That’s the best anyone can hope for, I’m afraid: 2 to 3 seats better than the polls. Or worse, of course.

A wave of 3-5 seats toward the VVD (or possibly the PVV) because of Turkish crisis is possible. In addition the other party leaders have one more opportunity to make an impression or produce a game-changer in tomorrow’s debate, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.

So we’re going to get the most divided parliament in Dutch history, and it’s likely new elections will be held in 2018 once politicians give up and testily demand clarification of the will of the people.


As to Wilders, he has been sinking steadily for the past month. He was invisible in the campaign due to his cancelling nearly every debate, and he’s milking a temporary security glitch for all it’s worth. He wore a bullet-proof vest to his first debate against VVD leader Rutte today, and I’m assuming that was for theatrical effect more than for reasons of security.

Although his ideas are widely known it’s unclear even to his supporters where he is and exactly how he’s going to de-Islamise the country. For instance, he’d need to revise the constitution in order to ban the Koran, and that means other parties will have to cooperate with him. How is he going to do this? Unclear. (We have long ago turned off our ability to get outraged by Wilders’s proposals. It only feeds him. Besides, everybody knows it’s not going to happen.)

The big question is: how wrong are the polls? Will we get a situation similar to Trump and Brexit? The rabid right hopes the polls underestimate Wilders’s support, and at the moment I cannot tell you with certainty that they’re wrong and the polls are right.

The polls underestimated Wilders’s appeal just before the 2006 and 2010 elections, but overestimated him in 2012. However, the 2012 elections ended up becoming a race between VVD and PvdA, and that caused some PVV supporters to cast a strategic vote for the VVD. So it’s possible the PVV is being underestimated right now. On the other hand, Wilders was very visible in his previous campaigns, and he isn’t right now.

Also, for the first time another extreme-right party, FvD, has a seat in the polls. One seat is not a lot, but it shows the party is viable, which may lure voters who agree with Wilders’s ideas but think he’s too absent or too vague. Previously, they only had the choice between voting PVV or not voting at all.

In short: it’s very hard to say, and I’m not going to make a firm prediction. What I will predict with some confidence is that Wilders won’t be the next prime minister, not even if he ends on top.

Home stretch

A developing story on the right are the consequences of the Turkish crisis. The latest Peil.nl poll shows VVD and PVV going up by 3 and 2 seats, which is significant in these weird elections, but Peil.nl likes to be a bit alarmist about Wilders so I’m awaiting confirmation from another poll.

On the left, if anyone is moving up it’s the SP. Party leader Roemer has found his voice and is angling for left-wing former PvdA (or PVV) voters. Not that he opens a wide gap, or even moves into first place, but the SP is definitely doing better dan expected.

All pollsters will release a final poll tomorrow, and that will end the polling season. Tomorrow night the leaders of the eight largest parties will hold the final debate, and then we vote.

I will follow the results and offer a quick guide to their interpretation. Once we know how the 2017 parliament looks we can proceed to the formation.

<— The Turkish-Dutch diplomatic row | Aftermath — the European angle —>

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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(Add your own)

1 Posted by JD on 14 March 2017 | Permalink

Dutch elections may be the most proportional in Europe, but not in the world. That crown has to go to South Africa, which distributes 400 seats on the national level, with no threshold at all, so even parties with less than 1/400 of the vote can get seats.

Also, the protection of freedom of expression in the constitution is very weak, and there is no judicial constitutional review anyway, so Wilders wouldn't need to amend the constitution to do what he wants. Instead, he would need to de-ratify the European Convention on Human Rights.

2 Posted by ppk on 16 March 2017 | Permalink

Hmm, I must admit I forgot about South Africa. Back when I was in school we learned that only Holland and Israel had totally proportional systems, and back then South Africa was ... not very democratic.

As to the constitution, it's not the freedom of expression but the freedom of religion that a ban on the Koran would break.