Formation: Tjeenk Willink to the rescue

A surprise at the start of this week: informer Edith Schippers (VVD) resigned and parliament appointed former vice-chairman of the Council of State, former informer, and former advisor of Queen Beatrix, Herman Tjeenk Willink (PvdA) as her successor. In case his titles aren’t clear enough: he’s considered a wise statesman who’s above the current political fray.

It’s unclear why Schippers is resigning. Although she reiterated her belief that, given enough negotiations, a new government is still possible, and said that given the complex election results a slow formation is unsurprising, she apparently sees no new role for herself in the process. She was slated to leave active politics anyway; once the demissionary Rutte II government, in which she is Health minister, turns over power to the new government her national career will be over.

So why not remain in function for a while more? Possibly she’s just tired of the negotiations; and she hinted that that was the case. Another possibility is that it was deemed better to have an informer from another party, who might convince the VVD to make some concessions.

Tjeenk Willink

In any case, if a new informer of another party than the VVD is required, and if the formation is the most complicated one in living memory that needs some out-of-the-box thinking, the choice for Tjeenk Willink makes excellent sense. His first formation was that of 1972 (Den Uyl), and although he was a mere scribe he saw the entire difficult process close up. (Also, Rutte was 5 at that time and Klaver wasn’t born yet, as the papers did not fail to point out.)

He was called in during rough spots in the 1994 (Purple) and 2010 negotiations (Rutte I with Wilders’s support). In neither case did he close the deal; instead he cleared the air when the first rounds of negotiations had failed. After he had submitted his report, other informers took over, and finalised the negotiations.

It is widely assumed that he’ll have a similar task during this formation. He called a first round of consultations with the five most likely parties: VVD, CDA, D66, GL, and the CU; initially in one-on-one conversations. Tjeenk Willink also stressed that he wants the party leaders to look beyond the next four years and sketch the future they envision.

Need for speed despite large differences

Prime minister and VVD leader Rutte stressed the need for speed; saying that his voice in Brussels is muted now that he cannot act as a regular government leader. Whatever; it’s unclear exactly who should speed up the process. Arguably that would be the VVD itself, which would mean it accepts a greater influence of GL in the coming government. Possibly Rutte’s comments are meant to soften up his own voters for a more left-wing government programme than they would like.

After his talks with Tjeenk Willink, GL leader Klaver said that the differences remained large; without specifying exactly which differences and how large. This is generally regarded as a good sign: large differences can become small ones, and it leaves open the door for new negotiations between GL on the one hand and VVD and CDA on the other.

CU leader Segers meanwhile said that he did not see the CU and D66 sit in the same government.

All in all this points to the inevitable conclusion that a second round with VVD+CDA+D66+GL will follow. The party leaders will get a little time to allow their voters to get used to the idea, and then negotiations will restart in ... I don’t know, two weeks or so? It is likely that Tjeenk Willink will resign and a new informer, most likely from the VVD, will take his place.

The PvdA and the King

Two more points remain to be made. First, what about the PvdA, Tjeenk Willink’s own party? Although he still is a member, Tjeenk Willink has been operating in neutral, above-the-parties functions for so long that nobody expects him to favour the PvdA, or the PvdA to favour him.

PvdA party leader Asscher still doesn’t seem willing to enter government, which makes total sense from his perspective. Let GL and D66 make dirty hands; come the next elections the PvdA will look squeaky clean, everyone will have forgotten about the business with ruling with the VVD, and disaffected green and democratic voters will flock to the Labour banner — the PvdA hopes.

Second, the position of the King. Tjeenk Willink, who is a personal friend of the royal house, and especially former Queen Beatrix, was an avowed opponent of shifting the King’s power to parliament, as was done in 2010, because he feels sometimes a neutral figure is necessary in order to speed up the process and soothe ruffled feathers. In fact, he is performing that function for himself now.

Although no one expects the King to step in this time, the question has been raised if a neutral figure wouldn’t be a better choice for leading the complex formation process than parliament, which is full of partisans by definition. In 2012 the formation went well without Queen Beatrix, but then it was a simple matter: the only real possibility was the VVD+PvdA coalition, and Rutte and Samsom reached an agreement in a breathless 52 days — very quick for a Dutch formation. So 2017 is the first real test of the new system, and it does not appear to go wonderfully well.

<— Formation: the current status | Thierry, and not Geert, is the new Pim —>

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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