On 15 March 2017 general elections were held in The Netherlands to elect the 150 members of the House of Representatives. These elections have been interesting in many ways. The turnout was around 82%, which is the highest turnout since 1986, and a record number of 28 parties have participated. Also, the now outgoing government has served a full term, which has not occurred since 2002. Furthermore, many people feared that, after the unexpected results of the Brexit referendum and the US presidential elections, The Netherlands would follow in the wake of the widespread right-wing populism in Europe. For a long time, the right-wing populist, anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) was leading in the pre-election polls.
However, PVV did not win the elections. Its huge lead in the pre-election polls gradually crumbled and eventually, the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the elections with 33 seats. VVD has held the most seats since the general elections of 2010. PVV holds the second most seats (20), followed by the centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the social-liberal, progressive centrists Democrats 66 (D66), both with 19 seats; the Socialist Party (SP) and the green liberal, centre-left progressive GreenLeft (GroenLinks) with 14 seats. GreenLeft has achieved its largest victory in history.
Then comes the Labour Party (PvdA), which suffered its biggest defeat in history. They ended up with not more than 9 seats, which is 29 seats less than in 2012. A popular reason for this defeat is that PvdA were punished for the outgoing government’s severe austerity policy, which it was a part of. The policy, characterised by huge cuts to health care, public service, the arts and culture sector, defence and immigration policy, was a result of the protracted economic recession in The Netherlands. It has been viewed by left-wing voters as counter to working-class values.
After the elections, The Netherlands was flooded with euphoric coverage by Western media. Right-wing populism had supposedly been defeated in The Netherlands. However, the media was wrong. Right-wing populism has not been defeated at all. In fact, it is one of the winners of these elections. Compared to the previous elections, PVV has gained 5 seats. Although they most likely will not become part of the coalition government, it still is the second largest party. Furthermore, PVV could become the largest opposition party. In other words, they could significantly influence the political decision-making process.
Formation of the government
VVD’s victory means that they have the right to form a new government. The formation is usually a complex and time-consuming process. During the elections, VVD showed interest in collaborating with CDA and D66. After all, these parties share a common vision on important matters like economic affairs. Also, CDA and D66 have often voted in favour of VVD’s severe austerity measures during the previous government’s term. Furthermore, the three parties would need only one more party in order to obtain an absolute majority in both House of Representatives and Senate. Particularly in this respect, the formation is rather interesting.
In my view, there are two parties most likely to join a coalition with the three aforementioned parties. The first is GreenLeft. Although not all three parties are equally content with the possibility of GreenLeft as a coalition partner, there are ongoing negotiations with them right now. D66 would be more than happy to have GreenLeft joining the coalition, because they support progressive policy in the area of sustainable energy, climate change and the EU. VVD and CDA however, would not be so pleased to collaborate with them, because of the significant differences on major issues like climate change.
The second party, one I have not mentioned yet, is the Christian democratic, social-conservative Christian Union. They would be warmly welcomed by VVD and CDA, because it would benefit their pursuit of centre-right policy. To D66 however, it would be an eyesore. D66’s progressive view on issues like drug policy, prostitution, gay marriage, abortion and euthanasia is diametrically opposed to Christian Union’s conservative view on those issues. Furthermore, Christian Union does not have enough seats to put pressure on VVD and CDA in order to support D66.
Ultimately, it seems likely that Christian Union will become part of the coalition government. After all, they would benefit VVD and CDA more than GreenLeft would. However, in my opinion, VVD finds itself in quite a dilemma. Although VVD and GreenLeft have many major differences that need to be bridged in order to form a government, it could be worth for VVD to accept GreenLeft.
First of all, VVD would satisfy both D66 and many young voters that want to see things change. Furthermore, if VVD can make compromises with GreenLeft on a few major issues like climate change and sustainable energy, they can still implement a predominantly centre-right policy and satisfy their own constituency as well. This might reduce the risk of an unstable government and the risk of losing votes next elections.
On the other hand, VVD leader Mark Rutte will have to deal with CDA and an influential conservative constituency within his own party. Both will not tolerate a coalition in which the influence of the centre-right parties could be impaired. Both GreenLeft and D66 may hamper VVD’s and CDA’s intended centre-right policy.
VVD, CDA and D66 will likely form the next government. They are expected to be joined by either GreenLeft or Christian Union. At the present day, there are ongoing negotiations with GreenLeft, but it is far from certain whether those negotiations will result in a coalition agreement. The promptness of the formation depends largely on VVD’s readiness to make the decision. Will they accept Christian Union, so that they can implement a centre-right policy? Or will they face the challenge by accepting GreenLeft, which might impair the pursuit of a centre-right policy, but also benefit the government’s stability and VVD’s position in light of the next elections? As long as VVD does not make that choice, we will be kept in suspense.