Jan Peter Balkenende was the face of Dutch politics for nearly a decade. With a demeanor and voice seemingly made for brokering compromises, the leader of the Netherlands' Christian Democrats (CDA) personified a centrist, plodding method of governing as he anchored a series of governments with different political parties from 2002 until earlier this year.
Wednesday night, the former prime minister became a symbol of another kind: the end - or at least the suspension - of politics as usual in this key European Union country. The CDA fell from 41 to 21 seats in the 150-seat Tweede Kamer, the lower chamber of the Dutch parliament - a terrible result for a party used to drawing a large number of seats.
Out with the old, then, at least for now. But how should we read the changes, and what kind of government are we likely to see emerge? What does it mean for Europe?
The process of forming a coalition government in the Netherlands is about as simple as appointing a new pope. And while they wait for the white smoke to billow out of the chimney, political commentators in this country are left to sift through an unusual set of possibilities, after voters in the Netherlands reshuffled the electoral deck.
When the polls closed last Wednesday, and the results of the election started to stream in, there was no clear-cut winner. It was clear that an election that was to be fought on grounds of social policy - pitting new Labor Party (PvdA) leader Job Cohen against the anti-immigration Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) - had indeed, as observed in the weeks preceding the vote, turned on economic issues.
That shift propelled VVD, the liberal party which ran on a platform of economic change, into the frontrunner as the Euro crisis shifted the electorate's priorities.
VVD's leader Mark Rutte, thus, will emerge as the next prime minister - but barely. VVD eked out a one-seat victory over PvdA, 31-30. And VVD's options are far from clear. Whatever coalition emerges is likely to be numerically weak, and the strong showing of the PVV (from 9 to 24 seats), which came largely at CDA's expense, throws a large monkey wrench into the machine. As I write this column, negotiators are exploring possibilities for the formation of a far right-wing cabinet between CDA, PVV and VVD. The three parties combined would manage only 76 seats, although they could pad their numbers with the likes of SGP, an extreme-right traditionalist party.
Yet a good part of CDA is rebelling at the notion of ruling in a coalition with Wilders, known around the world for his strident condemnations of Islam and uncompromising anti-immigrant fervor. Prominent party members have warned of a schism in the party if such a coalition is formed. A former Foreign Affairs Minister, Peter Kooijmans, is quoted by daily NRC Handelsblad, calling "doubtful" the notion that CDA could rule with a party that "places an entire segment of the Dutch population outside society."
The other prominent option is a "purple-plus" coalition that would put VVD at the helm of a group of parties, including the PvdA, who hold left-of-center economic or social positions. It's difficult however to see how the party could push through proposed austerity measures at the head of such a coalition.
Which brings us to the heart of the issue: the Dutch electorate in recent elections has tended to reward at least one party with a protest vote. This year, the electorate's discontent is especially clear. Traditionally-strong parties lost seats while Wilders soared, smaller parties moved into double-digit representation and the VVD's austerity-geared platform emerged champion - an unexpected result when the former government fell in March.
Labor was probably doomed from the moment they appointed a leader, Cohen, oriented towards social issues, for an election that quickly became a referendum on economic policy. But the electorate is in an especially punishing mood: tired of a system built on compromise, and personified by CDA, wherein achieving and reversing reforms is structurally difficult.
The Europe factor
There are two readings of the Dutch vote as concerns Europe. First of all, the newfound focus on austerity, spreading through the old continent like wildfire, can be read as a classic case of what integration scholars call spillover. With the Euro under heavy pressure and sovereign nations unable to control their own monetary policies, leaders of all political stripes are voluntarily taking measures that threaten the welfare state. And as we can see in the Dutch case, electorates, even while increasingly Euroskeptic, are jumping on the bandwagon. This is integration by stealth, and its evolution bears watching.
A second observation regards Europe's relationship with Turkey. Europe's increasing hostility toward Ankara could well prove a historic mistake. The growing power of men like Wilders - who, among other things, called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a "total freak" during a press conference - bodes poorly for the future.