Fragmentation in the Netherlands

Fragmentation in the Netherlands
Robin van Lonkhuijsen ANP POOL via AP

Kaj Leers is the election campaign analyst for Dutch daily de Volkskrant. Follow him on Twitter @kajleers. The views expressed here are the author's own.

After the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit referendum in Great Britain, eyes now turn to a slew of elections taking place in Europe. The Dutch voted on March 15. This is the fifth and final installment in a series on the Dutch election.

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The Dutch election of 2017 was one of fragmentation. For the first time in history, a Green party may enter government. Yet the left is altogether decimated, while the populist anti-European Union, anti-internationalist vote remained a small minority. 

A swing to the right, Labor crushed, Wilders underperforms 

Leftist parties in the Netherlands were dealt a significant blow on Wednesday night as voters gave center-right parties the nod. Of the leftist parties, Groenlinks, the Green-Left, was the only one to make significant gains. The ruling Labor Party, or PvdA, which had been the junior member of the previous ruling coalition, was crushed as voters opted instead for Groenlinks and the social-liberals of D66.

The ruling free market-conservative VVD also lost seats but remained the biggest party. 

Meanwhile, while the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders added five seats, it underperformed its polling. VVD leader Mark Rutte called the elections "a victory over the wrong kind of populism,” referring to Wilders. A few days before the election, Rutte revealed that he saw the Dutch elections as one in a series of battles against populists such as Geert Wilders, Marie Le Pen in France, and the Alternative for Germany. He used a soccer metaphor to compare the Dutch elections to "the quarter-finals, with the half-finals being the upcoming French presidential election and the final the German general election later this year."

Green-Left blowout, traditional left decimated

Challenger Groenlinks (Green-Left) was the only leftist party to make strong gains, rocketing to 14 seats from the four it won in 2012 in the 150-seat Tweede Kamer.

With the implosion of Labor, and with little apparent enthusiasm for the hard-left Socialist Party, leftist voters clearly opted to give the party of 30-year-old Jesse Klaver their vote. In polls leading up to Election Day voter volatility was highest in the leftist camp, with voters undecided between Socialists, Labor, and Groenlinks, and with some moving over to the centrist D66.

The hard-left Socialist Party disappointed with its 14-seat showing, a seat down from 2012. It was the second time the party underperformed in a general election and the future of its leader, Emile Roemer, is in doubt.

The PvdA was crushed. The traditional stronghold of the Dutch center-left netted a paltry nine seats, losing 29 from the number of seats it won in 2012. Leftist voters clearly decided to punish the party for its unpopular policies in the government coalition with the right-wing VVD.

In 2012 many a leftist voter voted PvdA to ensure a left-wing majority coalition that would keep the VVD out of power. Instead, the PvdA and VVD formed a government, infuriating the voters of both parties.

Geert Wilders disappoints -- again

As polls in the weeks leading up to the election indicated would happen, the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders failed to capitalize on high expectations. It came in at 20 seats, from 15 in 2012. Just a year ago Wilders seemed destined to double his party's size in Parliament. 

This result came in a year when the election themes -- national and cultural identity, worries about Islam, and health care -- played directly to Wilders’ strengths. The only conclusion can be that Dutch voters have once again simply rejected his policies on the issues.

Christian-democrats, liberals win

The VVD shed seats, dropping from from 41 to 33, and its two most natural adversaries on the right, the Christian democrats of the CDA (from 13 to 19) and the liberals of D66 (from 12 to 19) made the biggest gains. Up to Election Day, both parties were vying to top the VVD as the biggest party in Parliament. 

The better-than-expected results for Groenlinks, D66, and VVD come on the back of a high turnout. Turnout stood at 82 percent, amplifying existing trends in the polls ahead of election day and benefiting the frontrunners.

Immigrant party to enter Parliament for the first time

Meanwhile, the election brought a new first in Dutch politics: DENK, a party led by politicians of Turkish and Moroccan descent, will enter Parliament with three seats, giving a voice to ethnic minorities.

DENK was set up by two members of Parliament who were pushed out of the PvdA after an internal fight over the course of the party in regard to integration and immigration. The party's election manifesto closely resembled that of the PvdA on socio-economic issues; it is very likely that some of the seats the PvdA lost went to DENK. In cities like Rotterdam and the Hague, DENK drew more votes than the PvdA.

The next challenge: Forming a new government coalition

With all left-wing parties but Groenlinks imploding, a center-left governing coalition seems all but impossible. Leading Groenlinks members present at the party's election-night gathering in Amsterdam were ambivalent about their win. Although they celebrated their party's victory, the overall loss of the left and the prospect of having to negotiate a deal with center-right parties to enter government threw a shadow over the festivities.

The reshuffled Tweede Kamer will appoint a pathfinder, or informateur, by a majority vote. This pathfinder is usually a formerly active politician for the party that gained the most seats. He or she will then start talks with other parties to inventorize which would be willing to start official negotiations to form a new coalition.

Lengthy and difficult negotiations

It is very likely this pathfinder will come from the VVD, and that the Christian-democrats of the CDA and the liberals of D66 will quickly iron out any differences they may have.

Then it is up to the pathfinder to investigate whether those parties would be willing to cooperate with a fourth party so as to ensure a majority in Parliament and the Senate, where the VVD, CDA, and D66 are currently one seat shy of a majority.

Groenlinks seems the most obvious candidate to add to the coalition, if only to ensure a broad electoral mandate for the new government. Groenlinks knows this, which is why it will surely ask a high price for its support. The problem for Groenlinks is that it's not the only party Rutte can turn to for a majority government. The Christian-orthodox ChristenUnie party won five seats, which would bring the coalition right to the mark. 

This could result in a lengthy and difficult negotiations process and possibly even collapse of such talks, forcing the VVD, CDA, and D66 back to the drawing board.

However, VVD leader Mark Rutte, the incumbent prime minister, knows that Groenlinks has been trying to enter government ever since it was formed in 1990. Other parties will also be vying for power, allowing Rutte to play Groenlinks and those other parties against each other. 

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