Dutch General Election 2017

Well, here we go again. The first election of the year that anyone’s paying attention to (sorry Liechtenstein, Northern Ireland) is only 10 days away, and it seems like a big’un.

Many are framing the Dutch election as the starter course in the grand meal of European elections happening this year, to set the palette for the taste of those to come – in particular the French Presidential and German legislative over the summer.

Let’s face it, in the long run, the outcome of this election doesn’t matter that much on a global scale, and I’d even caution against trying to read any general continent-wide trends emerging from the Netherlands. Nonetheless that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth speculating over its potential outcome and what that means for the Dutch people, their neighbours, and the foreign nationals living there. We are all global citizens after all, no matter what Theresa May would have us believe.

So, what are the potential outcomes?

Well, first, an overview as to what it actually is the Dutch are going to the polls for.

On 15th March, Dutch citizens will have the chance to elect 150 members to the national House of Representatives, or the Tweede Kamer, in the vernacular. This literally means ‘second chamber’, alluding to its status as the lower house in the Dutch legislative system. This is the only chance the Dutch people have to directly have their say on the makeup of the legislature – the upper house, or Senaat (Senate, if you didn’t get that) is elected indirectly by the regional States-Provincial governments every four years. It’s perhaps worth having a look at the results of the last Senate election before we delve further into the potential outcomes of the House later this month.

In May 2015, the States-Provincial returned an upper chamber that looks really quite different to the current makeup of the House. For starters, in European style, there was no clear ‘winner’ among the competing parties. Two parties emerged with the largest number of seats – the centre-right VVD, with 89 (currently the senior partner in the governing coalition in the House) and the CDA christian democrats on the same number. The rest of the seats are fairly evenly distributed, with 70 for the socialists, 67 for the social liberal D66 (ironic), 63 for the labour party, 30 for the green-left, 29 for the CU (the other christian democrats.) 18 for the animal welfare PvdD, the same for the SGP of the christian right, with the 50+ old people’s interest party getting 14, and a further 2 for candidates on a joint CU-SGP ticket.

Most fascinating, however, is the 66 PVV members returned. The PVV are…how do I put this in a way that takes into account all the nuances and complications of modern geopolitics? Oh yeah, fascists. Everyone’s favourite racist Willy Wonka, Geert Wilders, hates Muslims, the EU, and probably you and your family too if you like Moroccan food or, you know, have anything resembling basic human decency in your bones. Naturally, they are leading in the polls.

The fact that the Senate then actually returned less PVV members (there were 69 in the 2011 Senate election) is indicative of the fear mainstream politicians across the country have of the tide of Islamophobia and nationalism that appears to be assaulting the country. Apologies for the mixed metaphor, but I feel its no less incoherent and erratic than the PVV’s political platform & rationale. But yeah, unfortunately the very point of the polling successes of the PVV is that in the Netherlands (N.B, to avoid controversy I’m avoiding saying Holland. I’m not holding back against denouncing fascists though) is that the mass of people feel disconnected from their politicians, and likely won’t share their caution come March 15th.

So that’s the upper chamber, which doesn’t directly have to account for the electoral-demographic reality. The lower, of course, does – so let’s have a look at that.

The obvious starting point is the 2012 election.

This election in itself was a snap – a result of the failed right wing coalition (which included those loveable rogues over at the PVV) the 2010 election had resulted in. Subsequently, Dutch voters expressed a desire for pragmatism, and the VVD and Labour (PvdA) parties came up top – winning a combined total of 81 seats, 6 more than the required majority of 75.

March 15th will be an evaluation of this coalition government. Essentially, Dutch voters are being asked on whether they want to continue the liberal, pro-EU status quo or plump for an anti-system alternative (whether that be on the left, or, far more likely, far right). Having said this, the VVD Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has looked to move in on the increasing PVV territory by aping Wilders ape-like rhetoric over immigration and multiculturalism, so, even if the ‘moderate’ parties do still win, the very definition of that ‘moderacy’ will have to be revised a good deal to the right.

That’s a lot of words and speculation though – let’s have a look at the polling figures themselves.

Annoyingly, Dutch polling figures for some reason only offer figures of projected seats, and don’t actually give %s of voting intention. I understand this to an extent – the Dutch use  a party-list proportional system so in theory it’s near 1-1 representation anyway, but nonetheless, it disallows some of the juicier, more detailed statistical analysis.

What are the polls showing us at the moment?

Figures from Peil on the 5th of March show us that your friendly neighbourhood xenophobes PVV are leading, with a projected 25 seats. VVD are only one seat behind them, although this would represent a drop of 17 from 2012. The junior partners in the coalition, the PvdA, suffer even worse, with a projected 10, down 28 on the 38 they won in 2012. The socialists are in and around the 15 figure they won last time. Conversely, the CDA, D66, and Greens are all up around 7-15 seats, appearing to take much of the populist backlash against the two governing parties – it is not ALL going toward the PVV, and the populist upsurge is also benefiting the left, albeit in more fragmented faction. In fact the PVV are only projected to win around 10 more than last time.

Even the most generous polling only gives the PVV around 30 seats – well down on the low 40s they were projecting this time last year. It appears again that as election time draws nearer the Dutch are reverting to caution and defying the global populist trend.

But let’s say the worst-case scenario happens and the PVV win those 30 seats. This is only a fifth of the whole assembly; is there any means by which they could find their way into government?

Well, historically speaking, as above mentioned, there is precedent, even if there was only two years of it. In this simulation, I’ll put the PVV on 30, the VVD on 25, the PvdA on 10, the SP on 12, the CDA on 18, D66 on 17, CU on 6, GL on 15, SGP on 3, PvdD on 4, 50+ on 7, and 3 to others. These are rough averages of the last ten or so polling figures.

This would provide the basis for a revival of the first Rutte cabinet from 2010 to 2012 mentioned above. Then, the VVD and CDA shared cabinet positions, with the PVV supporting them in the legislature. It fell apart when the PVV refused to back austerity measures in April of 2012 – but don’t let that make you feel that they’re all warm and fuzzy. I personally don’t think this makes the PVV ‘left’ in the economic sense – this really was just about defying ‘the establishment’ and appearing to fight against the injustices of global liberalisation. Little more than tokenism, in truth, and a tokenism which was seen through by the Dutch people, who gave the party 9 less seats than in 2010, giving 8 of those back to a genuine force for the left in the form of the Labour party. It now appears that sympathy has shifted right back, however, as the damage of cuts has begun to hit home.

In any case, would Rutte and the CDA really go back into government with such an unreliable partner? The combined seats given the above rough averages would only give them 73 in the House – a minority, but a large one, and one that could be seen over the line in most votes with a confidence and supply deal from the 9 CU and SGP members. Of course, the PVV would be leading negotiations as the largest party, yet it seems unlikely that Rutte or the reasonably moderate CDA would ever contemplate a Wilders premiership. But it may just depend on the maths of it – there may simply be not enough seats elsewhere for Rutte to muddle through a centrist/rightist coalition together as in the past. If the PVV win 40 seats or more it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where they’re not involved in the executive at some level.

What are some of the other coalition possiblities?

Taking the above figures as our basis, Rutte could seek to put together a centrist coalition on the basis of Pro-Europeanism against those who would have the Netherlands leave. This includes, obviously, the VVD, but also the soft eurosceptics of the socialists. The other Christian parties and the 50+ party are more ambivalent on the matter but are more on the soft sceptic side, or at least passive side, than any active support. This could also be arguably said for the CDA as well although their traditionally christian democrat ideology and belief in ‘subsidiarity’ lends itself to more pro-EU sentiment than their otherwise more right wing christian counterparts.

This would lead to a VVD-PvdA-D66-GL alliance of 79 seats. This may be a bit too left-leaning for the VVD’s taste however, and, particularly if they become the largest party, the VVD may invite the CDA to be involved. The CDA may win enough seats to form an axis of power with the VVD but it seems unlikely there would be a situation in which they would be mathematically ‘needed’ given the low scores for the other christian parties. Nonetheless, I think a 5 party ‘grand coalition’ along such lines is the most likely, with cabinet posts being shared between VVD, PvdA, and CDA, with legislative support from the D66 and GL. Ideally, the VVD would like a situation where it can overlook these two leftist parties altogether, but again, the maths probably won’t add up and there isn’t enough on the right to make up for the deficit, unless Rutte decides to gamble on a minority government. But even a VVD-PvdA-CDA minority only goes up to around 50-55 seats, and even with the addition of the socialists (again, something they would want to avoid), 65-70 seats. It seems like the two smaller leftist parties would have to be involved at some level, even if it is only confidence and supply. By the same token, a pure left wing coalition of PvdA-Socialists-D66-GL would likely only go up to 50-55 seats, making it unfeasible.

Phew, that was a lot of abbreviations. BRB…

This is all the consequence of a deeply and surprisingly evenly fractured vote, coupled with the vagaries of a European proportional voting system. There’s going to have to be at least three parties of government, whatever the result. Rutte will be the crucial figure, and will have to decide whether he prefers a minority coalition with people he’s closer to on domestic policy, or a majority coalition with those who share his internationalism. This is nothing new of course, but it hasn’t been since the start of the cold war that such stark lines between pro-system and anti-system parties have been drawn. The centre right, and to a lesser degree, centre left, which have dominated Europe for the past 70 years, are either going to have to suck up their pride and start working together more (as I think will probably happen in France and Germany) or succumb to the seduction of far right neo-fascist barbarism and sell their souls to the dark side. It remains to be seen which the Dutch will choose, but the electoral maths gives me cause for a big orange hope.





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