From 15-17 March 2021, Dutch citizens cast their votes for the person and party they wanted to see in the Dutch house of representatives: de Tweede Kamer. After several days of counting votes, with Amsterdam’s votes being the last to come in, the results were in. It was not surprising that the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the most votes, making current prime minister Mark Rutte the prime minister for the next four years.
It may have not been a surprise that the VVD won, but the votes for the other parties came as a surprise. What happens after the election – the formation of a coalition government – is turning out to be a little tricky. What do we mean by the ‘formation of a government’? Let’s take a step back …
Dutch politics 101: As we’ve reported before, the Netherlands is a parliamentary representative democracy, which means that the seats are distributed based on the percentage of votes that each party receives. There are 150 seats in the Tweede Kamer and, much like the US and the UK, the governing parties need to have a majority in order to pass legislation. Since no party ever reaches and absolute 50% majority, the winning party must create a coalition within the Tweede Kamer to reach that >50% threshold of 76 seats. To create that coalition, negotiations take place between the parties where each compromise (or not, in some cases) to form a majority. Part of the negotiations are the appointments of the ministers and secretaries to the cabinet, with each of the governing parties benig assigned some posts.
This is where we are now. Now that the VVD has won the election and Mark Rutte will be serving as prime minister for the next four years, the next task is to create the coalition group in the Tweede Kamer and the appointment of the ministers and secretaries. Bringing different parties – and therefore different political platforms – together is tricky just at face value, but the current negotiations have been made trickier by scandals, as well as the results of the elections.
First the election. With 21.9% of the votes, the liberal-leaning VVD became the biggest party with 34 seats in the Tweede Kamer. The controversial right-wing party Party for Freedom (PVV) came in second place in 2017 but slipped to third place in 2021 with 10.8% of the votes. 2017’s third place winner, the center-left Democrats 66 (D66) surprised everyone with moving up to second place with 15.0% of the votes, or 24 seats. Coming in fourth place, as they did in 2017, is the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) with 9.5% of the votes, or 15 seats.
Rounding out the major parties’ results are the leftist Socialist Party (SP) and Labour Party (PvdA) each winning 9 seats in the Tweede Kamer; the Forum for Democracy (FvD) party – another controversial right-wing party – winning 8 seats; and finally the GreenLeft (GL) party, which is – as its name suggests – the leftist environmentalist party in the Netherlands.
What are the current options to create a coalition with at least 76 seats? Even before the election, it was fairly certain that the Mark Rutte and the VVD would win and that his previous coalition partners, CDA and D66, would secure enough votes to be leading parties and therefore part of the coalition. What was a surprise was that the D66 became the second-largest party in the Netherlands, and that other parties who could realistically join a VVD-led coalition did not do very well. In 2017, the Christian Union (CU) was the fourth party in the coalition, but this time around it’s not likely that this party will join the coalition. The liberal position of the D66 on euthanasia and abortion issues has long been a sticky point for the Christian-fundamentalist CU, even though they worked together in the previous coalition, so it’s likely out of the running to make up the missing 5 seats.
Rutte has already ruled out working with the right-wing PVV and FvD, but interestingly enough is open to working with a much smaller right-wing party, the new JA21 – another right-wing party that split from the Forum for Democracy after a scandal involving racist messages between party members in 2020.
The scouting team assigned by Rutte to help create the coalition has a lot of parties to choose from. The 2021 Dutch national election saw a record number of parties registering to compete in the elections, with 89 having signed up. Most parties did not meet the requirements or financial investment needed to actually participate, but still a record number of 37 parties did. I’m an American, so I didn’t vote, but I hear the ballots were enormous! (Not only is the system of voting different, but who is listed on the ballots and where is another unique part of the Dutch system of elections and is definitely worthy of a more advanced, detailed article.) Of the 37 who participated, 17 parties won enough votes to be awarded at least one seat in the Tweede Kamer.
17 parties in the Tweede Kamer! For Americans, think about 17 parties being represented in the US House of Representatives, where there are currently 435 seats represented by only two parties. Anyway, back to the Dutch elections …
But who of the remaining parties could possibly join the current parties (VVD, D66 and CDA) to reach the 76 seats needed? With the CU ruled because of the difference in ideologies with D66, the next-largest parties that have enough seats are far-left or far-right parties – none of which are ideal for a centralist coalition. Despite the vast spectrum of political ideologies, there are no real ‘center’ parties left who could join the coalition.
Let’s look first at the right. The PVV and its leader, Geert Wilders, have long had a contentious relationship with the VVD and Mark Rutte. Wilders was actually a member of the VVD until he went his separate ways in 2004 over Turkey’s possible entry to the EU and the issues of Islam and Muslim immigration – on which the PVV has since developed a far-right perspective, which remains the bedrock of the PVV’s political platform. Since then, the VVD and PVV have been vocal about their refusal to work together in any kind of formation, especially a coalition government. Their ideologies confirm this too.
The FvD and its more-infamous-than-famous leader, Thierry Baudet, are too far-right and controversial to have any common ground to be a part of a centrist coalition. This leaves JA21, a new party by former FvD members. Though not supported by his scouting team, Mark Rutte remains open to speak with the FvD about joining the coalition. If this were to happen, it’s anyone’s guess as to what that could do to future legislation: would the more liberal VVD help bring the more right-leaning JA21 to the center? Or worse, vice versa? Regardless, the party’s stand on environmental, EU and migration policies is at odds with that of D66.
Then there’s the left. Several leftist parties could become part of the coalition, but they may be too left-leaning to join the centrist parties. First, there’s the SP, founded back in the early 70s as the communist party of the Netherlands. However, the party’s leader, Lilian Marijnissen, has said it’s extremely unlikely that her party would join the coalition, as it has little in common with the more right-wing VVD and CDA. The PvdA, traditionally representing the workers of the nation, has all but ruled out joining the coalition – not on ideological grounds, but because it has not done well in recent elections and feels it would be against the wishes of the votes to join the government. But GreenLeft leader Jesse Klaver has said that he is open to discussion and would not hesitate to bring more progressiveness to the ruling majority.
In 2017 it took until October of the same year to come to a coalition government, the longest any formation has taken. The 2021 election outcome seems to make the formation even more tricky than it was the last time around. While the VVD and the D66 gained seats – signaling a shift to the left – so did the right-wing parties. Is this a sign of polarization in the Netherlands? This is not certain and might not be clear for years to come, but what is certain is that Rutte and his scouting team have their work cut out for them in creating a coalition in the next weeks and months.
In any case, at the time of writing the negotiations had stalled completely due to an unfortunate leak by Sigrid Kaag, D66 leader and part of the scouting team. When leaving the Tweede Kamer buildings, some of her notes were visible, which made unfavorable comments about Pieter Omtzigt, a CDA MP who was fundamental in uncovering the child benefits scandal that brought down Rutte’s previous government. Rutte stated he had not said anything about Omtzigt in his discussions with Kaag, but it later turned out that he had (although he had not made the unfavourable statement written down in the uncovered notes). As a result, Rutte was branded a liar and held to account by the Tweede Kamer. Who knows, we may need new elections before a government is even formed…
Written by Marla Thomson