Breaking records at the Binnenhof

 Edition 28 September, by Johannes Visser

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is a man who likes to pride himself on breaking records at record-breaking speed: The Netherlands is now the fastest growing economy in the industrialized world, the world’s second largest agricultural exporter with the second most robust pension system in the world. Last month Rutte added a new record to his string of ‘successes’: that of the longest sitting Dutch government since the Second World War.

It is highly unlikely that the prime minister and his liberal party VVD were popping the champaign corks in ‘Torentje’, his tiny work office at Binnenhof in The Hague where he conducts daily matters of state. The main reason that the Rutte-II coalition government has been ruling for almost 1800 days is because of the long-winding process of forming a new government, another record since 1945 set to be broken soon. Ever since the elections in May of this year, different attempts to create a Rutte-III coalition with the Christian Democrats, Democrats 66, the Christian Union and/or the Green Party have been dragging along. The public is getting impatient and politicians of all stripes are asking what the holdup is about. “Citizens want to know how it is possible that these folks keep chatting so long”, the president of the Dutch senate Ankie Broekers-Knol (VVD) recently wondered aloud in a political radio program.

To his credit, the record of longest serving government has also been established because Rutte was able to forge a strong working relationship with the coalition partner Labour (PvdA). The parties managed to ride out a full governing term for the first time in almost twenty years, an achievement that has brought predictability and stability to the markets and contributed to a strong rebound of the economy. But unlike 2012, when the economic crisis was still in full swing and both parties created a working coalition lighting-fast, there seems to be no hurry this time around. For one, it is more complex to form a government of four than it is of two. Secondly, with the minimal majority of only one seat in parliament, it appears the negotiating parties wish to stitch together the new government agreement down to the tiniest details, in order to prevent any coalition parliamentarian to go rogue and the future government to go limp. And thirdly, having a lame-duck caretaker government might actually turn out to be good for the economy. No new programs to spend money on. No new welfare benefits for those that were hit hardest during the crisis. Since the caretaker government made up of VVD and PvdA is not allowed to introduce new legislation in parliament or go on a spending spree, tax income is swelling the government coffers, much to the delight of economic conservatives. The government budget surplus was three billion euros in 2016 and over the past twelve months the Dutch economy has grown a whopping 3,3 percent. The yet to be formed government will have good cash to spend, but the likely new coalition of VVD/CDA/D66/ CU will probably not play ‘Sinterklaas’. And so, the opposition is pounding and trying to derail the formation talks. “The money has to go back to the regular folks”, says Geert Wilders. And according to Socialist Party leader Emille Roemer, the people of The Netherlands should not be taken hostage because of ‘some imaginary problem that might arise in 2060’.

These populist memes were also echoed by Lodewijk Ascher, vicepremier and minister of Social Affairs and Employment, who finds himself in the uncomfortable position of simultaneously partaking in the coalition as well as the opposition (since PvdA will not join the next government). Asscher is disappointed that the fruits of the economic recovery are not spread out evenly, despite years of budget austerity for which Labour was severely punished at the ballot box in May. One of Asscher’s last tasks was to write a new budget for 2018, which is presented during the third week of September. Obstructed by the VVD in his party’s ambition to raising primary school teachers’ salaries, Asscher fabricated a crisis of sorts, threatening that the PvdA would leave the coalition government. But as is usually the case in Holland where compromise is part of the national DNA, a Dutch ‘crisis’ means a few feathers are ruffled and some harsh words spoken, after which a solution is found. This time was no different and teachers’ salaries will be raised in 2017 by approximately three percent.

And so politics behind the dikes muddles along as it usually does in The Hague. According to the Dutch newspaper Financieele Dagblad, no new government anytime soon equates anti-cyclical policy in Keynesian economics, which means that the economy is stimulated during rough times and not stimulated during fat years. The newspaper points to an often- made comparison with Belgium, which holds the world record for longest time without a government, up to an impressive 589 days until 2011, in which the caretaker government seemed to be running its affairs quite smoothly. But lest one is to make the case against having a government: Belgium had broken this record previously held by Iraq post-Saddam Hussein, hardly a shining example of a well-functioning state.

But back in Holland, some on the political left suspect that Rutte intentionally slows down the formation process until after the 2018 budget has been made public, so that muchneeded and costly reforms as well as the inevitable redistribution of wealth towards the poor will be less likely to take place next year. If the current caretaker government stays on until October, it will be on track to break the ultimate record, that of the longest running government in the parliamentary history of the Netherlands. Coincidentally or not, it was the last liberal prime minister of the Netherlands before Rutte, by the name of Cort van der Linden, who shepherded the country for 1838 days through the First World War: not exactly the kind of headwinds the current liberal premier is dealing with.