Dutch government formation talks … take three

Already six months have passed the Dutch national elections in March 2021, and there is still no majority coalition and thus no new cabinet. Being a representational democracy, the largest party turned out by the national election – again the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) with Mark Rutte at the helm – works with other political parties to create a majority of seats (in Dutch: zetels) in the Tweede Kamer (Lower Chamber of Parliament). It’s extremely rare that one party wins a majority of seats, which would mean 76 out of 150 seats.

This system of government is meant to, among other things, foster compromise and flexibility to work with other political parties. But unfortunately, it does not appear to be working out that way. Since the election, the parties of the current demissionary government – VVD, D66 and CDA – and the other 14 parties who won one or more seats in the election, have been at an impasse. The three do not have enough seats to make a majority, but it is impossible to recruit another party to the coalition, that all three main parties want to work with. In short: D66 no longer wants to work with the center-right Christian Union (CU) and VDD and CDA do not want to work with the leftists GreenLeft (GL) and Labour Party (PvdA).

Three informateurs – independent negotiators that lead the discussions to form a new coalition – have tried to talk through the deadlock, each saying the same things: as things stand, the slow formation of a new government may end in a political crisis. The current informateur, Johan Remkes, has sternly proclaimed that his arbitration will be swift and with little patience for argument. For the sake of the Dutch voters and country, let’s hope the third time’s a charm.

Adding to the formation delay is Prinsjesdag, the national holiday in mid-September where the reigning monarch addresses the two chambers of the Dutch parliament and – if appointed – the new government to outline the government agenda for the forthcoming parliamentary session. At the same day, the government presents its budget for the next year, followed by several days of Algemene Beschouwingen, parliamentary discussions to reflect on the plans for the upcoming year. This creates an unavoidable week-long break in the formation talks, which are slated to start again the Monday after Prinsjesdag, 27 September. More importantly: there is no government that will execute the plans. Rutte’s demissionary government has written a plan and a budget, but without a new government in place, important policy decisions cannot be made.

With the coalition talks stalled and a majority formation with either the GL/PvdA or the CU less and less likely, the notion of a minority government is now a serious consideration. But what does a minority government mean? A minority government simply means that the reigning coalition does not have a majority of seats in Parliament. With a majority coalition, the coalition parties form an agreement (Regeerakkoord) before the new government’s formation that includes – among other things – national legislation and fiscal policies and, so that it will be clear at the start of the four-year cycle what direction the new administration will take and that their will be sufficient support in Parliament to vote for its laws. A minority government can set out its plans in an agreement, but is not assured of sufficient support for any laws it will propose. Therefore, in order for a minority administration to pass legislation, it must negotiate to recruit enough support for each and every law separately.

To add to the coalition crisis, the current Parliament last week passed a vote of no confidence against the Dutch Foreign Minister, Sigrid Kaag, over her botched handling of the evacuation of Dutch citizens and Dutch allied personnel from Afghanistan. The ministry which she directs terribly misjudged the situation in Afghanistan, including the instability at the airport in the final weeks of the 20-year American military presence in the country. Immediately after the Tweede Kamer’s majority vote of no confidence, Ms. Kaag resigned her post. The next day the Minister of Defense followed suit and stepped down as well.

However, Sigrid Kaag is also the party leader of D66 and has been at the forefront of all negotiation talks, as her party was one of the winners in the election. The outgoing Defense minister, Ank Bijleveld, is from CDA. All parties have said that while the announcement of the two resignations was a shock and a loss to the nation, these departures do not change where the coalition parties are in the formation talks. In fact, Ms. Kaag has stated that she now has more time to focus on the formation talks as the leader of D66. However, there does seem to be some ruffled feathers. CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra feels slighted by CU, which voted no confidence against Kaag and Bijleveld. He also felt slighted by Kaag herself for not having been informed of her plan to resign.

Mr. Remkes, the current informateur, is not as optimistic as some of the party leaders, saying that the ‘formation puzzle’ hasn’t gotten any easier with these departures. At the time of this writing, he even spoke of there being difficulty of reaching any agreement between the leaders of the main three parties, stemming from Ms. Kaag’s resignation.

Furthermore, there is still the fallout from previous scandals and blunders that have plagued the formation negotiations since March. First, the ‘Toeslagenaffaire’, the childcare allowance scandal, in which over 20,000 Dutch families were wrongly accused of fraud by the Dutch tax authority and ordered to pay back huge sums of money, putting them in debt. The resignation of the Minister of Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher, and dissolution of the Rutte government were the immediate fallout. The longer-term fallout includes damage to Mark Rutte’s leadership and the VVD party itself. And though a dissolved government of ministers has continued working, their titles were adjusted to ‘demissionary ministers’. Sigrid Kaag’s status of ‘demissionary Minister of Foreign Affairs’ no doubt lessened her clout as she tried to negotiate with the Taliban and its representatives on her trip to Qatar in the wake of the botched evacuation of Dutch nationals from Afghanistan.

Then there was the Peter Omzigt memo scandal just after the election, where coalition negotiator Kajsa Ollongren accidentally flashed a memo to a pool of journalists as she dashed off to quarantine herself after having tested positive for Covid. The memo noted discussions about MP and CDA favourite Peter Omzigt’s role in the new government formation. Publishing such plans was a departure from political protocol and resulted in Ms. Ollongren and her colleague stepping down from leading the formation talks. This ushered in the first of the three informateurs, Herman Tjeenk Willink.

And most recently, Sigrid Kaag was invited to give a keynote speech at the prestigious and heavily publicized HJ Schoo lecture, usually held as the new political year begins around Prinsjesdag. In her speech she was highly critical of prime minister Mark Rutte’s leadership, though she didn’t name him by name, which caused a schism between the two leading coalition party leaders. While her sentiments could have merit, the timing of this speech could not have been much worse.

Waiting in the wings are the leaders from the left, Jesse Klaver from GL and Lilianne Ploumen from the PvdA. With their political platforms being closely aligned, the two parties formed a union shortly after the election. The two parties do not want to enter in a coalition with the right-leaning VVD and CDA without each other. Shortly after the appointment of Remkes as the third informateur, the two made their rounds on the Sunday morning political talk shows and before eager journalists at the historical government center in Den Haag – het Binnenhof – to express their willingness to work with the three main coalition parties and to convey their frustration with the lengthy delay.

Where do we stand now? As it stands, forming a minority government seems to be the most realistic solution to the coalition crisis. With VVD, D66 and CDA unwilling to bring in either left- or right-wing parties, the only other solution would be to call for another national election. However, this is opposed by all parties, leaving a minority government as the only other option. There are only three seats needed to create a majority, but bringing these three seats into the fold is turning out to be very challenging.

In a country that is renowned for its tolerance, acceptance and ability to get along with each other, the government is unfortunately not making a very good example. Since the three parties agree that climate change, the economy and Covid are the most important issues the country is facing, it seems to an outsider that a minority government might not be a terrible solution. However, since things are changing almost daily, a lot can happen between now and 27 September, when formation talks begin again.

Written by Marla Thomson