Slow Politics

Peter Mair · Dutch Coalitions

It is more than 100 days since the Dutch general election, and the party leaders are only now coming to a final decision as to who will form the new government. But the interregnum has stretched even longer than that. The last government collapsed on 20 February, following a conflict between the two leading parties, the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Labour, over the issue of continued Dutch troop involvement in Afghanistan, and the election was called for 9 June, almost four months down the line. Since then, the Netherlands has been governed by a so-called ‘demissionary’ (demissionair) or caretaker government, with CDA ministers taking over the functions of their former Labour colleagues. This holding operation has been running for more than seven months.

In Britain, a coalition government was negotiated and installed five weeks after Parliament was dissolved. Five weeks after the Dutch government fell, the political class hadn’t even begun to campaign, but were instead still preoccupied with trying to form a city government in The Hague, where local elections had been held on 3 March.

The problem in The Hague was a foretaste of the problem that’s now facing the back-room negotiators at national level: how to deal with the far-right anti-Islamic Freedom party, the PVV, led by Geert Wilders. His party – literally his, since there are no other members – had been the big winner in The Hague in March, and was also the big winner in the country at large in June, when he went from 9 seats to 24, becoming the third biggest party in the Parliament. The other big winner in June was the right-wing Liberal party, the VVD, which is led by Mark Rutte – charming, cheerful, and remarkably Clegg-like (Mark and Nick look alike, sound alike, were born within a few weeks of one another, lead liberal parties, and speak Dutch as well as English). Although both Labour and the populist left Socialist party lost support in June, there wasn’t simply a wholesale right-wing shift. The incumbent CDA also lost almost half its seats (falling from 41 to 21), while the left-liberal Democrats 66 and the more radical Green Left made gains. The result was fragmentation. The VVD, which is now the biggest party, holds only 20 per cent of the seats in Parliament.

Coalition-making in this situation was inevitably going to be difficult, but it has been made much more so by Rutte’s determination to go for a right-wing solution. One centrist combination was there for the taking – the VVD with Labour, Democrats 66 and the Greens – and would have had a clear majority of 81 seats out of 150. But this was more or less rejected out of hand by Rutte, who preferred to try and make a deal with the CDA and Wilders, even though it would mean only a single-seat majority, and despite the difficulty of making a deal with Wilders that could be sold to more moderate party supporters. The formula being proposed was new to Dutch politics: the CDA and VVD would form a minority government, and Wilders would guarantee support from the backbenches – the same arrangement as in Denmark, where the far-right Danish People’s Party supports a minority conservative coalition.

Under normal circumstances, this would have been a non-starter. But Dutch politics has not been normal for some time now, and each of the major parties is running scared. If the VVD enters a centrist government and leaves Wilders in opposition, it risks losing support on the right. And if the CDA can’t come to terms with Wilders, it risks losing its heartland. The PVV has already displaced the CDA as the leading party in large parts of Catholic Netherlands.

Rutte’s VVD seems remarkably sanguine about working out a deal with Wilders: the party is hungry for office, and perhaps it helps that Wilders began his political career as a VVD MP. Rutte doesn’t even seem to carry a long spoon. But some in the CDA had qualms. As the negotiations floundered, a long dormant divide in the CDA, which was created in the early 1980s as a merger of a large Catholic party and two smaller Protestant ones, became apparent. The Catholics in the CDA, including the new leader, Maxime Verhagen, have been pushing hardest for a deal with Wilders, while the Protestants have been more reluctant. One of them, Ab Klink, the health minister in the demissionary government, has resigned his seat in protest. If there are others in the party who share his views but choose to stay in Parliament, then a single-seat majority may not be enough.

In all the talk about the pros and cons of dealing with Wilders, and about the presumed benefits of having him inside the government tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in, the more general situation of the CDA seems to have been forgotten. This is a party which not only lost half its votes at the last election, but also most of its credibility. Its outgoing leader, Jan-Peter Balkenende, led four governments, none of which lasted a full term. It used to campaign as the only stable anchor in an otherwise fragmented and polarised political universe, but has now built up a record of unstable governments second to none. By opting to build a new and very fragile right-wing coalition – the deal looks likely to be made today – it will probably produce more of the same.

The advantage of slow politics is that because so much time passes, the voters are unlikely to remember how badly you did in the past. This is what the CDA is relying on. In the end, however, even if they make the deal, their internal divisions suggest that they won’t be able to hold it together for very long.


  • 28 September 2010 at 2:37pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    To put Mrs Palin in perspective, right-wing extremists are being elected all over Europe, mostly on an anti-immigration ticket. The Netherlands is only one example, here are a few more:

    --Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the late Jörg Haider's FPÖ, who's running for mayor of Vienna next month, looks likely to take more than 20% of the vote (not enough to win, yet). Another FPÖer, Barbara Rosenkranz, who says anti-Nazi laws should be abolished, came second in Austria's presidential race this year with over 15 percent of the vote.

    --As Bernard Porter wrote here, Sweden's neo-Nazi Sverigedemokraterna got 5.7% of the vote last week and unseated the government.

    --In Denmark the extremist, anti-immigrant Dansk Folkeparti that you mentioned got 13.8 per cent in 2007 national elections, 15.3 percent in the European elections last year and is Denmark's third-largest party.

    --In Hungary the radical right-wing Jobbik party is in parliament and is asking for permanent, guarded internment camps for Gypsies.

    --In Italy the anti-immigrant Northern League of Umberto Bossi is in government and is the country's fastest-growing party.

    --And of course in France Sarkozy kicked all the Gypsies out just to get votes from the National Front's supporters.

    • 28 September 2010 at 5:48pm
      Joe Morison says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      It's really scary: recession and racist politics. A Europe that is forgetting the lessons of the last century. So far, Britain seems relatively untouched but for how long? I suppose, tho' it's depressing, that the mainstream parties here are right to talk and act toughish about immigration. For me, its cosmopolitanism is one of the things that make London wonderful. Recent research in the UK showed that it's areas with low levels of immigrants that are the most intolerant: ignorance is fear is hate.

    • 28 September 2010 at 6:19pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Joe Morison
      I was there last weekend & I agree that London is very cosmopolitan, more so than New York in my opinion, even though NY claims it's the the most cosmo city on earth.

      I don't know why Britain has avoided this Europe-wide tendency for young blond right-wing extremists to form political parties & get elected to parliament.

    • 28 September 2010 at 8:19pm
      alex says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      "I don’t know why Britain has avoided this Europe-wide tendency" - it hasn't. Nationalist parties polled over 5% of the vote in 2010. They just didn't get any seats. (I'm not counting the Scottish, Welsh & Irish Nationalist parties, which by and large are not extremist)

    • 28 September 2010 at 9:15pm
      pinhut says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Part of it is probably a legacy of the British Empire, with the influx of people from foreign climes beginning quite early. There's scope for an anti-immigrant Irish nationalism, too (just to round out the list).

      I know I keep harping on it, but the Badiou book, The Meaning of Sarkozy, hits all of the themes:

      "Why has what the politicians and the servile press of
      the Western countries call the 'problem of immigration' an
      expression that in France derives from Le Pen - become
      in all these countries a fundamental datum of state policy?
      Because all the foreigners who arrive, live and work here
      are proof that the thesis of a democratic unity of the world
      realized by the market and the 'international community'
      is a complete sham. If it were true, we would have to
      welcome these'foreigners' as people coming from the same
      world as ourselves. We would have to treat them as we
      treat someone from another region who stops over in our
      town, then finds work and settles there. But this is not at
      all what happens. The most widespread conviction, and
      that which government policies constantly seek to
      reinforce, is that these people come from a different worLJ. That
      is the problem. They are the living proof that our
      democratic and developed world is not, for those in charge
      of the dominant capitalist order, the only world of women
      and men. There exist in our midst women and men who,
      although they live and work here like anyone else, are
      considered all the same to have come from another world.
      Money is the same everywhere, the dollar or euro are the
      same, and the dollars or euros that these foreigners from
      another world have are happily accepted by everyone.
      But as for these people themselves, because of their origin
      and their mode of existence we are repeatedly told that
      they are not part of our world."

    • 29 September 2010 at 7:02am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ pinhut
      That was worth quoting.

    • 29 September 2010 at 7:57am
      Joe Morison says: @ pinhut
      Badiou makes a strong point but there is also an innate distrust of the other that fuels the politicians. The cultural right cares about 'national character' and encourages xenophobia; but the economic right cares only about profit (their culture is international, anyway) and would be happy with absolute freedom of movement - all that cheap labour and the return of a proper servant class in the West, they'd love it!

    • 29 September 2010 at 8:32am
      pinhut says: @ Joe Morison
      Joe. Something like Guatemala, where the maid and the nanny are still within easy reach of the middle classes.

      Well, there is a strand of thought that unites the xenophobic right with an opposed group, and that is legislation on sweatshops, etc. I've always thought this movement for 'justice' is a bit rich, campaigning for more humane slavery, it seems close to the debates that go on over the 'most humane means' of slaughtering cows. (I'd let the trades unions off if they engage in such campaigns, but we know there are a slew of middle-class people 'on the left' who buy fair-trade and eat organic, but would rather be thrown off a cliff than endorse British trade unions. For some reason, there's an entire displacement of notions of social justice to other parts of the world. Discuss!)

      "Look, if we pay them 5 cents an hour more and let them go to the toilet twice a shift, they won't come to the UK..."

    • 30 September 2010 at 7:34pm
      Colin Brace says: @ Joe Morison
      > Recent research in the UK showed that it’s areas with low levels of immigrants
      > that are the most intolerant: ignorance is fear is hate.

      This is very much the case as well here in the Netherlands. Geert Wilders owes his most support to voters in parts of the country with the lowest levels of immigrants, notably the province of Limburg. In other words, those hicks are voting for Wilders to protest problems that we in vibrantly multicultural cities like Amsterdam don't have.

    • 1 October 2010 at 12:09am
      Rohland says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      I think it's more to do with the electoral system to gain seats in parliament in the UK.
      5% of the vote would translate into 5% of the seats in other European democracies one would gain a lot more exposure and influence this way even as a smaller party.
      Also one of the reasons why coalitions take so long in the Netherlands is because parties have quite divergent political programs which have to be melted into something that is in the middle and that all parties can accept.
      In a way it should worry British people that Liberal democrats and conservatives can form a government in less then 5 weeks. It means that they do not differ as much in there politics which suggests a democratic deficit.
      Kind of like in the USA it doesn't matter what party you vote for they are both sides of the same cheek and nothing changes.
      That said the current British government has introduced some measures to clamp down on immigration and asylum and promote integration.
      But they are meek compared to the things being proposed in other European countries.
      It seems all parties in the UK parliament are still in the vice grip of political correctness.

    • 1 October 2010 at 12:30am
      Rohland says: @ Colin Brace
      I think it's important to mention in this that Almere a city build next to Amsterdam in the reclaimed Flevo polder has over the years absorbed hundreds of thousands of former residents of Amsterdam, a city who's population has declined from 1 million to around 700,000 in the last decades.And in this city Almere during the local elections the PVV became the largest party.
      This process of so called white flight continues to this day.
      One of the reasons people in rural areas vote for the PVV is exactly because they don't want there cities and villages turned into copies of Amsterdam.
      And that in Amsterdam half the population is of non-Western origins which is a very significant demographic and accounts for a significant voting block.
      This is the case is most large cities in the Netherlands. In Rotterdam this is the most visible with the population basically split in half one block voting livable Rotterdam the former party of Pim Fortuyn and the other half voting for the labour party.

    • 1 October 2010 at 1:16am
      Rohland says: @ Rohland
      Also another thing that is important is the actual number of Muslims.
      People forget that the percentage of Muslims in a country like the Netherlands is more then twice that of the UK.
      It might be that people simple object less due to less exposure.
      Why be against something you have had no interaction with?

  • 28 September 2010 at 7:59pm
    Peter Mair says:
    Don't count your chickens. The political science literature has been full of analyses as to why Sweden avoided that fate, and now it has also joined the ranks. The BNP and UKIP may not have won any seats in the 2010 election, but between them they polled some 5% of the votes - that's almost as much as the Swedish Democrats. The scariest of all of these groups is probably Jobbik, included above in A.J.P. Crown's list. They are the most reminiscent of the movements in the 1930s. Have a look at Leigh Phillips's piece at

    • 29 September 2010 at 8:16am
      Joe Morison says: @ Peter Mair
      5% is 5% too many but it's liveable with. We've been lucky with our fascists here, they are so obviously Neanderthal that no serious person can feel anything other than a disgusted contempt for them (for those of you who weren't here, Nick Griffin on Question Time was the most enjoyable car crash of a performance).

      I don't know much about mainland European politics. Are the successful racists there led by people who appear civilized? That's my fear for the UK, but i still like to hope that there is basic tolerance in this country. My black wife and i are almost the norm in London (the only racism i've heard here is towards East Europeans); but even out in the country where we are an unusual sight, we've experienced nothing but good will.

    • 29 September 2010 at 8:42am
      pinhut says: @ Joe Morison
      It is not the quantity of rabid nationalists that makes the difference, it is the quantity and quality of the opposition to them.

      The BNP literally can't win in the UK, because as their profile increases, as they threaten to win, so the popular campaign against them is mobilised. This is exactly what I expected would be the fallout from Griffin's QT appearance, for example.

      If the BNP ever did seize power, their first actions would not be against blacks or Asians, but against these 'white traitors' above, the students, the unions, the gays, etc, because they know that it is these people who have held the whip hand over British fascists for generations.

      We're already too ethnically diverse for the message to really resonate. Those countries that can espouse a "don't let them in" message, rather than a "send them back" (to where? Lewisham?) one, are in a much stronger position. We also have our own rather large diaspora that could be returned to us, and who'd want those snobs from Hong Kong or Gibraltar rolling into town...

      So, in my view, the problem is when there is no prevailing force to counter nationalism, rather than there being particular strains in different countries, at different times, that are more inherently more dangerous, more virulent, etc.

      The enormously tribal rather than national character of the UK probably plays a part, too (the traditional fascist affiliation with football clubs, etc).

    • 29 September 2010 at 8:45am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Peter Mair
      It's a fascinating article, I imagine it's a confusing situation to analyse. It says Jobbik's support has come from swings from the left rather than from the moderate right,
      "We are not even a right-wing party," declares Mr Varkonyi [the leader] "We do not believe in the division between left and right. The true division is between those who want globalisation and those who do not. We are a patriotic party."

      And it implies they've got more sophisticated support than the BNP has:

      "There is very strong support for Jobbik in the universities," says Adam LeBor, the Hungary correspondent for the Times ... "Part of this is the economic situation. It is indeed very hard for young people to find a job, but the crucial element is that Jobbik has an extremely savvy web presence, enabling them to sidestep the traditional media and speak directly to youth, to the Facebook generation. It even has pages in English, well-written English that isn't garbled. The other parties haven't really done this."

      I don't know, though. I can't put myself in their supporters shoes & imagine how they think, but if you check out their English-language website it just looks like a fairly sneaky strategy for instigating some primitive racism and nationalism -- like the nazis the first time around, in other words -- and if they're going to exploit the downturn in the economy, there's a way to go before things reach the level of Weimar Germany.

    • 29 September 2010 at 12:02pm
      pinhut says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      “We do not believe in the division between left and right. The true division is between those who want globalisation and those who do not. We are a patriotic party.”

      Maybe they can make common cause with indigenous tribes in the Amazon.

      I think he has a point though: perhaps we only came to see immigration in the UK through a left/right prism because each of the main parties in the past used it as a battleground. New Labour did away with that by duplicating core Tory postures to capture the centre ground. The end result was, as Thomas Jones demonstrated in his excellent blog, the disgusting Labour government boasting over the size of their detention facilities.

  • 30 September 2010 at 7:36am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Ban coalitions! We always get the worst of both parties, as they nuzzle up and share out the prizes to each other. The results in Holland will be disastrous. Like most European countries, Holland relies on the influx of immigrant labour to keep its restaurants, stores, services working, while the more complacent Dutch moan about the danger of Islamisation. It's the old story of migrant workers being told that they should be grateful to the generous Dutch for allowing them to come and work. They have to keep quiet, pay their taxes and keep out of trouble. Be Dutch.
    I listened recently to a Dutch hotelier, whom I have known for years, and thought was a liberal, telling one of his cleaning staff that she would have to learn Dutch and take off her head scarf. The woman has worked in that hotel for at least ten years - now he starts to dictate how she should behave.
    There is no danger of a Wilders/Jobbik movement in Germany at this time. The NPD have a firm hold over local politics in the eastern states, where an immigrant worker wss told that it was his own fault - he provoked a group of young white Germans by not stepping aside. The conflict over the wearing of headscarves has eddied into a bad-tempered argument over the unwillingness of Moslems to buckle down, learn German and accept that they are a small minority.

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