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.