In the Netherlands, the conservative, pro-market People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) led by incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte won 21 percent of the votes in Wednesday’s election, more than any of the other 27 parties on the ballot.
VVD benefited from an upswing in the polls after the prime minister took a tough stance on Turkey last weekend. On March 11, the Dutch government blocked two Turkish ministers from attending a Rotterdam rally, a move that resulted in police clashes with protesting Turkish minority groups.
In a campaign dominated by issues of immigration, integration and identity, Rutte showed his willingness to stand up to the backlash from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who countered the diplomatic slight of the Turkish ministers by accusing the Dutch of permitting the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnians.
The anti-European Union, anti-Muslim, nationalist “Dutch Trump” Geert Wilders and his Party of Freedom (PPV) received 13 percent, a distant second place. As in previous elections, Wilders fell short, and is not in a position to implement any of his controversial policies.
What happens now?
In the Netherlands, electing the 150-member parliament is only the first step. The Dutch proportional representation system allocates seats according to the national vote. The character of the next government of the Netherlands is still not known.
With no party claiming a majority, the second step in deciding who leads the country could take a few months. Parliament must now negotiate to form a coalition government that can claim a majority of at least 75 seats.
With 94 percent of the votes counted, only 13 parties earned enough votes to claim seats in parliament. Seven of these parties received more than five seats. While the official results won’t be announced until March 21, Figure 1 below shows the anticipated changes in the Dutch parliament.
What does a coalition look like?
In multiparty countries, the absence of a clear majority winner means parties bargain over policy and government positions until a coalition emerges that can earn the support of a majority in parliament. In the Netherlands, once that bargaining is done, a more formal coalition agreement then names the prime minister and cabinet, which then draws up the Government’s Statement of policy priorities.
This coalition bargaining process in the Netherlands generally takes about three months. Large parties hold a bargaining advantage because they require fewer partners to form a majority.
Since World War II, the largest Dutch party has been either the centrist Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the social democratic Labor Party (PvdA), or the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Coalitions form around the leader of one of these three to be the prime minister.
As noted in Figure 1, the Labor Party (PvdA) suffered a loss of 26 seats. There are numerous parties of the left and center, along with smaller parties. But adding together the seats claimed by the PvdA, Green Left (GL), Socialist (SP), Christian Union (CU), Party for the Animals (PvdD), pensioners’ (50 Plus) and multiculturalism (DENK) parties falls far short of the necessary majority.
All the major parties during the campaign pledged not to work with Wilders, even though the PPV holds a sizable number of seats. In 2012, Wilders backed out of his governing arrangement with the VVD and CDA. That episode and his further radicalization and controversial statements may leave PPV out of the final coalition.
What are the coalition options?
Without the PPV, the other two largest parties have multiple options to form a coalition. Because Rutte’s conservative VVD is the largest party by far, he is likely to be named prime minister. Rutte would prefer to see his VVD enter a coalition with centrist CDA and pro-market, libertarian, progressive D66. This center-right coalition, however, would only have 71 seats. He would have to make compromises and bring in another party. He has multiple options.
One option would be to make overtures to the pro-asylum, pro-environment Christian Union (CU), with six seats, for a total of 76 seats. While this would grant a majority, two defections from any coalition member would risk having to start the negotiation process anew or lead to a call for early elections.
A second option would be to persuade the moderate-left PvdA, which is now down to nine seats, to join a VVD-led government. This seems unlikely to work, given PvdA’s disappointing results after supporters disagreed with the party’s compromises made to the VVD in the previous government. On the campaign trail, PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher criticized Rutte for not being a more inclusive prime minister for all Dutch.
A third option would be an agreement with Jesse Klaver’s Greens (GL). While media attention focused on the forerunners and their anti-immigration rhetoric, the progressive left actually claimed the biggest gains. The pro-E.U., socially progressive D66 had its strongest showing in two decades.
The Greens, headed by half-Moroccan Klaver, more than tripled its seats to its best performance since its founding in 1989. While the Greens have never participated in a coalition before, Klaver is open to a coalition with the VVD.
What does this mean?
Rutte will probably continue on as prime minister of the Netherlands. His party is the strongest in numbers and has many potential coalition partners. An agreement among four parties over policy and cabinet positions could take months.
Sybrand Buma of the CDA thought himself “minefields apart” from the more progressive and left-leaning parties on issues like the environment and migration.
Klaver, “the Jessiah,” wants to turn back the global populist tide that resulted in Brexit and the election of President Trump. The 30-year-old’s youthful looks and pro-refugee policy often have him often compared to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while his promises of “hope and change” hearken to the rise of Barack Obama. He views his inspiration as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with a focus on empathy, economic equality and climate protection.
No matter the outcome of the negotiations, the Netherlands appeared to take a strong position this week against the nationalist views of Wilders. A stronger PVV result could have made Wilders’s party an attractive coalition member. But, as Klaver noted during the campaign, “In the Netherlands, we have to show that populism can be stopped and there is an alternative.”
Matthew E. Bergman is a lecturer at University of California at San Diego. His research and teaching expertise lies in comparative politics and political economy, focusing on Europe.