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Netherlands: Rutte Sovereign in a Landscape Fragmented Like Never Before

On Wednesday, March 17, Dutch voters will head to the polls and elect the 150 people to fill the Tweede Kamer—the lower house of the national parliament of the Netherlands. With the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD-RE) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte polling far above all other parties, one might imagine the political situation in the Netherlands ahead of the election to be quite stable. However, in the past weeks, it has been anything but. 

In mid-January 2021, the government fell. Two major parties—Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA-EPP) and Labour Party (PvdA-S&D)—were forced to change their leadership just weeks before the election while other parties were struck by infighting. With a record amount of 37 parties on ballot paper, we try to guide you through the current state of Dutch politics just before a parliamentary election. 

The Government Parties: Overshadowed by Mark Rutte

After a record-long government formation of 225 days following the 2017 elections, the third Rutte cabinet was formed, consisting of the VVD and Democrats 66 (D66) of the liberal RE group in the European Parliament, coupled with CDA and the Christian Union (CU) of the centre-right EPP group.

In 2019, when the government parties suffered a defeat in the provincial elections, they lost their majority and became dependent on opposition parties in the upper house of parliament, whose members are elected by provincial legislatures. Finally, two months ago—in January 2021—the government coalition resigned over the so-called Benefits Scandal in which an estimated 26,000 households were falsely alleged of making fraudulent child care benefit claims for over a decade. This forced them to pay back their grants in full, causing severe financial issues for many families.

In the cabinet’s first three years, the VVD were often met with opposition when working to establish compromises, and, as a result, the party’s support in the polls steadily receded. By early 2020, the party had fallen to around 14% in the polls—having won 21.3% at the 2017 elections. Other parties, such as Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV-ID), narrowing in on VVD’s hitherto lead.

As was the case in multiple European countries, the leading coalition party profited from the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and Rutte obtained the image as the salient leader tackling the crisis. Eventually his party surged to around 25% in the polls, a result it has largely retained since—currently averaging at 23.9% in the Europe Elects Average.

CDA, on the other hand, has not profited from the pandemic. Whereas Rutte was credited for the successes in the government’s handling of Covid-19, the Minister of Health, Hugo de Jonge—who was elected party chairman responsible for managing the party organisation in July 2020—became a scapegoat in some minds for the mishaps in the pandemic handling. Eventually, de Jonge resigned from hiss post as party chairman and was replaced by the Minister of Finance, Wopke Hoekstra, in December 2020. The party subsequently now averages at virtually the same as their 2017 result.

The two other coalition partners, D66 and the CU, have not seen much change either. The CU has profited mildly off governing—standing at four per cent in the Europe Elects Average, up a bit less than a per cent from their 2017. D66, meanwhile, has dropped three per cent—from 12% to nine and a half per cent—being hurt by various compromises on issues like ethics, direct democracy and education and failing to stand out in the government spearheaded by Rutte’s VVD.

The Main Opposition: A Story of Struggle 

The main opposition parties are also having a hard time profiling themselves during the pandemic. Despite the Netherlands currently having some of the strictest lockdown measures in Europe while experiencing a wave of riots against them in January and lagging other countries in the European Union with vaccinations, the opposition fails to profit. This could be explained by the ‘rally-around-the-flag’ effect that after a year and fall of the government is still intact, with the approval rating at 55% in March 2021 according to I&O Research.

From being the largest party in the polls leading up to the 2017 elections to suffering a decisive defeat in the 2019 provincial elections and being close to losing all its MEPs, had it not been for the extra seat allotted to the Netherlands after Brexit, the national-conservative PVV has endured a rollercoaster ride over the past four years.

Many of the party’s voters initially switched their support to the new, likeminded Forum for Democracy (FvD-ECR). Yet, after a year, voters seemed to return to PVV, which is now averaging at 13.2%—the same level as in the 2017 election.

While remaining strongly against Covid-prevention measures, the fall of the FvD can be largely contributed to the multiple allegations of anti-Semitism and racism against the party. This has resulting in severe infighting, and leading to multiple defections—some of whom later formed the party Correct Answer 21 (JA21-ECR). FvD has gone from having won most votes in the 2019 provincial elections to averaging in the polls at three per cent in March 2021.

Opposition parties left of the centre are also struggling. PvdA fails to regain ground, having lost almost four fifths of their seats in the 2017 elections following their participation in the second Rutte cabinet. Their former leader resigned over his role in the Benefits Scandal, and while the party has regained some traction, it has failed to make a larger breakthrough. Currently it is sitting at eight per cent, up a little from their result in 2017. PvdA together with GreenLeft (GL-Greens/EFA)—which is also experiencing hardship in the polls—have promised to only enter the upcoming government with one another.

The Smaller Parties: Not Much of a Risk to Rutte Either

For new, small parties, the Netherlands is probably the easiest European country in which to gain parliamentary representation with a single-district proportional representation system in which exactly 0.67% is needed to win one parliamentary seat. If the latest opinion polls are to be trusted, a record number of 17 parties might be represented in the Tweede Kamer.

Besides the earlier discussed JA21 (ECR) party, there are three other parties polling on or above the threshold. Firstly, the two and a half-year-old Code Orange (CO-*) wants to introduce more forms of direct democracy. Its leader simultaneously runs a local party that is the largest in The Hague’s city council. Should the previous success in The Hague also be applied to the parliamentary elections, CO could get above the threshold.

Secondly, the pan-European and Eurofederalist Volt party (G/EFA), that received 1.9% of the vote in the 2019 European Parliament elections in the Netherlands, could receive its first representation in any national parliament in Europe. Lastly, the left-wing and self-proclaimed ‘anti-racist’ BIJ1 (*) could receive a seat as well, as indicated in recent polls.

Thinking the Unthinkable: Who Will Govern After the Elections?

Discussing the upcoming government formation during an election campaign is generally not done in the Netherlands. This can be contributed to the fact that Dutch electoral campaigns tend to be electorally volatile, making such speculations largely useless. However, we at Europe Elects will do an attempt to predict the government after the elections. 

With the VVD polling considerably higher than all other parties, one could assume that we are looking at what would be a fourth Rutte cabinet. According to the Europe Elects’ polling average, the current caretaker government parties—the VVD, CDA, D66 and the CU—have a fifty-fifty chance of retaining their majority. This would be the first time since 1998 that a sitting government does not lose its majority: exceptional circumstances produce exceptional results.

The question that arises, however, is whether the parties would want to continue. Especially D66, which is predicted to shrink, would be less eager to continue in government and again pause their liberalisations surrounding ethical issues with the more socially conservative CU as a coalition partner. 

Another possibility would be most plausibly a so-called ‘purple-plus’ government with the VVD, D66, and the two left-of-centre parties that have promised to not let each other go: PvdA and GL. However, such a government with three progressive parties would likely be considered too left-wing by Rutte’s base in VVD. Another—likelier—option would be the VVD, CDA, PvdA and GL.

However, according to I&O Research, a little over a week before the election, up to 73% of voters still were not entirely sure for what party to vote for. So the election result might yet differ quite significantly from what the opinion polls are predicting. Furthermore, the coming government formation might take a long time again with parties having divergent ideas on how to get out of the current economic crisis and also trying to cling on other parties ideologically close to them.