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Netherlands: From Election to Chaos in Two Weeks

On 17 March, Dutch voters elected a new Tweede Kamer—the lower house of the national parliament. As expected, liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD-RE) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte triumphed. However, to say that the next government will be led by Rutte has become far from certain. In two weeks’ time, a photographed piece of paper has plunged the Netherlands into a political crisis of sorts. Rutte was caught lying over a suspected scandal that might just lead to his ultimate fall.

The Winners of the Election 

Despite resigning over the child care benefits scandal only two months earlier, Rutte’s VVD received its fourth electoral victory in a row. The party even increased one seat to 34 compared to 2017, but less than initially expected. The reason behind the gain is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which dominated the election campaign. VVD benefitted from this by focussing strongly on Rutte’s personality and voters rewarded his leadership in managing the pandemic.

Another winner was—a bit unexpectedly—the liberal Democrats 66 (D66-RE) which got 24 seats, up five from 2017. D66’s party leader, Sigrid Kaag, was at first considered as an underdog. But she exceeded expectations in TV-debates giving the party momentum in opinion polls and D66 later managed to present itself as the progressive alternative to Rutte. This attracted voters also from centre-left parties who wanted to strengthen a progressive voice against the more conservative VVD.

Another surprise was the national-conservative Forum for Democracy (FvD-ECR) that received eight seats, up six from 2017. FvD did a remarkable comeback after being close to a complete demise in November 2020 due to allegations of anti-semitism. Thierry Baudet’s party regained traction by focussing on other issues than those that made FvD successful earlier. Instead of talking about immigration and opposition to environmental policies, FvD campaigned on scrapping all lockdown measures while disputing the health risks of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, four parties gained seats for the first time. This brings the total number of parties in the Tweede Kamer to 17—the highest number since 1918. The pan-European party Volt (Greens/EFA) received its first ever representation in a national parliament, at three seats. Also the national-conservative split from FvD—Correct Answer (JA21-ECR)—entered parliament with three seats. The agrarian Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB-*) received one seat just as the left-wing and self-proclaimed anti-racist party BIJ1 (*).

The Losers of the Election

On the left, GreenLeft (GL-Greens/EFA) and left-wing Socialist Party (SP→LEFT) saw their seat totals almost halving to eight and nine respectively. The centre-left Labour Party (PvdA-S&D) failed to recover from their 2017 electoral blow staying at nine seats. Never did the three traditional left-wing parties receive so little votes combined, provoking a discussion within PvdA and GL to merge and form a unified centre-left party.

Another loser was the centre-right Christian-Democratic Appeal (CDA-EPP) which received its second worst election result ever. CDA started the election campaign with high hopes around their new leade, Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra. But Hoekstra underperformed in election debates, did several clumsy missteps while the CDA’s party top found itself rather in a collision course with Pieter Omtzigt, the number two on the party list behind Hoekstra.

Omtzigt is one of CDA’s most popular MPs. He is critical and famous for his investigations into political scandals, most notoriously the child care benefits scandal that brought down the previous government in January 2021. However, his anti-establishment rhetoric is misfitting for the CDA, which has been in government for all but 13 years in the past century, leading to frictions between Omtzigt and the party leadership.

A Single Piece of Paper Changing Everything

When the election result began to take shape, it was clear VVD and D66 would lead the government formation process. Two senior politicians from both parties were appointed as so-called scouts tasked with finding a combination of parties for a government coalition. At least two additional parties were needed for a majority in the Tweede Kamer. But the two liberal parties leading the government formation had divergent views on which parties should join. While VVD wants to include JA21 or CU, D66 prefers PvdA and GL. These two parties made clear to not govern without the other.

VVD and D66 did and still do agree on including CDA into the government. But relations between these parties have become frosty. In the first week after the election, former scout Ollongren of D66 was photographed with an uncovered piece of paper containing controversial information. It said that the scouts were planning to talk with Rutte and Kaag about a ‘function somewhere else’ for CDA MP Omtzigt. Outrage followed and the scouts resigned leading to the government formation to standstill. This paper functions as the root cause of the current political drama in the Netherlands.

Suspicions go that there are two reasons behind these discussions on Omtzigt’s position. One is the instability surrounding him within the CDA. Another is that the next government will have to endure at least two parliamentary enquiries: into the child care benefits scandal and the earthquakes in the province of Groningen caused by gas extraction. With Omtzigt playing an increasingly important role in CDA, the enquiries’ conclusions could lead to severe tensions in the coming government.

Rutte Hanging by a Thread 

Initially, Rutte denied Omtzigt’s position was brought up in his discussions with the former scouts. Yet from the documents that parliament demanded to be published, it appeared that Rutte was the only one who brought up Omtzigt. Consequently, a motion of no confidence against Rutte was tabled. Considering that Rutte as Prime Minister is already in caretaker status since January, a successful no confidence motion would lead to his immediate exit.

In the debate on 1 April 2021, Rutte’s situation worsened when parliament suspected him of telling even more untruths. Even current caretaker government parties D66, CDA and CU were close to support the motion of no confidence. Yet moments before the vote deep in the night, the parties refrained from supporting it out of fear for a constitutional crisis and tabled an alternative motion of condemnation. Such a motion means that parliament condemns the behaviour of Prime Minister Rutte without him having to quit, but with the advice to do so nonetheless. Sort of ‘soft’ slap on the wrist. The motion of no confidence was therefore voted down by a small majority. Yet the motion of condemnation was approved by a historic supermajority with all parties’ support, except for VVD. 

Chances of PvdA, GL or JA21 joining the government are small since they voted for the no confidence motion. Rutte’s approval ratings have declined and polls show a majority of Dutch voters want Rutte to resign. The only parties left for Rutte are the ones which voted against the no confidence motion: D66, CDA and CU. And after Rutte’s humiliation in the approved motion of condemnation, these parties’ negotiation positions against Rutte have grown much stronger. Rutte will have to do huge concessions in order to remain in office.

CU has already announced to not enter a government with Rutte as Prime Minister saying that the current scandal is ‘one too many’. This refers to the numerous other affairs Rutte was involved in. Adding CU to the parties that supported the no confidence motion, there is  a parliamentary majority against Rutte returning as Prime Minister. But for VVD to just let their leader go while the party has no one else ready to take over is unthinkable. Senior VVD-politicians struck back against CU and called their decision ‘undemocratic’ by pointing out their party had won the election and Rutte having received easily the most personal votes in the country.

From D66, the criticism of Rutte has subsided a little. Meanwhile, CDA risks to split over Omtzigt’s role in this all. It is unclear whether he appreciates the party’s earlier decision to not oust Rutte, let alone entering a new government led by him. Several senior CDA politicians, on the other hand, still think favourable towards a new term for Rutte as Prime Minister. With these two parties Rutte could possibly form a minority government. Yet this does not solve the fact that there is still a parliamentary majority turned against him.

One thing is clear: Rutte’s initial wish of a fast government formation has not come true. Moreover, Rutte has succeeded to turn an electoral victory into what was close to be the end of his political career in a time span of only two weeks. It is far from certain that he will be the Prime Minister leading the next government. But Rutte has proven in the past, both during and before his premiership, that he is a real survivor with many political lives. So the question remains: is there still one life left to save him this time round as well?