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Netherlands: Regional Elections That Risk National Gridlock

On 15 March the Dutch will vote in regional elections electing new parliaments of all twelve provinces of the Netherlands and three island municipalities in the Caribbean. The campaign is dominated by plans of the national government to reduce nitrogen pollution and the composition of the Senate – elected by the regional parliaments – which risks to be more fragmented than ever before. In a sense these regional elections are more like US Midterm elections or even a rehearsal of upcoming national parliament elections whenever these may be.

A nation paralysed by nitrogen pollution

The Netherlands is the second most densely populated country in the European Union at 520 people per square kilometre. Around 18 million people call this relatively small land area home, which at the same time is the world’s largest exporter of agricultural goods after the United States. This combination of high population density and a big agriculture sector causes the Netherlands to pollute the most nitrogen dioxide per hectare in all of Europe. Nitrogen dioxide negatively affects nature and the environment. For that reason there are EU regulations on how much of it may be emitted. However, the Netherlands for long has ignored these and polluted more than the regulations suggest.

In 2019, courts ruled that the Dutch government had done too little in reducing nitrogen pollution and ordered immediate action.The most impactful was that the issuing of construction permits by courts almost came to a standstill. Until nitrogen pollution significantly decreases, the construction sector remains largely at a pause all while the Netherlands is struggling with a growing housing shortage. And as half of nitrogen emissions come from agriculture, policies to reduce pollution are mostly directed at cutting the amount of livestock generating a lot of opposition from farmers who have repeatedly done nationwide protests and blockades.

Electorally, this policy issue has hurt the Netherlands’ two main centre-right parties. The Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD-RE) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA-EPP) have lost support, from 22% and 10% at the national parliament elections in 2021 to 15% and five per cent respectively in current polling. Many of these losses have gone to the new Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB-*), popular for its vehement opposition to the said policies, surging from just one per cent in the last election to polling at roughly 12% now. BBB has successfully managed to turn the issue of nitrogen pollution into a symbol of urban-rural conflict between the urban West of the country, also known as the ‘Randstad’, and the more rural East. The party which did not even exist in the regional elections four years ago is expected to emerge as largest in several provinces outside the Randstad.

This electoral upheaval is destabilising the national government coalition which besides VVD and CDA also consists of the Christian Union (CU-EPP) and liberal Democrats 66 (D66-RE). D66 is determined to achieve the nationally agreed goal of cutting nitrogen emissions in half by 2030 while VVD and especially CDA no longer want to tie themselves to a specific date as they did before. The parties even disagree with each other on the way forward on this issue during debates on live television. Several provincial sections of VVD and CDA are campaigning on opposing the national government’s nitrogen pollution policies from the regional governments hoping to minimise losses to BBB. This together with the prospect of CDA—which once dominated Dutch politics—falling to its lowest vote share ever causes doubt on whether the government can stick together until the end of the legislature in 2025 or fall apart leading to snap elections.

All eyes on the Senate

Nevertheless, the most overarching discourse ahead of the regional elections is what the upper house of parliament or the Senate will look like. On 30 May, the newly elected regional parliaments will vote to fill the Senate consisting of 75 seats. The weight of regional parliament members’ votes is dependent on the population size of their province making the Senate composition rather proportional to the regional election result. The Dutch upper house of parliament is more powerful than most of its counterparts in Europe. Every single bill and budget has to be approved by it, however, the Senate can neither initiate legislation nor vote down governments in a no confidence motion. For that reason, according to I&O Research, 49% of those turning out to vote in the regional elections do so primarily in order to indirectly influence the Senate.

The government parties VVD, D66, CDA and CU currently hold 32 out of 75 Senate seats, six short of a majority. In order to pass policies, the government is thus dependent on the support of parties from the opposition. Yet according to current polls, the number of Senators for these government parties is set to decrease even more.

The wide range of possibilities towards a majority in the Senate the government currently has, will likely shrink to just two. If the current trend in the polls turns out ot be true, the government will have to choose between the centre-left Labour Party (PvdA-S&D) and GreenLeft (GL-G/EFA) on their left or BBB and national-conservative Correct Answer 21 (JA21-ECR) on their right. Neither of these will be easy and the governing parties are split on what to do, adding extra instability to the four party coalition government. It is, however, worthwhile to note that the governments led by Mark Rutte continuously since 2010 have only had a majority in the Senate in a few relatively short periods—2011–12 and 2017–19—yet have managed to function with relative normalcy.

On the right, BBB and JA21 are campaigning on cancelling the government’s policies on nitrogen pollution and the environment while pushing for tougher policies on migration. On the left, PvdA and GL are laboriously working their way towards the ever-eluding goal of unification by merging their two Senate groups, hoping to become the largest group in the upper house. Policywise, the two parties want more ambitious policies on reducing nitrogen pollution while promising to not allow any kind of austerity—currently suggested by the VVD—to pass through the Senate. And as the government is expected to lose seats, the negotiation positions of these opposition blocs are likely to grow in strength.

The more progressive government parties D66 and CU highly prefer to work with PvdA/GL. For them to accept strict migration policies and watering down or even scrapping—as demanded by BBB and JA21—the policies on the environment and nitrogen pollution is hard to imagine. However, VVD and CDA are not at all eager to be fully dependent on the centre-left opposition parties and would like to keep doors somehow open to BBB and JA21. Especially so because these BBB and JA21 allege VVD and CDA of ‘having moved to the left’. Prime Minister Rutte even kicked off his party’s campaign for the regional elections by depicting PvdA/GL as his main enemy, calling them a ‘dangerous leftist cloud’. By doing so, VVD hopes to artificially turn the regional elections into a two-horse race between them and PvdA/GL and regain trust among conservative voters that have left for BBB and JA21.

However, I must remark that the situation might be even more complex. It is not dead given that the government will have a safe majority with either PvdA/GL or BBB and JA21. Polls predict for either path to have a slim Senate majority. If these turn out to be insufficient, even less constructive parties like right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV-ID) or left-wing Party for the Animals (PvdD-LEFT) would be needed. And to put it mildly, these parties coming to an agreement with the current government is just as likely as a pig being able to fly on its own. And if the difficulty to pass policies through the Senate were to become fatal for the government, snap elections for just the lower house of parliament would follow. The Senate cannot be dissolved, remaining the same for four years. 

Not only the current government, but any new government formed after elections for the lower house would thus have to deal with the same Senate in the next four years. No matter how complicated it will turn out to be. This fact together with regional governments potentially sabotaging national environmental policies will make the already fragmented political landscape of the Netherlands only harder to manage.