2012 general elections in the Netherlands: political instability in a splintered landscape

2012 general elections in the Netherlands: political instability in a splintered landscape

Polls for the general elections on 12 September indicate that it will prove difficult to cement a majority coalition in the Netherlands. Political fragmentation is increasingly destabilizing Dutch politics. Maybe electoral thresholds need to be considered.

There’s a fun game available on the website of Ipsos Synovate – a Dutch opinion polling agency – where you can put together a cabinet coalition on the basis of the most recent opinion poll for the upcoming 12 September general elections. But you get quite a fright if you give it a go: as a result of the current fragmentation in Dutch politics, a majority combination can only be achieved with a coalition involving four or more parties. This, of course, makes a formation process difficult, and then there’s the question of whether the winning combination will prove to be a stable one. On the basis of the opinion polls, crossed with the party programmes, a centre-left ‘Catamaran’ combination of SP (socialists), PvdA (social democrats), D66 (liberal democrats) en CDA (Christian democrats) seems the most feasible one (two large left-wing parties in the centre with two liberal parties acting as financial-economic stabilizers). Such a combination also has a relatively unencumbered legacy – most of them were not involved in the previous cabinet - and it could bring about reforms in certain areas. Moving even further to the left will be tricky: that would require at least five parties (SP, PvdA, D66, CU (a more or less orthodox Christian party) and Groenlinks (the Green party)). But here the question remains whether the parties D66 and CU would even be willing to participate; in this overly left option, their position would become more compromised than in a centre-left combination. Every option for a combination towards the right would – in the Ipsos Synovate opinion polls (and in other polls as well by the way) – be blocked by the position of the PVV (the Wilders party). Many of the potential right-wing partners (CDA, D66) have closed the door on any collaboration with that party.

Four-party coalitions do not have good credentials in Dutch parliamentary history. If we look at the past hundred years, only three of the nine four-party coalitions made it to the end (30%) – most of them riding the tides of economic prosperity. Five-party cabinets have an even lower score: none of the five coalitions with five parties survived to the next ordinary election, though the Den Uyl cabinet (1974-1977) did come a long way.

The coming formation period will undoubtedly be difficult and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking it will be concluded quickly and with a good result. The political climate in the Netherlands has become unstable. We have had five cabinets since 2002. The average term was just over two years and the programmes of the governments were not fully implemented for the most part. Not only in absolute terms the score is poor, but also if we compare the Dutch political situation to that of other EU countries. The Netherlands are in the European leading group when it comes to ‘instability’ together with Greece, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland and to a lesser extent Sweden as research by the Dutch Montesquieu Institute (European institute for parliamentary history) shows. Although being somber doesn’t help, it’s beginning to look at bit like the 1930s, when, due to political fragmentation, Dutch politics was very instable and, as a result, unable to effectively defuse the economic crisis in a splintered political landscape. What can be done? Perhaps it’s time to think about electoral thresholds in the Dutch system, that is based on proportional representation. There is good reason to do so because as things stand now in the polls, of the 11 to 12 parties that could now possibly win seats in the Lower House, five to six can expect to win less than (around) seven seats. But together these parties are good for nearly 20 seats, that’s 26-28% of the total of 75 seats. Add to that around 20% that the PVV will account for, with the situation as it is now, it will be very difficult doing business with around half the seats in the Lower House (the Dutch Commons) of Parliament after the September election.


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