Dutch election 2010: Another cliffhanger & who should get the first right to form a government?

As I have noted before, there has been a possibly unprecedented trend in the last decade or so around the world for exceptionally close election races between a country’s top two parties. Add the Netherlands 2010 to this list. Moreover, it is yet another parliamentary outcome that raises the question of whether the largest party should necessarily have the right to move first in attempting to put together a coalition government.

As of the early morning hours, the Liberals (VVD) are one seat ahead of Labour, according to AFP. Throughout much of the night, the two parties were tied on 31 seats.

Given that the chamber has 150 seats, the government that is ultimately formed will involve bargaining among several parties. Of the other parties, the big winner–relative to last election–was the so-called Party for Freedom.

Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), which demands an end to immigration from Muslim countries and a ban on new mosques, took its number of lawmakers from nine in the last parliament to 24, and could hope to enter a coalition government.

The VVD was also a substantial winner, gaining about ten seats. Almost certainly it will lead the government (whether or not it ends up with the most seats in parliament). The big question is whether the PVV will have cabinet posts.

And the big loser:

Pushed into fourth place was the Christian Democratic Action party of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. The CDA, which has been in almost all Dutch governments since World War II, lost 20 seats to end at 21.

The AFP says, “With none of the competing 18 parties able to rule alone, the party that arrives on top will lead coalition negotiations.” That is not necessarily true, of course. The Netherlands may have a convention that the first party gets to try first (does it?), but if another party besides the largest is better placed to form a government, it will be beginning formal negotiations quite soon. Whether it concludes them soon is, of course, a different question.

15 thoughts on “Dutch election 2010: Another cliffhanger & who should get the first right to form a government?

  1. There is a very, very strong convention (though not a law, apparently–I had to look it up) in the Netherlands that the leader of the largest party gets first shot at forming government. Only under circumstances where he or she can’t do that does anyone else get a shot at it (not likely to happen in this case).

  2. “so-called Party for Freedom”. My guess is that the PVV argument is that Muslim immigration can’t reach the point where a Muslim fundamentalist party becomes viable. So one freedom of people outside the Netherlands (to be allowed to emigrate to the Netherlands) has to be reduced to protect other freedoms of people inside the Netherlands.

    I actually see a narrow right-wing majority in the early returns, but I wonder if the PVV and the VVD can bridge their differences enough to form it with other parties.

  3. BBC-TV is reporting that a “purple” coalition is likely, involving both of the two leading parties (Liberals and Labor).

  4. This may (or may not) be considered a thread hijacking. If so, can we have a thread on this?

    For a long time I’ve been meaning to ask whether there are any parliamentary countries where the selection of the prime minister and composition of the cabinet are the result of a rule-driven procedure rather than negotiations structured however the parties care to structure them. Or any theoretical/conceptual work on this subject.

    Selection of the prime minister seems obvious to me. The members of the new parliament should elect him or her by a prescribed voting rule. This might be (I’m not sure where I stand on this) one situation where the Condorcet criterion is very important, and where a Condorcet method is feasible because the voters are relatively sophisticated. If not, IRV/AV would be great.

    Selection of cabinet members is much more difficult, and involves determining (1) which parties will make up the coalition, and (2) which parties get which cabinet posts.

    There might be purely algorithmic answers to the first question, although that would require some very objective measure of political distances among the parties. If there are such answers, it might be possible to choose one of them as clearly preferable to the others.

    Dividing up seats in the cabinet seems even harder than (1). In fact, I’m not even sure where I’d start. The newly elected prime minister could propose a slate to Parliament, which would vote it up or down. Repeat until a slate wins a majority vote. But this would almost necessitate the sort of horse trading we are trying to prevent.

    I started thinking about this a long time ago because one of the most frequent objections to PR is that it gives minor parties an amount of influence in excess of their numbers. To the extent this is true at all, I think it applies more to coalition and cabinet formation than it does to legislation. It would be convenient (to say the least) to be able to show that the (real or alleged) ability of minor parties to make extortionate demands isn’t the result of PR. It’s the result of the fact that governments are formed by horse trading rather than by a set of rules.

  5. To respond to the last comment, which I agree is off-thread, once you split the roles of head of government and head of state (which I strongly agree with), then you have to maintain at least the fiction that the head of state selects the head of government.

    The role of the head of state is to make sure the government is properly staffed and functioning, sort of a special civil servant, while the head of government sets policies. And if there is a problem with coalition formation, certainly that is something the head of state can fix? Since each parliament is different, the head of state should have the flexibility to handle government building differently, depending on the situation in the legislature.

    If the legislature is just going to elect the head of government, then just go to a South African style system where the head of state and head of government are combined, but this person, unlike the U.S. President, is elected by and recallable by the legislature.

    I think combining the head of state and head of government overstrengthens a strong politician in this role, who can use the legitimacy of the head of state to sell partisan policies to the public, and can overweaken a weak politician in this role, who has to deal with over-high public expectations. The U.S. was lucky to have strong figures in this role during key crisises in U.S. history, but that luck will run out if it hasn’t already.

    In countries where the head of state and head of government are separate, employing the head of state to sell the government’s policies to the public is a big no-no, but in the U.S. this is routine!

    I also suspect that the “tail wags the dog” feature of overinfluential minor parties isn’t due to some feature of coalition building. Instead, the presence of minor parties in a coalition allows leaders of major parties to pursue policies they know will be unpopular with their supporters, but to deflect the blame to the need to keep their coalition partners happy.

  6. Matthew Yglesias wrote a post about strategic voting in the Netherlands. I’ve not thought about this issue much, but it makes sense that if your priority is to hurt the party you most dislike you may not end up voting for your preferred party. Is there any data on how common strategic voting is in PR states?

  7. Several countries, including Germany, Papua-New Guinea, Spain and Sweden have detailed procedures. Generally the parliament, or the lower house where there are two chambers, ‘designates’ or ‘recommends’ a prime minister who is then formally appointed by the head of state. Without sitting down and compiling the stats, I’d guess that parliamentary governments are more likely than not to have a rule-based designation procedure.

    In Papua-New Guinea the parliament recommends the appointment to the head of state. In Germany the federal president proposes a candidate for chancellor to the Bundestag. In Sweden the Speaker proposes a prime minister to the Riksdag who is elected unless an absolute majority vote against. It would be relatively unusual for a prime minister to submit their cabinet appointments to a vote of the house.

    Papua-New Guinea has an unusual rule that requires a constructive vote of no confidence and makes the candidate included in the vote of no confidence acting prime minister until they can be formally appointed by the head of state.

    Sadly, no-one seems to use the obvious reform of using MPV for the designation, relying on exhaustive ballots or repeated elections.

  8. Vasi, you might look up Matias Bargsted and Orit Kedar, “Coalition-Targeted Duvergerian Voting: How Expectations Affect Voter Choice under Proportional Representation.” 2009. American Journal of Political Science, 53(2): 307- 323.

    I think there might be some other research on related topics, but this is a good place to start.

  9. Well, there is one way to ensure that comments are not off-thread: revise the original entry! The question Bob raised about procedures for determining who gets the first rights in government formation is one that comes up a lot (e.g. the recent UK election, and it is highly relevant to discussions I am having in Israel).

    So, let’s keep that going.

  10. There’s a subsidiary issue: does a new government need to face a parliamentary vote which varies from an absolute majority (Germany), a ‘negative majority’ (Sweden) where the speaker’s candidate is elected unless an absolute majority votes to reject, and no vote at all as in the various Westminster systems (Canada is the type case) where the crown, in the person of Elizabeth II or the governor-general, simply appoints a new government.

  11. There seems to be two strong norms on government formation in the Netherlands:
    1. First right to the largest party.
    2. Government need to be a majority; minority governments are not an option.
    It is not easy to enforce informal norms of this type, but I have been told that the Queen is instrumental in upholding the norms in each case of government formation. Is that correct?

  12. The “subsidiary issue” that Alan raises is very important. If there has to be a formal (positive) investiture vote, a minority government is less likely to form. (The parties that might “tacitly” support it can’t be so tacit if they have to vote for its investiture.)

    There seems to be a very strong correlation (though I have not looked at it systematically): parliamentary republics require investiture, but monarchies do not–because in the latter it is the monarch’s government, i.e. he or she “invests” the government with authority to govern.

    (And, thanks, Alan, for the link. Looks like a very useful article.)

  13. MSS (#9), who gets first right is the (relatively) easy part. The hard part is whether there’s any way other than horse-trading to decide which parties are going to form the coalition and how many (and which) cabinet seats each coalition partner is going to get.

  14. Ed’s (#5) last paragraph is very much on point, at least to the extent that this is actually what happens. But I think it’s a very hard sell when responding to opponents of PR.

  15. There is a bridge in Sydney I’d like to sell to anyone who thinks that horse-trading does not take place in any government formation process, even the relatively ‘dignified’ process of a presidential election. How many vacancies remain in the executive branch in the US more than a year after President Obama’s inauguration?

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