Elections in the Netherlands, 2012

The following entry is authored by JD Mussel, who frequently comments here at F&V. Because JD is in the Netherlands, I asked him if he would like to offer a preview of the 12 September elections in that country.

All of what follows is by JD, not me.


On Wednesday 12 September next week, Dutch voters will choose the ‘Second Chamber’ – the lower house of the Dutch Parliament. The elections are being held two years early after the government fell in April – in short, the Freedom Party (PVV), who were supporting the minority Liberal (VVD)-Christian Democrat (CDA) government, withheld their support after some weeks of consultations on the budget. Since it was calculated the deficit was going to rise above the EU-agreed norm of 3%, the two government parties wanted another round of cuts, which the PVV could not agree with. Despite being able to quickly make a new budget with three other parties, the government resigned and new elections were called.

The electoral system is flexible-list PR – and is probably the most proportional in the world, as all 150 seats are one nationwide constituency with the only threshold being that a party needs to win enough votes to fulfil one quota – ie 0.67% of the national vote. Partially as a result of this system, but perhaps more so as a result of the breakdown of the Dutch social order based on ‘pillarization’, the political landscape has been very volatile ever since the turn of the century. Most importantly, new parties have been storming in and out of parliament, radical or protest parties have grown in size while the three ‘established’ parties – CDA, VVD and Labour have been collectively losing ground (especially the CDA) and therefore finding it difficult to form relatively comfortable (and stable) coalitions. Since 1994, with the exception of the elections that followed in 1998, after every election, a coalition government has been formed in a way that had never been tried previously, with the most recent example being the Rutte minority cabinet supported by the PVV. Moreover, since 1998, a government has never served for the full term.

Over the month or two, the main election battle – for which party would become biggest – seemed to be between the VVD and the formerly-Maoist Socialist Party (SP). However, about a week ago the Labour party leader did very well in an important televised debate, and since then left-wing tide has turned in favour of the more mainstream Labour. This is a radical turnaround – in mid-August the SP was still predicted by the polls to win twice as many seats as Labour, while now it is Labour, with continuing momentum, who are vying for a first-place finish with the VVD.

But what is the importance of such a ‘victory’? After all, no party is even close to winning a majority. I think the main the main issue is that of which party will provide the prime minister. But what I hear more often (from Dutch as well as external sources) is that the biggest party ‘gets the first attempt at forming a government’. However, the Netherlands uses a system where ‘informateur(s)’ are appointed to hold consultations with party leaders as to a possible coalition. Only once agreement has been reached for a coalition, a ‘formateur’ is appointed to actually form the cabinet, with the formateur usually becoming PM.

Since the above system has been put in place, the Dutch Queen has had an important role in the formation of a government. First, she would meet with each party leader, as well a number of other important figures, for advice. Then she would appoint an informateur, usually some preeminent figure from the political establishment, with the task of exploring the possibility of a certain coalition. Often there would be more than one round of ‘information’ conducted, with multiple informateurs, until an agreement was in sight and a formateur could be appointed to finish the job of forming a government. However, sometime last year, the parliamentary rules of procedure were amended to provide for election of informateur and/or formateur by the incoming Second Chamber. This was possible as the whole system of government formation is in convention rather than law. If the newly-elected chamber manages to make this new system work, it will now all be done independently of the Queen, who will only have to sign the ministerial appointment documents and pose with the new ministry. With regard to the new system, many have suggested that the Chamber should elect the leader of the largest party as informateur, or elect him straight away as formateur – thus returning, in essence, to the 19th-century system where the Queen would appoint formateur after formateur until one of them succeeded (the only difference of course being the appointer).

Lastly, I’d like to mention a trend among Dutch party leaders – some time ago, the VVD codified an existing convention that their political leader, who stands at the head of the list, remains in the Chamber to lead the faction unless he becomes the PM (Ministers in the Netherlands have to resign their seat in parliament). Recently in the campaign, Labour party leader Samsom said he would do the same – he would not become minister in a cabinet led by someone else if Labour participates in the government, but remain in the chamber unless he becomes PM.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my entry! If I’ve managed to interest you in Dutch politics, do have a look at the great website by Peter-Paul Koch. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I’ve learned quite a lot from it myself.

This has been JD Mussel, reporting from the heart of Dutch democracy in The Hague.

19 thoughts on “Elections in the Netherlands, 2012

  1. Alan: no provision has been made for such an eventuality, so that’s a weakness in the plan. If there is real deadlock I suspect Her Majesty will step in.

  2. What if the two largest parties tie? Then who becomes PM.

    It seems like every Western countries elections are becoming nail biters. Governments are formed with the slimmest of slim margins. Is this good for government policy? Why is this happening? Should the Dutch seriously think about introducing an electoral threshold to prevent the fragmentation of the party system?

  3. The Reader’s Digest, mid-1980s, had a puff piece on the monarchies of Europe which made the point (perhaps not as obvious to some US readers as to those of us who are subjects of a Queen) that monarchical forms can co-exist with a democratic system – provided the Crown appoints Ministers who have the support of the lower house.

    The RD then added that this meant that while, in Britain, the Queen had almost no role because first-past-the-post regularly gave one or another party an absolute majority of seats. On the other hand, in multi-party systems such as Belgium and The Netherlands, monarchs had much more personal discretion because there was usually no clear majority party or even coalition on election night. (Subtext: PR is less democratic because it means a reversion to monarchical choice of Ministers.)

    I took this at face value at the time but have realised it overlooks the crucial role of the formateur who takes a lot of the responsibility off the Crown. Either a person is chosen to that specific position, or it falls ex officio on some officer (eg the Speaker of the Riksdag in Sweden – I notice that Tony Benn has proposed that even in a British republic, and a fortiori under the UK monarchy, official power to hire and fire PrMs should be moved to the Speaker, a rule which the Scotland Act has adopted for Holyrood). Either way, the crowned heads of the Continent seem to play nearly as back-seat a role as Queen Elizabeth did in 1974 and 2010. Is this an accurate summary?

  4. Um, the Prìomh Mhinistear na h-Alba is nominated by an exhaustive ballot of the Parliament and then formally appointed by the Queen.

  5. Suaprazzodi, there’s no requirement that the PM be from the largest party. It’s quite possible that the governing coalition doesn’t include the party with the most seats in the Tweede Kamer, in which case usually the largest party of the coalition will become PM. But even that isn’t necessary, even a member of a smaller party could become PM if that’s what the coalition is able to negotiate. Presumably if there’s a tie within the coalition, whomever has the most leverage will get the prime ministership.

  6. Most parliamentary democracies if the largest party cannot form government, then the second largest has the opportunity to form government. Are there any cases where neither the 1st, and 2nd place party can form government, and the third largest party forms the government. Didn’t Denmark had a situation like this in the mid 70’s?

  7. @Suazzaprodi

    I’m not sure there is a principle or practice that works in that way. Certainly in Australia the ALP is almost always the largest party, the Liberals are second and the Nationals are third. The question is which party or coalition commands the confidence of a majority of MPs. That will often, but not always be the largest party and even in Australia there are cases where the Nationals have held the prime minsitership without holding a majority of MPs as a whole or even of Coalition MPs.

  8. Canada’s media has unfortunately claimed that the largest party immediately has a right to govern. I’ve always said that, at minimum, the PM should be chosen by exhaustive ballot. However, I’m thinking proportional systems could be much more easily sold to the public if there was some element of the public choosing the party to form government.

  9. > “Prìomh Mhinistear na h-Alba”

    Yes, after a general election. If however the chief vacates mid-term (for whatever reason, sometimes rather Jeremy Thorpe-like if I recall), the Presiding Officer (not the Queen or a vice-regal representative) appoints the acting First Minister until the full Parliament can meet to elect. Ironically, I believe the PO was David Steel last time this happened. Anyway, that was what I was thinking of. In Sweden, of course, in all course the Riksdag Talman gets up to four chances at putting a name forward for approval.

  10. I guess that selecting a prime minister in a parliamentary democracy is not something that is rigidly codified. It is by convention that the prime minister is selected either by the chief of state or the parliament elects the prime minister.

    If the parliament elects the prime minister, then can one say that this parliamentary democracy requires an affirmative majority for the government to stay in power, and thus make minority governments (Germany) less likely then say a parliamentary democracy where the chief of state chooses a prime minister that has the support implicitly (Denmark). There is no need for a formal confidence vote, as long as the opposition does test that support.

    Parliamentary Democracy is an amazingly beautiful system of government. It is so flexible, and dynamic and much more interesting when proportional representation is used.

    What I was talking about here in my comments is that the Dutch party system has fragmented so much, that it seems to me that difficult but needed decisions are put off. I was saying that should an electoral threshold be introduced to reduced this fragmentation. Would the Dutch ever agree to something like this? It also seems that no party would ever want to take part in government ever again, when they could prop up the government from the outside, and not take responsibility like the Party of Freedom did.

    Parties have to govern, but it seems to me that this system of PR that the Dutch have seems to have forced the two largest parties to form a coalition. This seems to deny voters a choice, and there isn’t much of an opposition to check the government and improve legislation when all the rest of the parties are just testimonial parties or tail waggers.

    It would be better if the parties in an election campaign announced from the outset who they are forming a coalition with. The Irish STV system to allow and encourage parties to do such a thing. The Dutch party system because of the electoral system is so unstable that parties ended up having to please both ends, until they haemorrhage themselves becoming all things to all people, and appealing to no one.

  11. It is by no means clear that the Dutch party system is a product of the electoral system. many of the existing parties date from before the adoption of PR in 1918. The religious parties have actually consolidated since 1918 and in most PR parliaments 2 of the 3 leading parties could form a government coalition.

    Dutch society has an unusual number of divisions that are reflected in the parliament. I would not think papering over those divisions by moving away from proportional representation is necessarily a very good idea.

    In most parliamentary systems the traditional parties have seen their share of the vote reducing for some time. There was an old ) joke in Australian politics where someone was explaining the US party system.

    ‘In America they have the Republicans who are rather like our Liberals, and then they have the Democrats who are rather like our Liberals. The joke no longer works because the economic policies of the traditional parties in Australia, as elsewhere, have become very close to indistinguishable.

    The popular response appears to be the emergence of new parties who actually have different policies.

    I know I go on about this a bit, but I believe elections are about electors, not candidates or parties. Simply disregarding some electors by a threshold mechanism seems to me seriously wrong.

  12. > “Moreover, since 1998, a government has never served for the full term.” (JD)

    I once read-ed someone writing around 1970 – Dorothy M Pickles, perhaps – claim that despite having unfixed terms, The Netherlands had only (at that point) had one early election, and all the others were pretty much exactly on the fourth anniversary of the previous election. JD, is this accurate, or at least was before 1998? Or does collapse of a govt not entail a fresh election?

    > “In America they have the Republicans who are rather like our Liberals, and then they have the Democrats who are rather like our Liberals.”

    Someone around 1987 explained to me that the US Republicans correspond closely to the Australian Liberals in all their glory (a wide spectrum, from Chris Puplick and Rosemary Kyburtz to Ross Lightfoot and Bill Heffernan) while the Democrats correspond to all the other Australian parliamentary parties – Labor, the late Australian Democrats (never, interestingly, adjectivised as “Democratic” but always as “Democrat”), and the Nationals. But now that the Zell Millers and the Jay Rockefellers and Jim Jeffords-es have re-sorted out more along ideological lines, I think it is fair to say that the US parties are pretty distinct.

  13. Surely the easiest mechanism is the Edinburgh/Cape Town model of simply having the parliament elect the prime minister. And it would be painfully simple if the parliament used STV)

    South Africa imposes an automatic dissolution after 30 days if the national assembly fails to elect a president. The ANC’s dominance in national elections makes it an automatic process but the same rule has worked in provincial legislatures electing premiers, including the opposition provinces of Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.


    While I’m afraid I disagree about the convergence of traditional parties in most democracies it is perhaps a matter for another thread.

  14. Alan @13: I was not saying the electoral system produced the current Dutch party system, only that (I see it as) a factor.
    Strictly speaking, I wouldn’t necessarily advocate a threshold, but I do think it would be good to introduce (multiple-member, PR) districts. I think that if a movement is important enough, it will be represented.
    @15: Yes, the easiest mechanism is the Cape Town model, bu I think it unseemly in a constitutional monarchy.

    Tom @14: Parliament was dissolved early in 1948 to allow a constitutional amendment. In ’58 a gov’t fell, was briefly followed by a rump cabinet and then elections in ’59. Something similar happened in ’66-’67. Before ’67, many gov’ts fell outright or at least had crises, but most these issues were resolved (sometimes through establishment of a new cabinet). This sort of ‘gluing’ was later eschewed in favour of the practice of resigning and calling new elections. Really, if you’re interested, the website I linked to has much better and more detailed info!

  15. @JD

    I was thinking of Suazzaprodi’s comment rather than your own.

    Sadly there was a time when I was young and brash enough to think that disrespect to the monarchy would have been a good thing. Happily I am now older and perhaps wiser.

    On the other hand a surprising number of monarchies (Japan, Thailand, Spain, Scotland and PNG spring to mind) where the parliament ‘designates’ a candidate who then presents themselves to the sovereign for formal appointment. In Sweden where the speaker has become, as Tom notes, a sort of standing informateur, the formal change of government takes place in the sovereign’s presence.

  16. Following the election and leading up to the installation of the new Second Chamber, demissionary VVD-minister Henk Kamp was appointed by the old Chamber as ‘scout’ to prepare the way for the formation. He met with all party leaders, and on Tuesday presented his report recommending that he and former Labour leader and vice-premier Wouter Bos be appointed as co-informateurs for the exploration of a VVD-Labour government.
    The new Chamber was installed on Thursday, debated the report and then voted to take on its recommendation, thus appointing Kamp and Bos as informateurs.

  17. Appointing a scout to suggest the appointment of rapporteurs who can then propose the appointment of a prime minister and cabinet… are we sure it wasn’t Terrence Stamp chairing this assembly?!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.