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.