Who will govern the Netherlands?

It is more than two months since Mark Rutte‘s VVD (Party for Freedom and Democracy) ‘won’ the Dutch election.  However, coalition formation has been far from easy.

Ideological flexibility has helped Rutte to remain at the pinnacle of Dutch politics since 2010.   Since March 16th, however, the VVD has unsuccessfully pursued a coalition with three other parties, CDA (Christian Democrats), D66 (social liberals) and Groen Links (Green Left).  Although this combination of parties would have a comfortable majority in the Tweede Kamer, Rutte’s poldering skills* have been tested to the limit by the red lines presented by his would-be colleagues.

D66, the most progressive party in this famously progressive country, insists on policy called voltooid leven, which would allow people over the age of 75 to choose when to end their life, even in the absence of illness.  The Christian Democrats, who support the current euthanasia laws, find this a step to far, and will not support this policy in any circumstances.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the VVD’s love of building roads and the CDA’s base amongst farmers, environmental policies were not the deal-breaker with Groen Links.  Rather, migration was the insurmountable factor.  The VVD and CDA fear ceding ground to Geert Wilders, whose presence always lurks in the background of Dutch politics.  Groen Links, whose charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver is himself from a multi-cultural background, argue for a more flexible and humane approach to migration and integration.

Thus, after two months of intense talks, the first attempt at coalition formation has collapsed and recriminations are the order of the day. So what happens next?

The next step will be an attempt to replace GroenLinks with ChristenUnie.  However, while ChristenUnie are closer to the Christian Democrats in policy terms, they are more socially conservative, and therefore further from D66.  The numbers make it difficult to imagine any coalition without D66, but it is equally difficult to imagine that they will manage to gather sufficient support to pursue voltooid leven, which crucially lacks the support of the medical community.

The leader of D66, Alexander Pechtold, has stated his preference for a coalition that includes the PvdA (Labour Party) and the Socialist Party.  However, the Socialist Party has ruled out a coalition with any parties of the ‘right’, including the VVD.  The PvdA would prefer to spend this parliament recovering in opposition after a stint as junior coalition partners (2012-2017)  led to many of their voters being ‘poached’ by Groen Links.

Such posturing is not unusual in Dutch politics.  In the absence of a crisis that would force parties to put aside their differences and come to a swift agreement, leaders must demonstrate to their voters that they fought for their values before eventually compromising.  Indeed, the fate of the PvdA – who at the height of the financial crisis felt obliged to put the customary dramatics aside, but were widely viewed as giving too much away to the VVD  – serves as a cautionary tale.

Personal ambition is also a factor.  Should Mark Rutte be unable to form a coalition, the top job would become open.  Both Sybrand Buma (CDA) and Alexander Pechtold (D66) have an eye on the job of Minister President, and have no interest in making Rutte’s job too easy.

If no agreement is reached, fresh elections are one possible outcome.  However, it is more likely that, in true Dutch style, a couple more months of poldering will end in eventual compromise.

*’Poldering‘ is the founding principle of Dutch politics.  The term dates back to the land reclamation projects of the late middle ages, which created ‘polders’.  Achieving this feat, and the ongoing battle against the sea, meant putting aside religious, class and ideological divisions in pursuit of a common goal.

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