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Is a Stable Government in the Netherlands Coming?

From 538’s Dan Berman

Next Wednesday, June 9th, the citizens of the Netherlands will go to the polls to elect a new government for the fourth time in eight years. The elections were called nearly a year early when the government of Jan Peter Balkenende, a coalition of the centrist Christian Democrats(CDA), Center-Left Labour party(PvdA), and the Christian Union, fell over whether to continue the Dutch military’s mission in Afghanistan.

The Dutch forces in Afghanistan have seen more combat than any national contingent, other than the American and British missions, and as a consequence the deployment has become increasingly unpopular. That, however, had less to do with the fall of the government than the fact that the unpopularity of the mission was in particular hurting the standing of Labour party, which in some polls had fallen as far as fifth, suffering the same fate that befell the Social Democrats in Germany who occupied a similar position in a grand coalition.

Having his government fall from under him is not a new experience for Balkenende. Since 2002, he has headed four different governments, each of which fell when a member party left the coalition. His first, formed after the chaotic 2002 elections, fell apart due to infighting within the Fortuynist party following the assassination of its charismatic leader. His second fell in 2006 over the decision of his Immigration Minister, Rita Verdonk, to pursue an effort to strip activist and MP Ayaan Hirisi Ali of citizenship after the latter admitted to lying on her application for asylum in the course of a television interview.

In each case Balkenende was able to hang on as Prime Minister after the subsequent election, adjusting coalition partners at will. This too is not a new development in Dutch politics. The CDA, occupying a central position in the political spectrum of proportional electoral system without a threshold, has traditionally been central to governmental formation in the Netherlands. Except for a period when an unusual alliance of the Labour Party and the right-wing Liberals(VVD) kept them out of power from 1994 to 2002, the CDA has headed every government since 1918.

This time, however, it appears that Balkenende’s luck, and that of the CDA, has finally run out. Polls after the collapse of the government showed the Prime Minister’s party taking a large degree of the blame for the fall of his fourth government. Cohen’s appointment as Labour leader appears to have given a boost to the party. Polls taken after the fall of the government showed the CDA falling to high twenties in projected seat totals, substantially below its showing in 2006 of 41 seats.

The real question instead seemed to be who would benefit. Before the fall of the government the big winners in any future election looked to be anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders, and his Party for Freedom (PVV), which had surged into the first place in polls on the strength of the governments attempt to prosecute Wilders for inciting hatred against Islam. Some polls showed it winning as many as 29 seats out of 150.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Democrats 66, a left-leaning Liberal party that had strongly opposed both Wilders strident anti-immigrant tone, and the government’s efforts to revive blasphemy laws to combat it, saw an unprecedented rise in support, with polls showing it approaching 25 seats.

Had these results been repeated in the general election, it would have been a transformational election that likely would have forced a gutted Labour and CDA into a new grand coalition. However, Wilders, who thrived in opposition, proved much less relevant to a campaign that actually required more solid economic policies than banning the Koran. And his decision to embrace left-wing populist economic policies increasingly alienated support he had gained from traditionally Liberal voters who found the VVD’s leader, Mark Rutte, who had defeated Verdonk for the leadership in 2006, boring.

The fading of Wilders, also lead to a fading of the Democrats 66, who increasingly lost a raison d’être. The beneficiaries were the parties of the coalition of the 1990s. The Labour party selected a new leader at the start of the campaign, a left-wing MP, Job Cohen, who was recently featured in a New York Times Magazine piece on the election. Cohen reinvigorated the party, raising it to first place early on in the campaign, and creating the prospect he might be the Netherlands’ first Jewish Prime Minister.

That prospect has dimmed due to the success of the other beneficiary of Wilder’s collapse. That is the VVD or Liberals, headed by Mark Rutte. Rutte had run as a moderate alternative to hard-line former Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk for the party leadership in 2006, more or less entirely on a platform of not letting Verdonk turn the party into a clone of Wilders’ movement. Having succeeded, he promptly disappeared from the scene, with his party even dropping to sixth place for a time after Verdonk had launched her own party, a personal vehicle using the minimalist title Trots op Nederland(Proud of the Netherlands). Verdonk however, proved herself to lack Wilders’ theatrical talent, and faded to a single seat, and in the course of an extended campaign in which economic competence trumped immigration, the VVD, the only party to publish detailed plans on how to balance the national budget, surged.

This can be seen in the three most recent polls, taken between the 25th of May, and the 1st of June, showed the VVD leading with between 36 and 37 seats, followed by Labour with between 28 and 32 seats. The formerly dominant CDA trails in third with between 20 and 26 seats, followed closely by Wilders’ PVV with 18-19, the Democrats 66 and Socialists with 9-12, and everyone else trailing behind.

Such a situation presents several different possibilities for government. It is worth noting that virtually every poll over the last two weeks has shown the CDA, VVD, and PVV with a majority between them. While it is almost impossible to imagine Wilders being allowed into a government, its worth noting that far-right parties such as the Danish People’s Party and the Norwegian Progress Party have supported right-leaning minority governments without officially joining them. Both parties however, despite similar platforms, possessed institutional leaderships that were far less erratic than Wilders. In such a circumstance, it is more likely to be Wilder’s unpredictability rather than his views themselves which will eliminate him as a potential partner in government

With reliance on Wilders eliminated as a possibility, a similar fate is likely to befall the CDA, or at least its central roll. If the Liberals hold nearly 40 seats, they will almost certainly drive government formation, and with Mark Rutte having moved them away from a hard-line on immigration, they will have a number of options. There is little that divides them from the Democrats 66 or even the Greens, and they may also be tempted to recreate their 1990s alliance with Labour, only this time with roles reversed in terms of the leading party.

In any event however, the recovery of Labour and the Liberals in next weeks elections, symbolizing the revival of the mainstream left and right after several electoral cycles in which extremists seemed dominant, looks like likely to give the Netherlands its first stable government in nearly a decade. This is important given the awe-inspiring economic challenges that will face any new government in the next few years. But it does create hope that the extremist tide on both sides of spectrum is reaching its crest in Europe.

This article was authored by research assistant Dan Berman. Please send comments or suggestions to