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A Liberal Coalition, But With Whom?

Dutch voters went to the polls yesterday in the Eurozone’s first parliamentary election since the beginning of the Greek sovereign debt crisis. The contest had been hyped as a referendum on the future of immigration and national identity in Europe. Two marquee names brought two different visions for Dutch society: the confrontational Geert Wilders and his anti-immigration PVV, versus the conciliatory former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen and his Labor Party (PvdA).

But since Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s government fell last January, fears of a Eurozone-wide economic meltdown have made concerns over immigration seem quaint. Austerity became the word from Athens to Amsterdam, and the election turned into a contest over which party could make necessary budget cuts.

So who won this election? Mark Rutte’s market-oriented Liberal Party (VVD) now holds the most seats in parliament (31), and will get the first opportunity to form a government. Wilders’ PVV also performed very well, going from 9 to 24 seats, and surpassing the CDA. Cohen’s PvdA, although it lost three seats, is now the second-largest party.

The Dutch system of proportional representation seldom gives any one party more than a quarter of the seats, and large, often-unwieldy coalition governments are the norm. 76 seats are needed for a majority, which means that Rutte must find 45 to put together a government.

And now the real jockeying to form a government begins. Rutte could try for a VVD-PVV coalition, which would have 55 seats—21 short of a majority. This is probably not the best option for the Liberals, as no one else seems to want to enter into a coalition with the PVV. Not only is Wilders highly polemical, but the PVV has little experience governing and has adopted a “my way or the highway” attitude on local councils, straining relations with the other parties.

What about a VVD-PvdA coalition? Liberal-Labor, “purple” coalitions have worked in the past in the Netherlands, but the two largest parties would still need to find 15 more votes to have a majority. Suitable coalition partners may include the progressive D66 and the GL, though the current economic climate may make the VVD uneasy about an alliance with more leftist parties. We also shouldn’t discount the possibility of the Christian Democrats (sans Balkenende) being drafted into a government.

A VVD-led government with Rutte as prime minister is almost a foregone conclusion. But in the event that he can’t cobble together a coalition, a Cohen-led government of the center-left to left remains a (small) possibility. To achieve this, the PvdA would need the participation of all left-leaning parties—plus someone else. A coalition of the PvdA, SP, D66, GL, PvdD would have 67 seats–nine short of a majority. Adding in the CDA and CU get them up to 93. An unlikely option to be sure, but it could happen to avoid having Wilders in government.(Ironically, D66 and GL seem more interested in joining a Liberal-led government than a center-left government that includes the CDA.) Wilders, for his part, will use the PVV’s terrific improvement over 2006 to demand a place in the new government.

Looking at broader trends, this election confirms the general decline of European Socialists to the benefit of more modern, activist left-wing parties. Likewise, the Christian Democrats were squeezed in between an anti-immigration right and economic liberalism (in the European sense). Because of the Netherlands’ proportional system, the election is only half the battle in forming a government. Mark Rutte’s real work lies ahead: he leads a party with ten fewer seats than Balkenende had four years ago, and faces the urgency of an economic crisis. The next week or so will test whether he is as astute a coalition-manager as his predecessor was.