Governance and Politics of the Netherlands

by Rudy B. Andeweg & Galen A. Irwin

Update 3: The first Dutch minority government?

The formation of a new governing coalition (pp. 125-37) on the basis of the 2010 election results took 127 days – the third most time-consuming government formation in Dutch history, and involved 8 informateurs and a formateur, and several unsuccessful attempts. Of the 40 minimum winning coalitions possible, the negotiations centered on three potential combinations: a rightwing coalition (VVD+PVV+CDA = 76 seats), ‘purple-plus’ (VVD+PvdA+D66+GreenLeft = 81 seats), and a centre coalition of the three traditional core parties (VVD+PvdA+CDA = 82 seats).

The Queen first seemed to be aiming for a rightwing coalition, asking informateur Rosenthal (VVD) to explore a combination of parties that could count on ‘fruitful cooperation with Parliament’ (the usual formula to indicate a majority government), preferably including the largest party (the VVD) and the biggest winner (the PVV). However, joining a coalition with the PVV was highly controversial in most parties. Even the VVD lost a few prominent members over this issue. The attempt to form such a coalition foundered when the CDA declined an invitation to join VVD and PVV at the negotiating table. As the Christian Democrats were in disarray after their electoral defeat (See update 2) which prompted the resignation of outgoing prime minister Balkenende as party leader, many commentators were surprised at the speed with which this rejection was accepted and with which the rightwing option was consequently shelved. After a brief interlude, a second attempt was launched, this time to restore the ‘purple’ combination that had governed from 1994 to 2002, reinforced by GreenLeft (hence purple-plus). Two informateurs (one from the VVD, one from Labour) led the negotiations, but after two-and-a-half weeks they concluded that in particular VVD and PvdA were too far apart on issues such as budget reductions (where the VVD wanted to move faster than Labour), the abolition of tax deductions for interest on mortgages, and the introduction of track and beacon road user charging (advocated by Labour but vetoed by the Liberals).

The failure to form purple-plus also bode ill for a grand coalition of VVD, PvdA and CDA because the PvdA was unlikely to achieve more in that coalition than in purple-plus. The new informateur, former Prime Minister Lubbers (CDA), therefore advocated a reconsideration of the rightwing option and went so far as to suggest a solution for the Christian Democrats’ misgivings about governing with Wilders: a parliamentary coalition including the PVV supporting a government without PVV ministers. This was to be the eventual outcome, but it took some breathtaking political maneuvering to get there. First, the negotiators for the three parties talked for a week without the Queen-appointed informateur. Whether the informateur himself withdrew from the talks or whether he was excluded remains unclear. Eventually, the three parties reported to the informateur that they regarded a minority government with majority parliamentary support a viable option. Another informateur was then appointed to chair the negotiations, but before these were finalized a revolt broke out among Christian Democrats. Old party stalwarts publicly criticized any form of cooperation with the PVV, and three MPs, including one of the party negotiators, tried to force the party to withdraw from the negotiations. The revolt was quelled, but PVV leader Wilders was not satisfied that the three rebel MPs would not threaten the coalition’s fragile majority of 76 seats in the 150-member Second Chamber.

The informateur then reported to the Queen that this attempt too had failed. The Queen took the advice of all party leaders on how to find a way out, when suddenly Wilders announced that he had changed his mind and was now confident that the Christian Democrats would provide sufficient support for the government. The three leaders were about to resume their negotiations, but the Queen was not amused and first appointed one of her trusted advisers as informateur to determine whether the three parties were serious about their intentions. Apparently they were, the previous informateur was reappointed, the negotiations were reopened. This led to a coalition agreement between VVD and CDA, and to a support agreement between these parties and the PVV. The latter agreement contained strict policy proposals with regard to non-Western immigration and integration of minorities in exchange for PVV support for a package of measures to reduce the budget deficit. These measures include plans to raise the age of retirement, which Wilders had vowed to veto during the election campaign.

The final hurdle was a CDA party conference, open to all members, that had to approve of the party’s participation in this unprecedented coalition. With about 5000 party members attending it was the largest party conference ever held in the Netherlands, and its live television coverage was watched by an average 740,000 viewers. The final vote approved joining the coalition by 68 per cent.

On October 14, 2010, the new prime minister, VVD leader Mark Rutte, and his ministers were sworn in. Wilders had been involved in the choice of ministers, and he was granted weekly consultation with the prime minister. The Rutte government is thus a good example of a new type of government (labeled ‘contract parliamentarism’ by Bale and Bergman, 2006) that seems to be on the rise. On most issues, the government is a minimum winning, minimum size majority coalition like any other, but on matters not included in the support agreement, the PVV can act as an opposition party, and the minority government must cobble together ad hoc majorities in parliament. The first major decisions that were taken in ‘minority mode’ were to send a police training mission to the Afghan province of Kunduz (when D66 and GreenLeft helped form a majority in exchange for policy concessions), and to join the successive rescue packages for the Greek economy (when the Labour party provided support).

If this is not enough to make the government’s status as a majority government ambiguous, the Rutte government took office without a majority in the Senate (pp.148-50), in which the PVV was not yet represented. Senators are elected by an electoral college composed of provincial councilors, and provincial elections were scheduled for March 2011, with a new Senate election in May 2011. The PVV hastily prepared to contest the elections in all provinces, and the campaign was dominated by the question whether the coalition would or would not obtain a majority in the First Chamber. Normally, provincial elections are regarded as second-order elections, but in 2011 turnout increased by almost 10 percentage points to 55.9 percent. On the basis of the outcome, the coalition of VVD, CDA and PVV first seemed to have been narrowly defeated. In the following weeks both the coalition and the opposition frantically schemed to persuade particular provincial councilors to vote strategically (just a few strategic votes could affect the allocation of remainder seats). In the end these agreements did not affect the balance of power and the coalition was narrowly deprived of a majority in the Senate. This constrains the government, but need not threaten its immediate survival: on most issues the coalition will be supported by the orthodox Protestant SGP (p.58) to give it a majority, and as a rule, the Senate will not censure the government.

(T.Bale and T. Bergman, ‘Captives no Longer, but Servants Still? Contract Parliamentarism and the New Minority Governments in Sweden and New Zealand’ Government and Opposition 41:3 (2006), 422-49)