Guest post: The 2010 Dutch coalition formation: ‘Messy’ an understatement
October 18, 2010 § 3 Comments
I’m delighted to be able to put up my first guest post. The following was written by Chris Terry: co-founder of the Britain Votes blog and an expert in European politics, particularly Dutch politics which was the subject of his thesis.
As mentioned on this blog before the Dutch parliament elects 150 seats by D’hondt PR. The elections actually took place in early June but a government has only just been formed. Here’s Chris:
Last week the new Dutch government took office after four months of coalition negotiations. That government is something a bit new for the Dutch- a minority coalition of the right-wing liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) supported on budget and confidence motions by the right-wing populist anti-Islamic Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom (PVV). Many balk at Wilders, whose policies include ethnic registration, a tax on headscarves, closing down all Islamic immigration to the Netherlands and banning the Qu’ran as it is a ‘fascist book comparable to Mein Kampf’. The fact that the coalition negotiation in exchange for this includes a very large chapter on immigration is likely to make many a bit ill. How did this come to happen in a supposedly liberal, tolerant country like Netherlands?
The 2010 election gave the Dutch a divided result.
|People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)||Right-wing Liberal||31||+9|
|Party for Labour (PvdA)||Social Democracy||30||-3|
|Party for Freedom (PVV)||Right-wing Populism||24||+15|
|Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA)||Christian Democracy||21||-20|
|Socialist Party (SP)||Democratic Socialism||15||-10|
|Democrats 66 (D66)||Left-wing Liberal||10||+7|
|GreenLeft (GL)||Green, Left-wing Liberal||10||+3|
|ChristianUnion (CU)||Christian Democracy||5||-1|
|Political Reformed Group (SGP)||Orthodox Christianity||2||0|
|Party for the Animals (PvdV)||Animal Rights||2||0|
Now, Dutch coalition formation has a series of formal and informal rules, which briefly summed up are:
- The largest party leads coalition negotiations until all available options are exhausted at which point this continues under the auspices of the second largest party. This is a highly formalised arrangement lead by ‘informateurs’ appointed by the Queen who investigate coalition options and mediate between parties until a ‘formateur’ who hopes to become PM once appointed. This can lead to trouble. During the 1970s the PvdA moved to a radical position, which was effective in winning seats, but in doing so they crushed the remainder of the left, in doing so destroying their only coalition partners. In 1977 the PvdA won an unprecedented 53 seats, but then endured a five month period of attempting to form a coalition with the CDA until eventually coalition formation passed to the CDA who quickly formed a coalition with the VVD.
- Parties should try and form a coalition with those who are closest to them. Obviously parties who are close together on the spectrum are more likely to agree on policy, but there is also an element of security to this arrangement. Being in government parties inevitably upset a lot of people, including their own supporters. Parties that are ideologically close together also provide a valve for annoyed voters. If a PvdA voter is annoyed at the PvdA then they may defect to the Socialists, D66 or GreenLeft, for example. By pulling similar parties into coalition with you a party shares the blame and therefore diminishes that ‘release valve’. So for example the CDA tends to prefer to form coalitions with the VVD because while it calls itself ‘centrist’ in fact more of its voters are centre-right than centre-left (though there ARE centre-left CDA voters).
- If possible, negotiate yourself into the ‘median’ position in a coalition. If possible, it is advantageous for parties to negotiate themselves into a position whereby they hold the centre position within a cabinet. This means that when a cabinet is divided generally it is your party that will hold the deciding vote and therefore the most power. If two coalition parties are divided it can be desirable to bring in a party precisely to take this role. For example after the 1981 election a CDA-VVD coalition was impossible, forcing a CDA-PvdA coalition. The two parties were still quite divided but had a clear majority (92/150 seats). Nonetheless, D66 was brought into the coalition to act as a mediating force between the two enemies. D66 has often fulfilled this role in coalitions, most notably in the ‘Purple’ cabinets of the 1990s which brought together left-wing PvdA and right-wing VVD. D66 was often said to be the ‘glue’ which kept the two nemeses together, mediating between them with its centrist economics and progressive social policies. The CDA is also good at holding this position.
- Minimise the number of parties in a coalition. If possible a two party coalition is preferable because this minimises the likelihood of discord and creates easier policy formation. The exception to this is when a third party is needed to minimise discord between two erstwhile enemies.
- Dutch politics is essentially a three party system. There is a clear Left-Centre-Right division between the three main parties. Two of the three are needed to form a coalition in any circumstance. A theoretical coalition featuring all three is known as the ‘forbidden coalition’ because to do so would destroy the divide between them, and create inevitable anger at the moderating force of the three primary parties as voters flee to smaller, more radical parties. Even coalitions of PvdA and VVD are questionable, with the first time this was attempted, in the 1990s, lead to a whirlwind of discord and the creation of the Dutch right-wing populist movement as voters rejected the invisibility of the left-right line.
- Coalitions should feature election ‘winners’. That is to say that as far as possible coalitions should feature parties that have gained seats rather than parties who have lost them. Parties who have gained seats are seen to have performed well, and therefore be deserving of coalition. A potential coalition of CDA, PvdA and GreenLeft in 2006 was immediately nixed by GL’s leader Femke Halsema as all three parties had lost seats, even though it would have held a majority.
- ‘Testimonial parties’ will not enter coalitions. Testimonial parties are a special breed of Dutch party. They are small, highly ideological and exist to represent a specific ideological viewpoint, rather than to take power. The ‘classic’ testimonial party is the Political Reformed Group (SGP), who, whatever the election, always wins 2 seats. The SGP is the representative of a particular branch of Orthodox Dutch Protestantism, which rejects things like television, or female suffrage. So strong are its Christian values that on Sundays it closes its website. Its voters are extremely loyal, and there is little crossover with other parties. Almost no one vacilliates between SGP and another party. The first step the SGP takes to expand its base will be its first! To join a coalition would be to water down their voice. There are SGP voters and there is everyone else. A similar party is the Party for Animals. Some parties begin as Testimonial parties and then become office-seeking over time, GreenLeft did this, and some parties blur the line between testimonial and office-seeking, the pre-eminent example being the Socialist Party.
- The concept of ‘face’ is key. If a coalition fails it is vital for a party to make it clear to its supporters that it tried the hardest it could to enter negotiations and to make them work, apportioning blame to other parties for a break-down in negotiations is key. The Socialists lost 10 seats in this election, something which is no doubt partially down to being seen as too quick to leave negotiations in 2006.
With these rules in mind Dutch coalition formation began in earnest on June 10th, the day after the elections. Immediately it became clear that there was no clear government. Classic options of VVD-CDA (55), PvdA-CDA (54), and PvdA-CDA-D66 (64) all fell well short of the 75 seat hurdle. However VVD-PVV-CDA (76) just passed the hurdle. A VVD informateur, Uri Rosenthal, was selected. Such a cabinet had several advantages and disadvantages from the three party’s views.
- The two biggest winners would have been represented.
- From the point of view of Geert Wilders a coalition with the CDA and VVD was the only way he was ever going to enter government as all the other parties had specifically ruled out working with the PVV during the election.
- From the point of view of the VVD a very large number of its voters have sympathy for Wilders, and the CDA. This coalition would also make it the median voice in many areas (the exception being economics).
- From the point of view of the CDA they had just suffered a horrendous electoral defeat. Tying themselves to the unpredictable and dangerous Wilders was therefore risky. It would also expose their left-flank quite extraordinarily as while some of the CDA’s supporters like Wilders, others find him extreme anti-Islamic rhetoric and offensive to their own cherished religious freedoms.
- On ecomomic policy the PVV had an oddball populist mix of left and right policies common amongst right-wing populists. For example the PVV supported keeping the pension age at 65, whereas all parties besides the Socialists supported raising it to 67. Even the trade unions had agreed to a rise to 66. This was largely incompatible with the VVD who had won the election campaigning on a programme of deficit reduction.
- Both the VVD and CDA have members and supporters who like multiculturalism. Some of these may defect to D66 whose mixture of centrist economics and multiculturalism is attractive to such voters. D66 has gained much political capital from opposition to the perceived racism of Wilders.
- A majority of 2 is a very small barrier to victory and the PVV and its members are unpredictable. Prior right-wing populist parties (EG the List Pim Fortuyn) have tended to implode in spectacular displays of infighting (and the LPF infamously took the first Balkenende cabinet with it). Wilders has attempted to stop this with a unique party structure. Dutch law says parties need two members, so the PVV has exactly 2: Geert Wilders and the Geert Wilders Foundation. Wilders has absolute control over his party, yet there are still unpredictable members, such as Hero Brinkman, who has caused a few headaches for the party in the past.
Despite the issues the VVD had to make a good show of being committed to this option or else it would face angering its right-wing voters. The CDA, however, was reticent to join coalition negotiations and in an unprecedented move refused to join the negotiations until the VVD and Wilders had worked out their issues. This allowed Wilders to blame the CDA for not being properly committed to the negotiations, and the negotiations broke down.
The next suggestion was a so-called Purple-Plus cabinet, featuring the three parties who had formed the Purple cabinets in the 1990s (VVD, PvdA, D66) and GreenLeft adding up to 81 seats.
- Three winners would have been represented, with only the PvdA having lost seats.
- A four party coalition would have been unwieldy, but not much more than the three party option above.
- The median position would have lain with D66 and GreenLeft.
- From a VVD point of view it would have been very exposed; a solitary centre-right party in coalition with three centre-left parties. In deference to this it is believed that the three centre-left parties were willing to cede a much larger degree of policy to the VVD than normal, and a loose coalition arrangement would have allowed governing parties to work with non-governing ones in many areas.
- The original Purple cabinet had occurred in a time of plenty and therefore a centrist third way economic policy was able to give way as the cabinet expanded civil rights, which was its real priority. Purple-plus would have had to govern in an economic downturn.
Nonetheless coalition negotiations broke down. During the coalition negotiations a rainbow coalition of the Purple Plus parties and the CDA was proposed but rejected by GreenLeft and D66 because their voice would have been so small. A forbidden coalition of the three main parties was also floated by rejected by the PvdA, finally the Socialist Party suggest a left-wing cabinet of PvdA, CDA, the Socialists and GreenLeft this was rejected by the PvdA as the only winner was GreenLeft but it is unlikely the Socialists and CDA would have been able to work together anyway, and it is likely that the Socialists leadership was mostly trying to appease its supporters.
Finally then the PVV proposed a situation whereby the VVD and CDA had a minority government and where the PVV provided confidence and supply. Negotiations began anew with the CDA repeatedly showing disconcertion over the negotiations. At one point a CDA negotiator, Ab Klink, even quit being a MP in objection. Nonetheless the negotiations continued on despite continued walkouts and outrage from CDA members and supporters. In the end a coalition agreement was reached, but it was a controversial one to say the least. A CDA special conference backed the coalition agreement but almost a third of activists voted against. The coalition passed its second test when all its MPs voted for it, despite the concerns of two CDA MPs.
Where does the future lie for the Dutch coalition? A coalition has not survived a four year parliamentary term since the first term of Purple governance from 1994-8. The PVV is unpredictable, and the VVD has demonstrated a tendency for small splits of late. The two ‘maverick’ CDA MPs are also a concern. It seems to be a case of when, not if, the government collapses, but when that will be is impossible to know. In addition to the problems already mentioned the new government is the first without a majority in the Dutch Senate (PVV has no seats in the Senate). The Senate is weak, but questions must be asked what effect this will have on legislation as several opposition parties have signalled a determination to fight the government every step of the way. From the POV of Wilders things could not be better; he has influence on Dutch policy formation but is not in government and is therefore not accountable for it. He can continue to be outspoken and criticise the government. He has some of the benefits of opposition and some of the benefits of government.
Yet the cabinet perhaps represents a historic turning point in Dutch coalition formation. Dutch elections are providing increasingly inconclusive results; minority cabinets and loose flexible coalition agreements may have to become the norm for the sake of stability. Whatever else one can say about Dutch politics however it provides fascinating insight into the process of coalition formation.