In this blog, Thea Hilhorst looks at the potential outcomes following the Dutch general election last week. Whilst the PVV party, led by Geert Wilders, won the largest proportion of votes, this is just the beginning of the government-forming process. The Dutch system requires building governing coalitions, and the largest party does not always form the next government. So, what is the PVV? How might they govern? And will Geert Wilders become Prime Minister?
Last Wednesday, 22 November, the PVV (Party for Freedom) led by Geert Wilders won the most votes in the national elections in the Netherlands. But the national elections to elect members of the Lower House of parliament in The Netherlands is just the beginning of the government-forming process.
The Netherlands has a system of parliamentary elections, unlike other countries that have presidential elections. In those countries, the two winners of a first round of elections may need to contend in a second round until one of the presidential candidates obtains a majority vote. In a parliamentary system, on the other hand, elections are about allocating parliamentary seats to political parties. The Netherlands has 150 parliamentary seats, and a party or coalition needs 76 seats to form a government, and so select a Prime Minister. The PVV came out of the elections as the largest party with 37 seats. As there are 150 seats in total, this means that slightly less than 25% of the electorate voted for PVV (and 75% did not).The second place in the elections came to the combination of the Green Left and Socialist Party, that ran together in these elections for 25 seats, followed by 24 seats for the currently largest party VVD and 20 seats for the new party of New Social Contract.
Another notable difference between a presidential and a parliamentary system is the different power invested in the leader of the government. While a President usually has executive power, a Prime Minister is technically speaking just the chairperson of the government – although far more powerful in practice than this job description would imply.
What is the PVV? And what did they win?
The Party for Freedom is mainly known for its leader: Geert Wilders, who has started PVV in 2005, having previously been a politician for the VVD party (of Mark Rutte, current Dutch PM). As a party it stands out, because there is no membership and hence it is often referred to as a ‘one-man show’. The PVV can be seen as a right-wing populist party. It rides strongly on anti-immigrant sentiments and islamophobia, and it denies the relevance of climate policies. Its political programme for the election proposes to end immigration, development cooperation and involvement in climate action. Geert Wilders also announced he wants to spend “not a single Euro” on gender equality, and he is a proclaimed fan of NEXIT (Netherlands leaving the EU). Socio-economically the PVV profiles itself as the champion of marginalized people, promising to lower costs for health insurance, lower the retirement age and increase minimum wages, although it is not clear how proposed measures will be financed.
The PVV has never previously been part of the Dutch government, but in 2010 they did provide support to the first government formed by Mark Rutte. This arrangement, sometimes known as a ‘confidence and supply’ formation meant that whilst the PVV did not provide any Ministers, they did support the government during votes in the Upper and Lower chambers of the Dutch parliament. In any case, the PVV pulled out of this arrangement in 2012 and collapsed the government, leading to fresh elections.
The Dutch government is almost always a coalition, and the process can take months
In the Dutch parliamentary system, coalitions need to be formed of different parties to reach a majority of seats in the parliament. Ruling by a single party could only happen when a political party won more than 75 seats, which has never happened in Dutch history. This means that PVV cannot form a government unless it can form a coalition with at least two more parties. The RTL News service has made a handy ‘coalition forming tool’– with so many political parties having been elected, coalitions can involve up to 5 parties in partnership. The formation of a coalition is a long-term process. The last government of the Netherlands consisted of 4 different parties and only reached an agreement after 271 days. It is usual that the largest party can initiate the coalition building process, and that this party will take the lead in the government and provide the Prime Minister. This is not always the case, in fact there have been 11 elections in the 20th century where the leader of the largest party did not become Prime Minister, the most recent in 1986.
Moreover, it is even possible that the winner is not going to be part of the new government at all. Whilst the largest party is given the first chance to form a coalition, there have been a few historical precedents where coalition negotiations failed, and new negotiations started up with other parties. This can have the consequence that the party with the largest number of seats is shut out of the government. This happened three times in the last century, and co-incidentally always in cases where the Labour (PvdA) party won the elections. In 1982, the party obtained 52 seats, more than one third of the votes, and was nonetheless side-lined in the formation of the government.
What happens next?
Formation processes are very unpredictable. The programmes of PVV and any likely coalition partners (other parties on the right side of the political landscape) have some issues in common but are also hugely different on others. An additional complications is that the VVD –the largest party for the last 12 years – now has a new leader who has initially ruled out working with the PVV. The new leader, Dilan Yeşilgöz, remarkably has a refugee background herself yet opposes liberal asylum practices. The second likely coalition partner for the PVV would be New Social Contract (NSC), that is an entirely new Party formed by the popular parliamentarian Pieter Omtzigt, who won 20 seats at the first election it joined. The combination of a new leader of the VVD and an entirely new party sitting at the negotiation table with Geert Wilders, who has been a solo player since he started the PVV, makes the process markedly unpredictable.
The three parties may find it easy to form a right-wing government in no time, or they may clash over their differences and leave an open arena for other parties to try to form a coalition. Only time will tell.
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About the author:
Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.
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