Dutch elections: will Geert Wilders be the new prime minister?
This is an updated version of our February 10 publication.
On March 15th the Netherlands will elect a new Tweede Kamer (lower house), and by extension a new government. Echoing the British ‘Leave’ in the EU-referendum and the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, the latest opinion polls show a rise of populism in the Netherlands as well. What are the odds of Geert Wilders and his eurosceptic PVV forming part of the new government?
We have identified three scenarios. In the most likely scenario, the PVV wins the elections, but fails to form a government. In the second scenario, the VVD wins the elections and forms a government. In the least likely scenario, the PVV wins and manages to form a government.
Scenario 1: PVV narrowly beats VVD, but VVD forms a government
The Freedom Party (PVV) narrowly beats the Liberal Party (VVD) in the elections, but fails to form a coalition because of an effective cordon sanitaire set up by most other parties. VVD’s Mark Rutte manages to form a five-party ‘rainbow coalition’.
Assuming the Freedom Party (PVV) retains its lead in the polls and actually wins the elections, it’s up to a delegate from that party to explore the possibilities of a PVV-led coalition government (see box 1 for details on the formation process). Provided Geert Wilders wants to govern, rather than lead the opposition, this delegate will quickly return empty handed: no major political parties are willing to work with Geert Wilders’ PVV.
Most parties have set up a cordon sanitaire around the PVV (see table 1), because of its anti-immigration stance and for having a reputation of being a fickle political partner. Only the Reformed Party (SGP) isn’t partaking in the cordon sanitaire, while the Elderly Party (50PLUS) is willing to negotiate with the PVV if it withdraws its proposed immigration ban and supports the Elderly Party’s wish to lower the retirement age.
Note: red signals that the leader of the party in the left-most column has explicitly ruled out working with the party in the upper row, orange signals that the party has left some room for cooperation. Note that the Elderly Party (50PLUS) has announced that they would only take part in a new coalition if the retirement age will be reduced to 65 years.
With all avenues leading to a governing coalition blocked, the PVV cedes the formation process to the VVD and remains in opposition. Current PM and leader of the VVD Mark Rutte then sets about forming his third government. Since this coalition has to include at least five parties to get a majority vote in both lower and upper house, it will most likely lead to a lengthy formation process.
Table 2 shows a hypothetical five-party coalition, others can be imagined. Given the current polls some five fairly similar coalitions can be put together that have a majority in lower and upper house, and exclude PVV. Five-party coalitions are not unprecedented: Social Democrat (PvdA) Joop den Uyl led a five-party cabinet between 1973 and 1977.
Scenario 2: VVD beats PVV, and VVD forms a government
The Liberal Party (VVD) wins the elections, and VVD’s Mark Rutte manages to form a five-party ‘rainbow coalition’.
While the PVV is leading in the polls, the difference with the VVD is shrinking (figure 2). The cordon sanitaire around Geert Wilders seems to persuade some voters that he will not be able to make good on his election promises and that a vote for him would be a lost vote. In addition, some voters that normally wouldn’t vote VVD, now consider that party the lesser of two evils. Both can tip the balance in favour of Mark Rutte.
Should this happen, the VVD immediately gets the initiative to form the new government. The likely outcome of the formation process is the same as in Scenario 1.
Scenario 3: PVV comfortably beats VVD and forms a government
The Freedom Party (PVV) comfortably beats the Liberal Party (VVD) and manages to form a coalition, as the cordon sanitaire fails. Geert Wilders is able to form a populist coalition.
As was made abundantly clear during the EU-referendum in Britain and the presidential elections in the United States, polls aren’t always right on the money. The latest polls don’t show a majority for a populist coalition, but polls may misrepresent current voter sentiment, or sentiment might change as the election race intensifies.
Table 3 shows such a hypothetical populist coalition, that also includes VVD. That party has currently ruled out working with the PVV, but at the prospect of leading an important ministry, politicians might change their mind. They’re politicians, after all. Regardless of the election outcome such a coalition would still not have a majority in upper house, as that is not up for election until May of 2019.
Why such a coalition might still take form, despite not having a majority in the upper house? The current governing coalition only has 28 percent of seats in the upper house, and has had to compromise and make deals with other parties to get part of its policy agenda passed. While certainly not ideal, a future coalition may try to get some of the smaller issues on their agenda passed, while waiting for the upper house elections in 2019 in hopes of being able to implement large changes with a new upper house.
It’s important to point out that it is not set in stone that any future coalition will govern for a full four-year term (see box 2). Similarly, it’s difficult to assess exact policy changes in both scenarios, given that many parties are involved, which implies heavy bargaining and compromising. Nonetheless, in a subsequent publication we will try to find common grounds between the parties in these hypothetical coalitions to find out what their agenda could look like after March 15th.
Box 1: How is a coalition formed?
Because no political party has ever won more than 50 percent of votes in lower house elections, the lower house (previously the King or Queen) appoints a special delegate, informateur, after the elections to take the lead in researching possible coalitions. This role is generally filled by a representative of the party that won the elections. In 2012, for example, a senior from the Liberal Party (VVD) was appointed informateur. This delegate may later be temporarily joined by seniors from other political parties that could be coalition partners.
After this process, it’s up to another delegate – this time a formateur – to broker the final coalition agreement. This formateur usually becomes the new prime minister. Indeed, the last formateur was current PM Mark Rutte. In total, the formation process can take quite a while: 74 days on average. After the 1977 elections it took a whopping 208 days before a deal was finally brokered. Interestingly enough, after it became clear that a viable coalition couldn’t be formed including the 1977 election winner, the Social Democrats (PvdA), the formation process was handed to the Christian Democrats (CDA) who formed a government without PvdA.
Box 2: How long do governments govern?
While coalitions get a mandate to govern four years, reaching that four-year mark seems exception rather than rule in the Netherlands: out of the 22 elected coalitions since 1945, only nine have survived their term without breaking up. As a result, Dutch coalitions rule on average for just 2.5 years.
And those 2.5 years are not all spent productively: since the 1980s, outgoing coalitions have spent on average almost half a year of those 2.5 years in parliament waiting for new elections, the formation process and a new coalition to be installed. During this waiting period, the outgoing coalition generally only deals with smaller, non-controversial issues. It doesn’t try to tackle large issues, as that’s not only considered to be ungracious, but in the case of a coalition that broke up impractical, as it doesn’t have the majority vote.
 In 2012, Geert Wilders unexpectedly dropped support for the then governing minority coalition of VVD and CDA, leading to new elections
 This is not unprecedented: in 1971, 1977 and 1982 the Social Democrats (PvdA) garnered the most votes in the elections yet ended up in the opposition.