A fragile coalition

By Bart van Bruggen
1 November 2017
Netherlands Netherlands
The Dutch left will need to work together in opposition to push progressive priorities against a vulnerable government
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When Prime Minister Mark Rutte presented his cabinet on 26 October, negotiations to form his third government had lasted 224 days – a new record in Dutch political history.

The drawn out talks partly reflect the fragmented state of the Dutch political landscape, in which parties with a naturally broad base no longer seem to exist. Never before has the second largest party in parliament had as few seats (20) as Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV), and only once before has the largest party had fewer seats than the 33 currently held by Rutte’s free-market liberal party, the VVD.

The caution with which the leaders of the four prospective governing parties operated during the talks may also somewhat be explained as a reaction against the way the previous cabinet was formed in 2012. That year, the Dutch Labour party (PvdA) and the VVD went head-to-head in the polls on platforms that more or less ruled out working with the other. But after the VVD pipped Labour at the post to emerge as the largest party on polling day, both parties swiftly and enthusiastically came to an agreement to govern together, eventually resulting in Labour’s annihilation in March’s general election.

The result this time? A coalition with the smallest possible majority in both chambers of parliament: 76 of 150 seats in the house of representatives, 38 of 75 in the senate. The centre-right cabinet now consists of the VVD, the Christian Democrats (CDA), the socially liberal D66 and the far more conservative Christian Union, who sit in the same group as the British Tories in the European parliament. This very slim majority makes the government extremely vulnerable to opposition from within, giving every single coalition MP the power to obstruct decision-making.

Still, the government can expect even fiercer opposition from outside, on both the left and right. Geert Wilders now faces competition for the far right vote from the Forum for Democracy (FvD) – less outspokenly racist than his Freedom Party, but with a leader who admires Trump and strong backing among the Dutch alt-right. The Forum runs on a platform of attacking what they see as a ‘party cartel’ of mainstream politicians and campaigns for government through binding referenda – including one on Dutch EU membership.

The three major parties to the left of the government now hold fewer seats put together than Labour did alone before the election. They are unlikely to support the new cabinet’s agenda of cutting taxes on income and capital while raising VAT. The shambolic state of the Dutch left is only thinly veiled by the historic result achieved by the Greens, whose charismatic leader, Jesse Klaver, ran a successful Trudeau-style campaign.

Though the Greens are upbeat following their strong election performance, it seems unlikely their ceiling is much higher than their current 14 parliamentary seats. Meanwhile, the PvdA are in danger of capitulating to infighting, following an election that will take a great deal of work for the Labour brand to recover.

The next few years provide an opportunity for the left to regroup and work together in united opposition against the rightwing coalition. With each party facing its own internal difficulties, closer collaboration will be crucial if the left is to make positive strides on the issues that matter to us all, like improving job security, increasing levels of affordable housing and expanding access to education.

The first big test for whether the left is able to get its act together will be the municipal elections in March, when 333 of the country’s 388 municipalities go to the polls, including all major Dutch cities. Local leaders in Amsterdam have set a good example by issuing shared pledges on issues like housing, healthcare and education. So these local votes will be key, not only to test whether Labour’s opposition strategy is engaging the public, but also – if leftwing leaders in other municipalities follow Amsterdam’s lead – the campaign could help lay a good foundation for stronger co-operation and effective opposition going forward.


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