It’s party politics time - 20-06-2012
On September 12, the Dutch will go to the polls to elect a new parliament. That is the easy bit. The complications stem from the electoral system, demands from Brussels and the political horse-trading that follows once the votes have been counted, writes Robin Pascoe.
To people from countries where election results are clear cut, the Dutch system – involving numerous parties and complicated coalitions – can seem unfathomable.
Perhaps even more so now a minority coalition which had an alliance with a third party has made a new agreement with three other parties to introduce policies which could disappear in a puff of smoke come the September vote results.
To try and untangle this complicated series of events, let us start at the beginning.
After the June 2010 general election, the Netherlands had a minority coalition government made up of the VVD Liberals and Christian Democrats. These parties reached an agreement with Geert Wilders’ PVV to guarantee a majority in parliament on economic issues in return for tougher immigration rules.
But that alliance collapsed at the end of April 2012 because of differences over the austerity measures needed to get the country out of the economic crisis. Prime minister Mark Rutte decided it was necessary to start with a new coalition and called a general election.
So, on September 12, Dutch nationals aged 18 and over will vote to choose 150 members of the lower house of parliament, or Tweede Kamer. Until that time, the Netherlands will be run by a caretaker administration which minds the shop but does not take controversial decisions.
This forced the minority coalition to look elsewhere for support. Three minor parties stepped in to fill the breach – the Liberal party D66, the green party GroenLinks and minor Christian party ChristenUnie.
Together, the five-party coalition put together a speedy €16bn austerity package, including a rise in the state pension age, an increase in value-added tax to 21%, higher healthcare fees and changes to tax relief on mortgages.
So far so good. That package will form the basis of the government’s 2013 spending plans and has been welcomed in Brussels for showing how committed the Netherlands is to bringing its budget deficit back below the 3% Eurozone limit.
But the timing is unfortunate to say the least. The formal budget will be presented to parliament on September 18, just six days after the general election – so it will be up to a new group of MPs to decide which of these austerity measures should actually be introduced.
This means, therefore, that the election will be partly a referendum on the austerity package. Parties that did not support the five-party alliance proposals, such as Labour, the Socialists and the PVV, have got their hands free to fight the election campaign on their own terms. They don’t have to defend higher health charges or other unpopular measures to the voters.
The others, however, go into the campaign having agreed to policies that will cut spending power by an average 2% - which may well put them at a disadvantage.
Prime minister Rutte says his strategy for the election campaign will focus on explaining the need to bring the Netherlands out of the crisis as a stronger economy. The others are likely to adopt the same approach.
Opposition parties, however, can come up with their own packages. Labour’s leader Diederick Samsom is not in favour of the quicker rise in the state pension age. Both he and Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer don’t think the Netherlands should meet the 3% budget deficit deadline next year either.
And Wilders has already made it very clear he considers the election campaign to be a referendum on Europe. The PVV is 'against Europe, against the 3% and against the euro,’ Wilders said after the coalition alliance collapsed.
After the votes have been counted, the process of forming a new coalition will begin. And winning a large number of seats is no guarantee a party will become part of government.
At the last election, Labour was just one seat behind the VVD but kept out of government. This year, the Socialists are challenging for the top spot.
The Dutch political situation has become highly fragmented in recent years, and coalitions have become increasingly unstable. None of the past three government coalitions has lasted the full four-year period, prompting former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali to liken the Dutch political situation to that of Italy.
In the meantime, the legacy of the VVD, CDA and PVV alliance is likely to be the lifting of the ban on smoking in small cafes and bars and a 130 kph speed limit on some roads.
Between now and the election, anything pending legislation which is considered controversial has been put on ice. This means, for example, the much-derided plan to employ 500 animal cops has been dropped and proposals to restrict dual nationality are also on the scrap heap.
And it remains unclear how many of the austerity measures worked out by the ‘gang of five’ will appear in the election manifestos that are now feverishly being worked on ahead of the post-summer campaign.
We’ll have to wait a few more weeks at least to find out.
Robin Pascoe is the editor of DutchNews.nl. This article was first published in the Xpat Journal
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