A dummy’s guide to the Dutch coalition government 

Wilders under a sign: "with friends you'll never forget" Photo: S Boztas

In case you haven’t done your citizenship exams, don’t speak B1 level Dutch and haven’t been in the country for 10 years (all pertinent this week) Dutch News would like to introduce you to the key points, players and problems.

On Thursday morning, four parties announced that they have agreed to form a new right-wing, coalition government. For the first time, this contains controversial politician Geert Wilders, whose Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) – Party for Freedom – is the largest party in parliament.

What is a Dutch coalition government actually?

The Dutch system has two levels, a parliament and a senate. Confusingly, in Dutch, they are called the second chamber (Tweede Kamer), parliament, and first chamber (Eerste Kamer). The second chamber, parliament, takes the larger role in law making.

There was a parliamentary general election last November. After a last-minute swing, Geert Wilders surprised everyone in the Netherlands – including himself – by winning 37 of the 150 available seats. This result, a quarter of parliament, is the largest score ever for a party generally described as far right.

In order to run a government, parties need to form a parliamentary coalition with at least 76 seats. The largest party takes the lead in having the first try. This week’s accord was the result of six months of negotiation.

Who are the parties in the coalition?

The four parties in the coalition are: the PVV, led by Geert Wilders. Wilders is the longest-serving MP in the Netherlands. He is known for his anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, populist rhetoric and has a criminal record for insulting Dutch Moroccan people. His name is pronounced “Geert Vilders” with a hard Dutch g.

Second-largest party is the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or the VVD. This is the party of departing prime minister Mark Rutte. The centre-right party is currently led by Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius and has 24 seats in parliament. The Turkish part of her name is pronounced: “Dil-un Yeah-shill-geuz” and Ze-ge-ri-us has a hard Dutch g.

The third party is the New Social Contract (Nieuw Sociaal Contract, NSC). This party won 20 seats and was started last year by popular former Christian Democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt, a veteran backbencher known for campaigning against injustice. Like the other partners, his name has that tricky g.

Last is the Boer-Burger Beweging (BBB) or Farmer-Citizen Movement, a right-wing agrarian party that is sceptical about environmental protection measures and won seven seats. Leader Caroline van der Plas (“Plus”), who is half Irish, has the simplest name.The PVV, NSC and BBB can all be characterised as parties of protest.

Protest? Isn’t the Netherlands rich and happy?

Although the Netherlands scores well on international comparisons for happiness, low apparent corruption and relatively small differences between rich and poor, the country is going through a difficult period.

Corona lockdowns were very unpopular and trust in government has been damaged by two huge, expensive scandals. For years, lucrative gas extraction in Groningen province continued although the earthquakes it caused made thousands of homes unsafe.

In a childcare benefits scandal, the tax and benefits office falsely accused more than 30,000 families of fraud, and ruined many by forcing them to pay back every cent of benefits. Ethnic minorities and dual nationals were disproportionately affected and the compensation costs are huge.

Inflation and energy prices hit extraordinary levels last year.  There are concerns about the numbers of Dutch people in poverty and in debt. The country has a housing and an asylum shelter crisis.

Why is this coalition unusual?

It has been a bumpy formation process and analysts do not believe this coalition shows the signs of a strong government. The NSC, which campaigned for better governance, first said it would not support the PVV because of Wilders’ anti-Islam policies that breach freedom of religion under the Dutch constitution. The VVD also said initially it would not support a Wilders government. So they have agreed an experimental form instead.

Wilders will not be prime minister, normally the role of the head of the largest party, and all party leaders will sit in the parliament. The PM will be appointed and 50% of the cabinet will come from outside experts. The actual government – ministers and junior ministers – will take shape in the weeks to come. It is also worth noting the new coalition does not have a majority in the senate, which needs to approve all draft legislation.

Three sandwiches and a baker: the coalition

The 26-page coalition accord called “hope, guts and pride” focuses on anti-asylum proposals, government reforms, some lower taxes and rowing back on environmental protections. It continues current government policies such as house building. Observers pointed out there is no dominant vision. Each party leader presented their view of the accord alone on stage and it is clear which parts they contributed.

Many of the proposals need European Union approval, it is unclear if the finances really add up and the key Dutch word it will teach you is boterham (sandwich, literally, butter-ham) which is mentioned three times throughout the document. The pro-animal farming BBB cannot stress enough the need for small businesses like farmers to be able to earn a crust in future, calling to change the measures for nitrogen-based pollution. The local baker also gets a mention on page 13.

Will it last?

Wilders said a new wind is blowing in the Netherlands and he is taking his place in the sun. Opposition MPs said it’s mostly wishful thinking and he is building castles on the sand. (Which, thanks to climate change, is rapidly shifting).

Wilders wants to broadcast a message of unfriendliness across the world so asylum seekers don’t think the Netherlands is a soft touch. Economists say there’s a skills and personnel shortage, the population is ageing and Dutch universities aren’t producing enough local talent. Omtzigt struggles to look Wilders in the eye. Will the coalition last? Long enough to eat a few of those sandwiches, maybe.

I’m foreign. So what does all this mean to me?

Much depends how integrated you are in the Netherlands, or how integrated you intend to be. If you’ve got kids, make sure they are not slow students at university. If you have solar panels, you’re going to lose your tax break. And museum, theatre and concert tickets will go up in price… that’s if all the measures the coalition wants to bring in actually become law. If they do, London would certainly welcome its smart, economically-valuable Brexitgees back! But much remains to be seen.

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