By Simon Otjes (Documentation Centre Dutch Political Parties University of Groningen)

For the first time in almost two decades a Dutch cabinet lasted its entire term. Despite the fact that Liberal-Labour coalition lacked a majority in the Senate, it was able to implement an impressive policy agenda oriented at welfare state reform without a cabinet crisis that necessitated new elections. The elections to the lower house of the Dutch parliament of March 15, 2017 saw heavy losses for the government parties and victories for most other parties. The Dutch political landscape has now flattened. Instead of two large parties and a lot of small ones, there are six mid-sized parties.

Winners & Losers
On election night almost every party declared itself the winner. The only party that did not declare itself a winner was the junior partner in the Rutte government, the Labour Party. The Labour Party lost 75% of its seats. In the last election it had 38 out of 150 seats, now it has only nine. It was the second largest party in the Dutch parliament and it now is the seventh largest party. The loss of the Labour Party had been long predicted in the polls. It was clear that the cooperation of the Labour Party with its right-wing Liberal Party in a cabinet that pursued heavy budget cuts and far-reaching welfare state reforms in a period of economic crisis would cost the social-democrats at the polls. Basically nothing the Labour Party did was able to revert this trend. In the fall of 2016 the party organized a referendum for the party leadership between the architect of deal with the Liberal Party, Diederik Samsom, who had led the party to an unexpected victory in the 2012 elections, and the vice-prime minister in the cabinet Rutte, Lodewijk Asscher, long considered one of the most talented social-democratic politicians. Asscher defeated Samsom, but the expected ‘Asscher-effect’ never materialized in the party’s support.

The governing Liberal Party of prime minister Rutte lost 20% of its 41 seats, leaving 33. Despite this, the party has clearly stayed ahead of the opposition and it seems likely that Rutte can will stay on as prime minister. The polls had led many to expect heavier losses. The party has pursued a right-wing course, both on economic matters, promising further cuts to the welfare state and lower taxes, and on cultural matters: in the final week before the election the Liberal Party was able to increase its support, an international diplomatic confrontation with the Turkish government appears to have benefited the Liberal Party. The Turkish minister of family affairs Fatma Kaya wanted to campaign in favour of the Turkish referendum on their constitutional reforms. The government did not want the Turkish government representatives to campaign in the Netherlands and declared the minister an unwanted alien and expelled her from the country. This led to civil unrest and protest from the Turkish government. This appears to have bolstered the support of the Liberal Party among more culturally conservative voters.

For a long time, the radical right-wing populist party Freedom Party led in the polls. The party had done well in the polls even since the large influx of Syrian refugees in the fall of 2015. Support was further boosted by the criminal conviction of party leader Geert Wilders for discriminatory statements concerning Dutch-Moroccans the fall of 2016. It allowed Wilders to say that the political elite wanted to suppress his truth-telling style of politics. During the campaign the support for the party slumped in particular after Wilders had refused to participate in two of the four televised debates and had limited his public appearances. Still the party increased its support by 33% (5 seats).
The Freedom suffered competition from a number of new smaller right-wing populist parties. Of these, only the Forum of Democracy led by Thierry Baudet, was able to win representation (two seats). Baudet had come to public attention as one of the driving forces petition drive for a referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement and the ‘no’-camp on the referendum that was held in the spring of the 2016. Baudet promised to dismantle the ‘party cartel’ of the established parties.

Two parties of the centre Christian-Democratic Appeal and the social-liberal Democrats 66 had been able to boost their support with about 50% (6 and 7 seats respectively, both ending up with 19 seats). The CDA had chosen a clear right-wing course oriented at cultural issues, ‘jumping’ in to the void the Freedom Party had created by not participating in the televised debates. The party for instance advocated reintroducing the draft and banning double nationalities.
Democrats 66 instead chose to campaign as a progressive party on cultural issues in particular EU integration and emphasized the constructive role the party had taken vis-à-vis the Liberal-Labour coalition when it had needed support for its proposals in the Senate.

At the left, two parties, the Socialist Party and the GreenLeft also claimed victory: the Socialist Party lost one of its fifteen seats, but had faced much larger losses in the polls. The SP sought to concentrate the debate on economic issues in the knowledge that party of its working class voter base would be attracted to the Freedom Party if the elections were to focus on cultural issues such as asylum seekers. The GreenLeft, which had performed particularly poorly in the 2012 elections, won ten seats, nearly quadrupling its support. The party profited from the unpopularity of the Labour Party, but also had a particularly strong pull factor: the charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver. His campaign heavily borrowed from the American playbook, organizing mass events (‘Meet-ups’), focusing on social media and direct contact with voters. The party chose a clear left-wing course, where before the party had moved to the centre on welfare state reform.

Other victors were smaller niche parties: the animal advocacy Party for the Animals was able to add three seats to its two seat parliamentary party by broadening the appeal of their party. It no longer focused exclusively on animal welfare but on global issues, in particular climate change. The pensioners’ party 50Plus doubled its seats. The party had stood much stronger in the polls, mobilizing older voters who were concerned with cuts to healthcare and the raising of the retirement age, but their campaign was fraught with organizational problems, in part due to the medical condition of its elderly staff and candidates. A final victor was the party DENK. This party was formed by two Dutch-Turkish MPs who had split from the Labour Party. Programmatically, the party advocates the opposite of the Freedom Party focusing on anti-Islamophobia, anti-racism and anti-discrimination, but it did coopt its adversarial campaign style. Polling among ethnic groups indicated that the party was particularly strong among Dutch-Turkish voters. To my knowledge this is the first ‘party of immigrants’ to win seats in a national election.

Despite polling higher, two parties retained their seat total of five and three seats, the ChristianUnion and the Political Reformed Party (SGP). Both these parties are supported by conservative Christian voters. The ChristianUnion veers slightly more to the left on environmental, social-economic and immigration issues, where the SGP veers more to the right on these. These parties together with D66 has supported the government on many ad hoc deals to ensure a majority in the Senate.

General Trends: Fractionalization & Polarization
The elections saw the second highest electoral volatility in Dutch electoral history: 25% of the seats changed hands. Only in the 2002 landslide election in the aftermath of the tempestuous rise and sudden death of Pim Fortuyn more than seats changed hands. As, discussed above, the governing Liberal-Labour coalition lost heavily. Unlike previous elections there was no clear winner from these swings, instead political landscape flattened: most the medium and smaller parties won seats while the two largest lost seats. The fractionalization of the Dutch Parliament increased by more than 40% (from 5.7 to 8.1). These are unprecedented levels of fractionalization in a country known as a ‘country of minorities’, which saw high levels of fractionalization.

The fractionalization coincides with a tendency towards polarization. For the first in Dutch political history the three main ‘system parties’ or their predecessors do not have a majority in parliament. In 1989 the Christian-Democratic Appeal, the Liberal Party and the Labour Party together had more than 80% of the seats in parliament. Now they just have 40%. The fact that voters have moved away from these system parties towards parties further to the left and the right, and the fact that Liberal Party has pursued a clear right-wing course in the last seven years, had increased the level of polarization in Dutch Parliament.

A Clear Path Towards a New Government
The increased fractionalization and polarization might lead one to conclude that the government formation will be difficult. The path towards a new government however is quite clear: the Liberal Party will take the initiative in the formation talks. Their preferred partners are the social-liberal D66 and the Christian Democratic Appeal. These parties nearly have a majority in the lower house (71 out of 150 seats). With either the ChristianUnion, the GreenLeft or the Labour Party, the coalition could get a majority in both the lower house of parliament and the Senate. The Labour Party is unlikely to join them because of its heavy losses. The programmatic differences between the GreenLeft and the Liberal Party and the Christian Democratic Appeal on issues such as immigration, the environment and redistribution are stark. The ChristianUnion is more centrist on these issues and has already developed strong bonds with D66 and the Liberal Party because of the support relationship the party had with the Labour-Liberal Party government. While coalition talks may last long (because they always last long in the Netherlands), one of these three options, and in particular the last, seems a likely result.

Note about the author: During the election campaign the author took a temporary leave of absence to work on the campaign of the GreenLeft as an election researcher.

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