Back in the good old days, the Netherlands used to be a model case of a working multi-party system where – due to the social segmentation – the political elites were able to construct institutions for political and cultural cohabitation. It was easy to predict that the Dutch Prime Minister would come from one of the three major confessional parties – usually the Catholic KVP as the Catholics actually were the largest single religious group1 – in shifting coalitions with the Social Democratic PvdA or the liberal VVD.
But the stable world of the 1950s and 1960s is long gone and since at least the early 1990s the Netherlands have been a bit of a political experiment. In 1994 Social Democrat Win Kok formed the first government without any confessional party (the “purple” coalitions between PvdA, VVD and social-liberal D66) and while Kok was the talk of the town (and the OECD) in the late 1990s, his political career came to a dramatic end in the 2002 general election which coincided with the publication of a report about the role played by Dutch UN troops in the 1995 Srebenica massacre. By then the purple coalition was effectively dead and the CDA and – ominously – the anti-immigration Lijst Pim Fortuyn were the big winners of the election. To add to the mess, Fortuyn was murdered just before the election – not by an Islamist militant as you might have expected but by an animal rights activist.
The new CDA leader Jan Peter Balkenende showed himself as a master of brinkmanship, seized the initiative and entered a coalition with VVD and LPF. Sure, the coalition came apart even faster than it had been formed (which may not say too much in the case of Dutch government formations) but after a snap (again in Dutch terms) election in 2003, Balkenende was able to continue in office, first with the D66 and later with the PvdA as the third partner, but his cabinets had a nasty habit of breaking up in mid-term.2 In 2006, D66 left following a controversy about immigration minister Rita Verdonk’s handling of the Ayaan Hirsi Ali case (which again was linked to the second political murder in the Netherlands in the 2000s – that of director Theo van Gogh).
Finally, Balkenende’s latest cabinet was brought down by disagreements over Dutch participation in the Afghanistan mission. Afghanistan, curiously, did not play a role in the election campaign – perhaps because PvdA leader Wouter Bos had thrown in the towel following the break-up of the coalition and had been replaced by Job Cohen – and despite the presence of Geert “Mozart” Wilders and his anti-immigration PVV – immigration and integration issues were not particularly emphasised.
Still, the 2010 election somehow reminds of the 2002 election: The major governing party (2002: PvdA, 2010: CDA) suffered a massive defeat, a populist anti-immigration party (2002: LPF, 2010: PVV) noted a massive win and the rest of the party system has been blown to smithereens. That Balkenende announced his resignation from active politics on the night of the election came a no surprise, but VVD leader Mark Rutte as the most likely next prime minister is facing the mother of all government formation crises.
Theoretically, a VVD-PVV-CDA coalition would command a majority in the Second Chamber but as PVV has not participated in regional elections, such a coalition would be short of a majority in the First Chamber. This leaves us with a number of complicated four- or five-party coalitions ranging from the liberal VVD to the socialist GL and SP.3 Despite Rutte’s call for fast negotiations, the likely prospect is that of the Netherlands being without a regular government for most of 2010.
PS: The executive summary of Dutch party politics is here.
- In case I hear you scream “WHAT?!? Aren’t the Dutch protestants???”, then remember that the protestants were and are divided confessionally and organisationally [↩]
- Balkendende IV also included a small Christian party, the CU. [↩]
- A VVD-PvdA-SP coalition is theoretically possible but not particularly likely [↩]