One final televised debate with all major party leaders is the last big campaign event in the Netherlands. Although campaigning for some parties started as early as last Summer, Geert Wilders’ first appearance in a grown-up televised debate (he participated in a youth debate) is the night before the elections. Polling (Peilingwijzer, 13 March) indicates his PVV party (14%) might still finish second after Prime Minister Rutte’s VVD (17%), but challengers CDA (13%), D66 (12%) and GL (11%) are hot on his tail. Election day will see some final flyer campaigns and calls for the population to go out and vote, but effectively the campaign is done after tonight.

The ballot boxes close at 9pm Dutch time on Wednesday and the exit poll is published then, giving a first indication of what the result might be. The actual result will only become clear in the course of the evening and if it is a close result between parties, it could take us well into the night before a clear conclusion can be drawn. The official results are only published the week after the elections, ahead of the new Parliament taking its seat on 23 March.

So what happens next?

The Dutch turn to what they do so well; coalition formation. The average coalition formation since 1994 has taken 94 days, but we have to go back to 1972 to find a coalition of more than three parties. Then, the Cabinet of Den Uyl consisted of five parties and the formation took 163 days. The record for longest formation in the Netherlands was back in 1977 with 208 days and the fastest formation was back in 1948 when the formation took just 31 days.

The formation this time around looks daunting; PVV has been ruled out by effectively all parties who stand a chance of being part of the next coalition. Leaving out PVV, polling suggests that there are three options for a four-party coalition; all have the basis of VVD (conservative liberals) and CDA (Christian Democrats), with two out of three of D66 (progress liberals), GL (Greens) or SP (Socialist Party).  However, the SP has gone on record to state that they will not enter a coalition with the VVD, making the combination of VVD, CDA, D66 and GL the only feasible four-party coalition if the current polling is correct.

VVD, CDA and D66 have formed a coalition before in 2003 when the CDA was the largest party. This time as well, the three parties are likely to be able to find common ground relatively easily. However, GL has never governed before. The party was founded in 1990 after four parties merged, including the Dutch Communist Party. Although new party leader Jesse Klaver has been vocal in his ambition to become Prime Minister (unlikely) and make GL a coalition party, there is significant distance between GL on the one side and VVD, CDA and D66 on the other.

There are effectively three variables in Dutch coalition formations: policy, departments and positions. Policy: what do the coalition parties agree in a coalition agreement. Departments: which party gets which ministerial department (departments are sometime merged, split or newly created). Positions: who becomes Prime Minister, who becomes Deputy Prime Minister and how many ministers and deputy ministers does each party get.

Despite Klaver’s desire to govern, he would likely need to be given a bigger share in each of the three variables than the size of his party would suggest for him to join the coalition. The ideological difference with the other parties is too big and the Dutch voters have a history of punishing the most junior coalition partner.

A coalition between VVD, CDA, D66 and GL would however likely result in a pro-European coalition that would have a liberal position on economic and financial affairs, while simultaneously being relatively welcoming to migrants and strict on climate policy. This coalition would likely aim to keep a strong bond with the UK and guard business interests in the Brexit process.

Other that the four-party coalition, what can be done?

Alternatively, there are many five and six party options for coalitions. These can be formed to be centre-right, centre-left or full-left. The options are too abundant to cover and indicative of the difficulty party leaders will have in finding a coalition. If each party prefers a different coalition, there is a long way to go before a workable majority government can be formed.

A minority government is a possibility as well, where one or more parties form a government/coalition that can count on the backing of enough parties to survive a confidence vote in parliament. The most recent minority government resulted in a bad experience for VVD and CDA; the two parties formed a coalition, backed by Wilders’ PVV. However, when tough decisions on budget had to be made, the three parties couldn’t agree and new elections had to be called in the middle of the economic crisis (2012).

Finally, there is an option that seems unthinkable for the Dutch – new elections. Although the Dutch are very well versed in creating compromises, the polls have never looked like this before. In 2010 the VVD set the record for being the smallest largest party in the history of the country by topping the results with just 31 seats. Now it looks like the biggest party could have even less than 30 seats out of the 150 seats in Parliament. A new election seems undesirable for most centre parties, as the flanks of the political spectrum don’t seem to have capitalised on the populist momentum in other countries. However, the option is a possibility and cannot be ignored.

So what does this mean for the EU and Brexit?

For the duration of the formation until the next government is formed, the current cabinet will remain in office but will not have a mandate to make big decisions. They are a caretaker government and we can therefore expect relatively muted language from Rutte around the triggering of Article 50 and the future of Europe debates.

It is too early to tell what the policy of the next Dutch government will be, but the polling does indicate that the Netherlands is not about to be the next domino to fall in a populist surge in the West.


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