Dutch Opposition Unlikely to Back Coalition in Senate

Without opposition support, Prime Minister Mark Rutte would be unable to pass legislation.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte listens to questions from lawmakers in parliament in The Hague, September 22, 2011
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte listens to questions from lawmakers in parliament in The Hague, September 22, 2011 (RIjksoverheid/Evert-Jan Daniels)

Dutch opposition parties seemed unlikely to support Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s spending plans after a feisty debate in parliament on Wednesday. His government has a comfortable majority in the lower chamber, which was elected late last year, but needs support from other parties in the Senate where it is seven votes short of a majority.

During the first day of parliamentary debate about the coalition’s budget plans, which were read out last week by the Netherlands’ king Willem-Alexander, Labor Party leader Diederik Samsom virtually ruled out tax relief, a key condition for the Christian Democrats, as well as deeper labor market reforms, championed by the liberal Democrats. The two centrist parties have sixteen seats between them in the upper chamber.

Samsom’s refusals prompted the Christian Democrat leader Sybrand van Haersma Buma, who had signaled a willingness in recent days to back some of the coalition’s measures, to storm off, saying, “Go figure it out!”

Labor, which formed a government with Rutte’s liberals in November, is reluctant to consider deeper labor reforms that could derail a “social accord” that was reached with employers and trade unions in April. The agreement postpones major reforms, including shifting financing of unemployment compensation to companies and making it easier to firms to lay off workers, until 2016 or 2020.

The party also insists on higher taxes to achieve income redistribution — a policy that has dismayed many liberal voters who, polls show, would rather vote for the Christian Democrats or Geert Wilders’ nationalist Freedom Party in the next election.

Wilders, who could give the government a Senate majority on his own, rejected any accommodation with the ruling parties, saying, “The Netherlands have had enough of this demolition cabinet.” He introduced a nonconfidence motion that was only supported by the far-left Socialists.

Sensing discontent among rightwingers, Halbe Zijlstra, the liberal leader, said he was prepared to do a deal with the opposition, provided his policy goals — “to prepare the Netherlands for a future in which the government doesn’t make more debts but lowers taxes” — could still be reached. Yet his own prime minister is raising taxes while failing to keep the deficit under 3 percent of economic output, the European treaty limit the Dutch used to defend vigorously.

Finance minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem admitted earlier in the day that the government’s tax plans could result in an effective income tax rate of almost 60 percent for incomes over €70,000. The highest marginal rate is 52 percent but a surtax on incomes over €150,000 is levied this year and next while tax exemptions for high incomes are phased out.