Everything You Need to Know About the Elections in the Netherlands

A guide to the Dutch electoral system, the parties, their leaders and the most important issues.

Flag of the Netherlands
Flag of the Netherlands (Pixabay/Ben Kerckx)

Parliamentary elections will be held in the Netherlands on March 15. Here is everything you need to know about them.

Bottom lines

  • Geert Wilders’ nationalist Freedom Party could become the single largest, but he is unlikely to join, much less lead, a government.
  • Prime Minister Mark Rutte is more likely to stay in power at the head of a broad coalition of parties close to the center.
  • Center-right parties are keen to team up in order to enact labor and tax reforms that Rutte’s current coalition partner, Labor, has blocked.
  • Due to the nature of Dutch coalition politics, sweeping changes, like a renationalization of health care or a Dutch exit from the European Union, are unlikely.

The Dutch electoral system

Civil servants listen to a debate in the Dutch parliament in The Hague, December 6, 2016
Civil servants listen to a debate in the Dutch parliament in The Hague, December 6, 2016 (SZW/Martijn Beekman)

There are 150 seats in the lower house of the Dutch parliament, which initiates all legislation. Its members are directly and proportionately elected to four-year terms. There is no electoral threshold, hence the proliferation of political parties.

Turnout is usually between 75 and 80 percent. In the last election in 2012, just under 9.5 million valid votes were cast, meaning around 63,000 votes were needed to win a seat in parliament. 21 parties competed; ten qualified for seats. An unusually high number of lawmakers split from the parties they were elected on during this parliament, however, as a result of which there are now seventeen groups.

The upper house is indirectly elected by provincial deputies every four years. The most recent Senate election was in 2015. The next one is due in 2019. The Senate seldom dissolves before its term expires, but the lower house frequently does.

After the election, the largest party normally initiates talks to form a government. A coalition of parties needs a majority in both chambers to govern, but the Senate can only send legislation back to the lower house, not amend it, which makes senators reluctant to block government policy.

The last four years

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Labor Party leader Diederik Samsom answer questions from reporters in The Hague, September 17, 2012
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Labor Party leader Diederik Samsom answer questions from reporters in The Hague, September 17, 2012 (EPA)

After gaining ten seats in the 2012 election, liberal party leader Mark Rutte was forced into a coalition with his Labor Party rival, Diederik Samsom. The Christian Democrats and the Freedom Party, Rutte’s former partners, both lost seats that year. The only alternative to a left-right pact was an unwieldy coalition of multiple parties.

The coalition stuck together, but it disappointed many voters. Rightwingers had supported Rutte to keep Labor out of power and vice versa.

Rutte still managed to sit out his full term, which in Dutch politics is almost an achievement in itself.

When the two parties fell short, due to defections in the lower chamber or the absence of a majority in the Senate, they made common cause with centrist and small Christian parties to pass budgets, raise the pension age (now tied to life expectancy) and reform the housing market.

The home mortgage interest deduction, for years the third rail of Dutch politics, was touched for the first time. Additional reforms are likely in the next parliament now that the housing market has almost fully recovered from the financial crisis that started in 2008.

The government also reached an agreement with employers and trade unions to simplify procedures for dismissal and do more to regulate contracting and freelance work. The Labor Party argued that zero-hour contracts and other liberalizations had led to abuses.

Key issues

  • Center-right parties, including Rutte’s, want to reverse some of the labor reforms that were enacted by the outgoing government. They feel the changes have been too hard on employers and the self-employed. With unemployment down to 5.6 percent, though, this is not a priority for many voters.
  • Labor and the liberals agreed to maintain the status quo in health care for four years, but they, and the left and right more broadly, disagree about the future: Labor, the Socialist Party and the Freedom Party argue for rolling back liberalizations; most other parties want to expand choice for consumers and enhance competition between health care providers.
  • Absent another financial crisis, the majority of Dutch voters is unlikely to turn against the European Union. Momentum for exiting the euro appears to have subsided as well. But the rejection of an EU treaty with Ukraine in a referendum last year made clear there is still an undercurrent of discontent. Wilders is bound to make the EU an issue of the campaign. The pro-EU liberal Democrats and Greens may benefit from such a debate, but this is a thornier issue for other mainstream parties. They are trying to find a balance between arguing for EU reform without jeopardizing support for the EU altogether.
  • Immigration and integration have been hot-button issues in the Netherlands for years. Last year’s refugee crisis did little to abate the sentiment that elites refuse to curtail the inflow of people, even though numbers are down from a peak around the year 2000 and successive governments have taken steps to enhance the assimilation of non-natives. This is a slow process, however, and in the meantime, every time there is a riot in an immigrant neighborhood, or every time a survey shows that the non-native Dutch have problematic attitudes toward homosexuality and women’s rights, or every time some Moroccan-Dutch youth are implicated in a crime, Wilders benefits.

The parties and their leaders

  • Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy was for decades the perennial third force in Dutch politics. It has replaced the Christian Democrats as the largest party on the right since 2010. It is economically and socially liberal, meaning it supports free enterprise and free trade as well as euthanasia and gay rights. It has become more critical of immigration and some liberals are Euroskeptic. The party generally feels European integration has gone far enough. Its constituency consists of (small) businessowners and middle-class professionals.
  • The Labor Party is traditionally the largest party on the left and currently the second largest in parliament. It has struggled in recent years to maintain its popularity among working-class voters. Its core constituency consists of upper-class progressives, public-sector workers and lower-class immigrants. In coalition with Rutte’s liberals, the party blocked liberalizations in health care and the labor market. Lodewijk Asscher, the social affairs minister, replaced Diederik Samsom as party leader and candidate for the premiership in December.
  • Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party draws supporters from both the left and the right with a combination of generous welfare policies and hardline positions on immigration, integration and the EU. It is the only major political party in the Netherlands that advocates a Dutch withdrawal from the European Union. Wilders also campaigns against what he calls the “Islamization” of the Netherlands. Support for his party often has more to do with a general mistrust of elites and the “establishment” than its specific policies.
  • The Christian Democratic Appeal used to be the dominant force in Dutch politics, ruling alternately with Labor and the liberals. It has lost popularity as a result of secularization and a sense that the party cared more about consensus than its own identity. Under Sybrand van Haersma Buma, the Christian Democrats have rebranded themselves as centrist, as opposed to center-right, with a focus on family policy and devolution to local authorities. They traditionally poll well in rural communities and the Catholic south.
  • The Democrats 66 combine progressive social views with liberal economic and health care policies. They often serve as kingmakers, given their ability to do deals with both the left and the right. They are also the most pro-European party in parliament. Their leader, Alexander Pechtold, is Wilders’ nemesis. Both men benefit from underlining their disagreements. Democratic voters are mostly university-educated urban professionals and public-sector workers, including teachers.
  • Under the leadership of Emile Roemer, the far-left Socialist Party has failed to capitalize on Labor’s collapse. The party resists any retrenchment of the welfare state and is especially critical of liberalizations in health care. Its core voters are industrial workers and welfare dependents.
  • The party that is gaining from Labor’s unpopularity is GreenLeft, led by Jesse Klaver. A merger of ecological, evangelical, feminist and pacifist parties, its support is confined to urban progressives. The Greens have never joined the national government, but they have local government experience and made deals with Rutte in exchange for environmentally-friendly policies.
  • Other parties that are likely to win seats include the Christian Union, which is socially conservative but economically progressive; the Reformed Political Party, which is orthodox Calvinist and consistently wins around three seats; 50Plus, a seniors party; and the Party for the Animals, which advocates for animal rights and sustainability.

About the polls

The polls are usually volatile running up to the election. Much can change in the final weeks and days. Four years ago, for example, the contest was expected to be between Roemer and Rutte, but then Labor surged and nearly placed first.

That said, there have been consistencies:

  • The ruling parties have both lost support since 2012. Rutte’s liberals have seldom polled over thirty seats and never below twenty. Labor’s support stabilized around fifteen seats in late 2013 but then began dropping further, toward ten seats, in early 2016.
  • The Christian Democrats have failed to lure back conservative voters. They have never polled above twenty seats throughout this parliament.
  • The Democrats 66 vied with the liberals and the Freedom Party for first place in 2014 and 2015, but then their support started falling.

The Freedom Party, Greens and 50Plus are up in the polls and have been for some time. But there are reasons to doubt they will sustain their popularity:

  • The Freedom Party always polls better in the periods between elections. It usually falls back when right-wing voters decide to support the Christian Democrats or the liberals at the last minute.
  • The Greens have climbed up since Jesse Klaver was named party leader in 2015, coinciding with the Democrats’ slow decline. But he is untested. Should Klaver underperform in the debates, urban progressive voters could easily switch (back) to the Democrats, Labor or the Animal Party.
  • 50Plus has no governing experience at any level and is prone to infighting. It has been up and down in the polls, from a high of nearly twenty seats to a low of just two.