Local elections in the Netherlands in March already forecast the tangled political landscape the country now finds itself in facing parliamentary elections in June.
The Labor Party, which pulled out of its coalition with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s Christian Democrats because it wouldn’t consider a continued military presence in Afghanistan, did well in the polls but no viable three-party majority has emerged yet. Party leader Wouter Bos announced his resignation on Friday, naming Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen as his successor. Unlike Bos, Cohen is seen as prime ministerial candidate and more of a traditional socialist who can regain the party’s support from low-income voters.
After the election, the participation of the liberal party could be critical. It previously governed with the Christian Democrats in the wake of the murder of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Their popularity has taken a beating since Geert Wilders left the party in 2004 to run on his own ticket. But it is still difficult to imagine a government without them.
Wilders appeals to a segment of the population with his attacks on Islam and the multicultural society. His Freedom Party blames Labor for the country’s integration problems which would make a coalition between the two problematic.
But Wilders is projected to lead the Netherlands’ second political force. In spite of left-wing attempts to exclude him from power, the Christian Democrats, at least, are willing to work with him.
If Wilders won’t govern, the alternatives include a full left-wing coalition under Labor, a center-right alliance of multiple parties likely dominated by the Christian Democrats and liberals and a centrist goverment of Labor and liberals, possibly joined by the progressive liberal Democrats. Such a three-party “purple” coalition governed the country from 1994 to 2002.
Labor has refused to commit to a “red” accord, wary that a pledge to govern on the left would hurt its chances with moderate voters. It may even prefer a broad coalition with the Christian Democrats and liberals. It has partnered both before, if separately.
One way or another, the liberals will have to be included and they are bound to demand a high price for their kingmaking. The party has been critical of the outgoing government, particularly of its response to the economic downturn. The liberals form the only faction in parliament that has proposed massive and specific budget cuts while they continue to champion free markets. In coalition with the Christian Democrats, they deregulated business and privatized health care. Whether smaller parties in the center, let alone Labor, would go along with such policies is doubtful.
A minority government, deemed undesirable by most parties, may be the only alternative but the country hasn’t had one since the end of World War II.