Don’t Fear Dutchification

Multiparty democracy is stronger in the end.

The Hague Netherlands
Mauritshuis and Dutch government buildings in The Hague, June 11, 2018 (Shutterstock/DigitalPearls)

The Financial Times argues that the big political story in Europe is not so much the rise of populism as the fragmentation of electorates and the parties that represent them.

  • In Spain, once-dominant conservative and socialist parties must compete with liberals, nationalists and the far left.
  • Neither the center-left nor the center-right bloc has a majority in the Swedish parliament anymore and neither is willing to allow the far-right Sweden Democrats to become kingmakers.
  • The far-right Alternative and the left-leaning Greens have eaten into support for the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany.
  • In what the Financial Times describes as “the most extreme example of such fragmentation,” the Netherlands, it now takes four parties to form a government.

This isn’t wrong per se, but I would like to offer two nuances.

This isn’t entirely new

The Netherlands, Sweden and other Northern European democracies have always had many parties. The difference is that the Dutch have more experiencing forming coalitions across the left-right divide.

Johan Wahlström told me in November that the Social Democrats have dominated Swedish politics for so long that the parties have forgotten how to form governments that aren’t entirely left- or right-wing. Now they are forced to relearn.

This isn’t entirely bad

Two-party systems disempower half the electorate every four years and tend to oscillate between extremes.

In the Netherlands, by contrast, the broad middle of the electorate can usually live with the government of the day and policy outcomes are more predictable.

Postwar Germany was for decades a three-party system that give the liberals in the center more power than they deserved.

In Spain, the minority Socialist government’s dependence on small regional parties has forced Madrid to seriously reckon with the independence movement in Catalonia for the first time in a decade.

Countries that are accustomed to one- or two-party rule will need time to adjust — expect turmoil in the short term — but multiparty democracy is stronger in the end.