Explainer

Why It’s Taking So Long to Form a Government in the Netherlands

Three roadblocks and four possible outcomes.

Mark Rutte Angela Merkel
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and German chancellor Angela Merkel meet with other European leaders in Brussels, December 13, 2019 (European Council)

Five months after parliamentary elections, parties haven’t even begun substantive coalition talks in the Netherlands, already making this the third-longest government formation in postwar Dutch history.

Mark Rutte remains in office as caretaker prime minister, but his government can’t make major decisions on such issues as climate policy, reform of child benefits, labor law and taxes.

Those issues are one reason it’s taking so long: whatever choices the next government makes could reverberate for years.

Roadblocks

Rutte’s right-liberal VVD (of which I am a member) won the election in March with 34 out of 150 seats. The left-liberal D66 placed second with 24 seats. The Christian Democratic CDA could give the two liberal parties an additional fifteen seats, leaving them just three short of a majority.

Finding a fourth partner has been the sticking point. There are three roadblocks:

  1. D66 doesn’t want to renew the outgoing four-party coalition with the Christian Union. Those parties hold opposite views on euthanasia rights and religious schools.
  2. VVD and CDA don’t want to add two left-wing parties to a coalition when one is enough for a majority.
  3. The Labor Party and Greens promised voters they would only go into government together.

Other parties, ranging from the far left to the far right, have either taken themselves out of contention or are not considered serious partners by the rest.

Major decisions

One reason parties are sticking to their guns is that they know the next government will have to make major decisions:

  • Child benefits: All parties want to reform child-care benefits after tax authorities falsely accused some 26,000 parents of fraud between 2004 and 2019. Many families were financially ruined when they had to pay back tens of thousands of euros in child support. But where right-wing parties want to switch to (refundable) tax credits, left-wing parties and D66 would reduce the need for financial support by making child care more affordable or even free, possibly by nationalizing it.
  • Climate: All parties are nominally committed to cutting Dutch greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 compared to 1990. D66, Labor and Greens would reduce livestocks to bring down methane emissions. That is unacceptable to VVD and CDA. They would prefer to build more nuclear power plants to replace polluting coal- and gas-fired power stations, but that is unacceptable to the left.
  • Education: All major parties except the VVD want to abolish student debt.
  • Health care: D66 and CDA would put currently self-employed specialists on hospital payrolls to cut spending. Labor would take away insurance companies’ power to negotiate prices with clinics and hospitals, which would increase spending. The Greens would abolish private insurance companies and convert them into public health corporations. The VVD is wary of any change in health care.
  • Housing: VVD and CDA would allow construction outside existing towns to reduce the Netherlands’ housing shortage. Left-wing parties are reluctant to sacrifice green space. VVD would liberalize rents. Left-wing parties want more social housing.
  • Labor: The parties agree contractors enjoy too little job security compared to full-time employees. But whereas the left would make it more expensive for companies to hire temp and freelance workers, the right would make it cheaper to hire workers on a full-time contract.
  • Taxes: All parties propose to raise corporate tax, but there is a huge gap between the VVD’s €3.5 billion and Labor’s €42 billion.

Possible outcomes

To form a parliamentary, majority government, someone has to blink. D66 could agree to negotiate with the Christian Union. VVD and CDA could agree to negotiate with both Labor and the Greens. Either the Labor Party or Greens could agree to negotiate with the other three parties separately.

Of those, I would rate the latter as least likely. The last time Labor governed with the VVD alone, it went down from 38 to nine seats. There is even talk of merging the Labor Party and Greens. If either party splits now, it would be seen as a betrayal.

D66 may be willing to talk with the Christian Union, but not before exploring the five-party coalition it prefers. Only if that option fails could it justify another pact with the Christian right to its voters.

VVD and CDA may agree to formal talks with Labor and the Greens, but I doubt they will be successful.

The next option is an extraparliamentary cabinet, one whose program the parties don’t commit to support in advance. The Netherlands hasn’t had one since the 1970s, when Christian democratic ministers joined a left-wing government. Their parties would frequently vote with the right-wing opposition against its policies.

Another option is a minority government. The parties that form it do commit to support its policies, but it still has to negotiate on a case-by-case basis with other parties to find majorities. A coalition of VVD and D66 could conceivably do deals with the right on economic policy and health care, and deals with the left on climate and energy.

Both options would rely on Rutte’s dealmaking skills. His first government, with the Christian Democrats, was technically a minority cabinet, but it had a confidence-and-supply agreement with the far-right Freedom Party. His last two governments didn’t have permanent majorities in the Senate. Rutte persuaded opposition parties to support everything from the Dutch deployment to Afghanistan to reform of the pension system. An extraparliamentary or minority cabinet would take that one step further.

Snap elections would be a last resort. Dutch parties have never had to go back to voters before.

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