Dutch voters elect provincial deputies on Wednesday, who will elect the new Senate in May.
Elections for island councils in the Caribbean Netherlands and water boards in the European Netherlands are held on the same day, making this a midterm election for Prime Minister Mark Rutte in everything but name.
In this election guide, I will get you up to speed. With the disclaimer that I am a candidate for Rutte’s liberal party in North Holland, but I’ll do my best to be fair!
What are the provincial governments
Each of the Netherlands’ twelve provinces has a regional parliament. Membership ranges from 39 deputies in Zeeland, the smallest province, to 55 in South Holland, the largest.
Provincial deputies elect the provincial executive, which is usually formed from a majority of political groups in the council for a period of four years. They are overseen by a king’s commissioner, who is appointed by the national government for six years. The exception is Limburg, which has an apolitical executive and a governor instead of a commissioner.
Provincial governments are responsible for environmental protection, land use — including where to build new neighborhoods and towns — and roads and public transport.
The 570 provincial deputies, nineteen representatives of the Dutch islands in the Caribbean and a yet-to-be-determined number of electors representing Dutch voters abroad (depending on turnout) will elect the 75 members of the Senate in May.
What are the water boards
Water boards are the Netherlands’ oldest democratic institutions. The first were formed in the twelfth century to manage polders and dikes. The number of water boards peaked at 3,500 in 1850. There are now 21.
Some, like Flevoland and Limburg, overlap with provinces. Others are bordered by rivers and dikes. The city of Rotterdam straddles three water boards: east, west and south of the River Meuse.
Farmers, local businesses and environmental groups are given a minority of unelected seats. Elections for the remaining seats have been held since 1995.
Water boards are responsible for all aspects of water management in their region. Rising sea levels and droughts worsened by climate change have made their work more political.
Parties and polls
Sixteen national parties are projected to win seats in provincial councils. Outlying provinces — Friesland, Groningen, Limburg and Zeeland — also have regional parties.
The far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD), which placed first in 2019, has imploded with many of their voters going to Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV), the new Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) and the liberal-conservative JA21, a FvD offshoot. Some are also returning to Rutte’s right-liberal VVD, which is stable in the polls. The BBB also draws support from the Christian Democrats (CDA), who govern with Rutte nationally.
The left-wing Labor Party (PvdA) and Greens are losing support to the far-left Socialists (SP) and the animal rights party (PvdD), but gaining voters from D66 who are disappointed the social liberals joined the CDA and Christian Union (CU) in a coalition with Rutte. Labor and the Greens could still become the largest party in the Senate if they merge.
- Climate and energy: The ruling parties — VVD, D66, CDA and CU — want to cut greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent by 2030. The Labor Party and Greens have conditioned their support for legislation in the Senate on 60 percent reduction. Right-wing populists are not in a rush to reduce emissions but, like the VVD and European federalist party Volt, they do support nuclear power to replace fossil fuels. The left would build more wind turbines on land, the right only at sea.
- Housing: Provincial governments long underestimated housing demand, causing a national shortage of 300,000. Left-wing parties prefer to add apartment buildings in major cities, right-wing parties are willing to sacrifice green space outside cities and towns. Some parties would give water boards a veto over building sites to avoid construction in flood-prone areas. They currently advise. Left-wing parties also prefer a higher share of social housing in new developments, but that is a municipal, not a provincial, decision. Provinces decide where to build, municipalities what to build.
- Farming: The ruling parties have proposed to halve ammonia pollution from farms by 2030. I explained why here. Provincial governments would decide which farms can stay and which need to go. Left-wing parties and D66 would legislate cuts to livestock in addition to pollution. CDA, which is losing rural voters to BBB, has questioned the 2030 deadline. BBB and JA21 would increase pollution limits and abolish conservation areas to allow more farmers to stay, but that requires EU approval. They rule out expropriating farmers who are unable or unwilling to reduce emissions.
- Industry: The future of Tata Steel, the Netherlands’ largest polluter, is debated in North Holland. Some left-wing parties want to close the steel plant, liberal and right-wing parties want to give it a chance to switch from coal to green hydrogen.
- Taxes: All major parties want to cut income tax, now 37 percent on incomes under €73,000 and 49.5 percent above. The left would pay for it by raising taxes on capital gains and inheritance, the right by slowing spending increases. This has nothing to do with the provinces or water boards, but could become an issue in the Senate.
The likely outcomes
Grand coalitions of center-left and center-right are likely to remain in power in the central and western Netherlands. Christian parties and Labor govern in all provinces, the VVD in every province but Utrecht. D66 and the Greens are the preferred coalition partners in Holland, Flevoland, Gelderland and North Brabant.
BBB could, according to polls, give the Christian parties and VVD a majority in the rural northeast. But if the center-right makes concessions to farmers, the Labor Party and Greens may no longer support Rutte’s government in the Senate. It may be easier to do deals with the left.
Center-right parties could give the PVV in Limburg another chance. A right-wing majority briefly ruled there in 2011-12 and the Freedom Party provided one regional minister from 2019 to 2021.