Mark Rutte stunned the Dutch parliament on Monday, when he told lawmakers he would not seek his center-right party’s nomination for a fifth term as prime minister.
Rutte had already submitted his resignation to King Willem-Alexander after the four parties in his government failed to do a deal on asylum reform, but he left the door open in a news conference on Friday to running again.
In power for thirteen years, Rutte is Europe’s longest-serving elected leader after Viktor Orbán. His surprise exit, combined with the meteoric rise of a new farmers’ party and the likely merger of the Labor Party and Greens, could redraw the Dutch political landscape, which has been dominated by Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) for thirteen years.
Rutte stays on as caretaker until a successor can be sworn in, which could be a year from now. Elections aren’t due until November. Forming a coalition government in the Netherlands usually requires months of negotiation. Reforms in agriculture, housing and labor law may be put on hold in the meantime.
Parties must find new leaders
Top contenders to succeed Rutte as VVD party leader are parliamentary group leader Sophie Hermans and the outgoing justice minister, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius. Hermans’ predecessor Klaas Dijkhoff is popular but not interested in the job. The party’s leader in the Senate, former health minister Edith Schippers, has also taken herself out of contention.
The ruling Christian Democrats also need a new leader. Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra has said he will not run again. When he spearheaded the party in 2021, its support fell from 12 to 9 percent. It now polls at 4 to 6 percent. Many Christian Democrat voters have switched to the Farmer-Citizen Movement, which opposes cuts in farming to reduce emissions.
Finance Minister Sigrid Kaag has yet to make her intentions known. A former UN diplomat, she pushed her left-liberal D66 up from 12 to 15 percent support in the last election. She skillfully negotiated many concessions from the VVD and Christian Democrats in subsequent coalition talks, but she has also been the target of death threats. Her daughters do not want her to run again.
The opposition Labor Party and Greens have proposed to contest the election with a joint list of candidates. If members approve of the merger, Frans Timmermans would be an ideal candidate to head a united left. The Labor Party politician is the most powerful EU commissioner after President Ursula von der Leyen, having been charged with the European Green Deal. But he still has a full year left in Brussels until the European elections of 2024.
What will happen to policy
Parliament decides after the summer which policies will be frozen until there is a new government. Major reforms in agriculture, climate policy, housing and labor may be delayed. Immigration reform will almost certainly be put off and could become the number-one issue in the election.
Caps on ammonia pollution, which could have forced one in three Dutch livestock farmers to quit, will probably not be enforced by this government. But its premature demise also means there won’t be a long-term plan for agricultural reform. Stricter EU regulations for manure management and water quality will come into force in 2026 and 2027, respectively. The Netherlands is currently not in compliance, largely due to its outsized dairy and meat industry.
Voluntary buyouts of farms will continue, but a €24 billion fund to finance such buyouts in the long term and subsidize innovations in ammonia capture and more sustainable farming has yet to be voted through in the Senate. Even if it is approved there — the Christian Democrats may feel they are no longer bound by the coalition agreement — the lower house could put its implementation on hold.
Climate and energy
In April, the coalition parties agreed additional policies to achieve a 55-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, including:
- Abolishing the exemption from coal tax for industrial users.
- Lowering gas tax for households and small businesses.
- Increasing CO₂ tax.
- Expanding solar parks at sea.
- Requiring new solar parks to install batteries for energy storage.
- Repurposing old gas plants for the generation of green hydrogen.
- Subsidizing home insulation and secondhand electric cars.
- Raising the share of biofuels blended into diesel and petrol.
- Requiring the use of biomaterials in construction.
- Requiring the use of 25 percent recycled plastics in new products.
Those reforms could be put on hold as well.
Expansion of the electric grid, which must cope with a rising and intermittent supply of green energy, will almost certainly be delayed, as it would require new legislation.
Plans to bring some 270,000 rental apartments into regulation, mandate two-thirds “affordable” housing in new developments and limit legal appeals to construction projects could be shelved.
D66 and VVD are also wary of the government’s proposal to allow municipalities to set aside one in two homes for existing residents.
The Christian Democrats and VVD reluctantly agreed to ban short-term rental contracts, a joint initiative of the Christian Union — the fourth and smallest party in the government — and opposition Labor Party. It has yet to reach the Senate.
Higher real-estate taxes and a cap on rent increases (1 percent above the average salary increase) will continue.
The government unveiled labor reforms in April that are meant to encourage more permanent employment:
- Banning on-call and zero-hours contracts.
- Giving workers hired through an employment agency the same salary, holiday and pension rights as employees.
- Limiting freelancers and temp workers to three contracts per employer.
- Requiring freelancers to buy unemployment insurance.
The liberal parties agreed halfheartedly, but the reforms have strong backing from the Labor Party and Greens, who may seize the opportunity to push them through before a pro-regulation majority is lost.
The ruling parties tentatively agreed to reintroduce a dual asylum system with five-year residence permits, and a pathway to citizenship, for internationally-recognized refugees (fleeing persecution for their political beliefs or identity) and three-year permits for asylum seekers qualifying for so-called subsidiary protection under EU law (mostly war refugees). Other EU countries make the same distinction. The Netherlands merged its asylum procedures in the early 2000s.
The Christian Union drew the line at limiting family-reunification rights for refugees given subsidiary protection, a key VVD demand.
The parties also came close to a deal on labor migration, but the details have not yet been published.
In the absence of reforms to reduce asylum applications, junior minister Eric van der Burg insists he needs new powers to overrule local governments that refuse to shelter asylum seekers. But a law to that effect is opposed by his own VVD and more right-wing opposition parties.
What happens next
Elections are due in the middle of November. Parties need to register their candidates six weeks in advance.
Since 1986, the Netherlands’ Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis has analyzed the competing parties’ manifestos for their effects on economic growth, employment and government spending. In 2021, it also made an estimate of their environmental impact.
A two-hour debate between party leaders on public radio kicks off the campaign season three weeks before the polls open.
Votes (paper ballots) are counted on election night. Dutch media are usually able to provide an accurate projection of the results a few hours after polls close.
The Netherlands votes by proportional representation. There is no electoral threshold. In the last election, seventeen parties won representation in the 150-seat lower chamber.
The outgoing parliament has the right to appoint a first mediator to scout out the options for a coalition government. Once it is seated, the new parliament must discuss the election results within one week and appoint an official negotiator. Usually former cabinet ministers or retired party leaders are asked to take this role. Negotiations can drag out for months with various options being explored before one combination of parties reaches an agreement.
Which coalitions are possible
Recent polls make it hard to imagine a majority government without both the VVD and the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB). They are projected to win almost one in three seats between them.
Geert Wilders’ nationalist Freedom Party would be needed for a right-wing majority. A left-wing government — without VVD and BBB — would require up to eight parties, ranging from the Christian Democrats in the center to the Socialists on the far left.
VVD and BBB have been able to form centrist coalitions with the Labor Party or Greens or both in five of the Netherlands’ twelve provinces. But the VVD’s demands on asylum reform and the BBB’s disinterest in environmental regulation would make it difficult to form something of a grand coalition nationally.
The polls will almost certainly change depending of whom the parties nominate for the prime ministership. Only a third of Dutch voters are loyal to a party. 10 to 20 percent don’t make up their minds until the final days before the election.