Elections in the Netherlands

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 12, 2012

Today general elections (for parliament) are held in the Netherlands. These are politically exciting/nervous times, since the electorate has polarized quite significantly. Until a few weeks back, the polls showed two main contenders to win the elections – the SP (socialists — some believe that one could also describe them as oldfashioned social-democrats) and the VVD (nominally a liberal party, but it’s more accurate to describe it as a right-wing conservative party). Yet the SP has lost drastically in the polls in the last weeks, to the advantage of the PVDA, the social-democratic party. This is probably due to the strong performance of Diederik Samson, leader of the PVDA, and the rather weak impression made by Emile Roemer, leader of the SP. The center-liberal party D66 is doing fine, but the Christian-democrats (CDA) and the greens (Groen-Links) are expected to suffer major losses. PVV, the populist-rightwing party of Geert Wilders will keep its significant size. (For a bar chart of a recent poll, go here)

The elections are not just important for the Netherlands itself, but also for Europe and beyond — and not only because there are 12.500 people with voting rights in Bonaire, Saba, and Sint Eustatius. Until now the outgoing cabinet has been an ally of Germany in their response to the Euro-crisis; but with a changing coalition in power, this may change too. SP is strongly against Europe, as is the PVV (Wilders has shifted his focus from anti-islam to anti-Europe).

It’ll be interesting to see what will happen to Dutch political landscape once the election results are known. The local media are reporting that many voters are really at a loss in deciding for whom to vote (swing/floating voters). I know several people who have always voted either for the Greens or D66 who are now voting PVDA, since they care more about not having a coalition led by the VVD rather than the (ideological, practical and strategic) disagreements between their favorite party and the main non-conservative party (being PVDA). To be continued.



Metatone 09.12.12 at 3:28 pm

Hi Ingrid,

Do you have time to outline the major policy differences between the PVDA and the SP these days? It’s so long since I lived there, I’m out of touch.


Ed 09.12.12 at 4:08 pm

For a primer on Dutch politics (in English), you could do worse than going to this site:


I’m fascinated by the idea of tactical (or strategic) voting in a proportional representation election, especially one where the entire country forms one big electoral district and the thresholds needed for representation are quite low. Could someone explain this one to me? Incidentally, getting a plurality of seats overall seems to play little role in government formation (as explained here: http://fruitsandvotes.com/?p=6430).


Phil 09.12.12 at 4:28 pm

I guess that’s hardcore tactical voting – voting for your second favourite even though a vote for your favourite would actually count.


Alright Jack 09.12.12 at 5:32 pm

“SP is strongly against Europe”

That’s an incorrect frame. Being against the current neoliberal and undemocratic state of EU doesn’t equal being anti-Europe, more the opposite I’d argue.


Martin Bento 09.12.12 at 5:40 pm

So is PVDA more aligned with Hollande than Merkel on response to the crisis then?


Zamfir 09.12.12 at 6:00 pm

The tactical voting is simple: the largest party gets the first shot at building a coalition. That mattered a lot in the last round, where the VVD came out slightly larger than the PvdA, and then managed to eek out an historically unprecedented right wing coalition with just enough seats for a majority, as long as the PVV supported them.


Zamfir 09.12.12 at 6:00 pm

The tactical voting is simple: the largest party gets the first shot at building a coalition. That mattered a lot in the last round, where the VVD came out slightly larger than the PvdA, and then managed to eek out an historically unprecedented right wing coalition with just enough seats for a majority, as long as the PVV supported them.


Salem 09.12.12 at 6:40 pm

I think it’s very unfair to describe Eurosceptical parties, whether of the right or left, as being “against Europe” or “anti-Europe.”


Martin Bento 09.12.12 at 7:16 pm

It does tend to be a bit like describing opponents of American jingoism as “anti-American”, not because the EU is jingoistic, but because it is something whose legitimacy one should be able to question without being branded with a label that implies opposition to the very society to which one belongs.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.12.12 at 8:00 pm

Fine, I’m happy to accept the critique that ‘anti-Europe’ should be ‘anti-current-European-politics’ (or something along this lines). It’s interesting that several of you make this comment — the Radio news in the Netherlands by now so often uses this phrase that the two have become equated. But I take the point.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.12.12 at 8:05 pm

First and second round of exit polls are out, and VVD is predicted to lead with 41 seats (out of 150), immediately followed by PVDA with 40. Both are up 11 resp. 10 seats. Together they have a large majority (80/150) , but there may be complications since they only have 30/75 seats in the Senate, which needs to approve all laws.

the latest results should be available at http://nos.nl/nieuws/live/politiek24/


Stephen 09.12.12 at 8:11 pm

Puzzled. Please can someone explain the difference between “oldfashioned social-democrats” in the SP and “the social-democratic party” of the PVDA? Is that anything like the distinction between Old and New Labour in the UK? The Quirksmode site says that “the PvdA had made itself impossible by eagerly embracing free-market fundamentalism” … on the other hand the SP has a “history as a maoist party that gradually became mainstream” which seems an odd trajectory for social democrats.

And why are the VVD described as “nominally a liberal party, but it’s more accurate to describe it as a right-wing conservative party”? I realise that in US terms that is an enormous difference, but in UK terms it sees quite reasonable to describe Mrs Thatcher, or David Davis now, as being both liberal and right-wing conservative.


Phil 09.12.12 at 10:04 pm

I wouldn’t describe either Thatcher or Davis as a liberal in any sense of the word.

“Liberal” in continental European terms means specifically “free market liberal”; they’re more like right-Libertarians than UK liberals, who are economically left-ish and socially libertarian-ish.

I’m not sure how relevant the historical roots of the SP are. My guess would be that the PvdA (like New Labour) has swallowed the free-market blue pill, while the SP has moved rightwards to end up more or less where the PvdA used to stand.


TheSophist 09.12.12 at 11:19 pm

What does this mean for the future of marijuana in Amsterdam? (Serious question, but asked, of course, for purely academic reasons.)


chrismealy 09.13.12 at 2:30 am

What about bikes? As far as I can tell VVD is bad and PVV is terrible.


Friendly Bombs 09.13.12 at 4:52 am

“(Wilders has shifted his focus from anti-islam to anti-Europe)”

This sounds a lot like what Marine LePen pulled in France. It makes me wonder if the paternalist/nationalist traditional right of many European companies might still have some life in it — and how sincere these parties’ commitment to racial identity politics actually is.


Ingrid Robeyns 09.13.12 at 5:56 am

the votes are counted, and VVD has won 41 seats, PVDA 39 seats. According to the 7 o’clock morning news, a quarter of all voters have cast strategic votes — so PVDA has received many anti-VVD votes but also the other way around.


John Quiggin 09.13.12 at 6:15 am

Ingird, can you say more about how important (or not) it is that the VVD has more seats than PVDA? It sounds as if they can’t form another coalition that includes PVV (thankfully).

I guess the big take-away is that there has been a sudden resurgence for the pro-EU parties, particularly at the expense of the SP, relative to expectations until recently.


des von bladet 09.13.12 at 6:34 am

Disconnected remarks:

(The previous coalition did not technically *include* the PVV.)

Wilders’ anti-actually-existing-EU platform didn’t catch on, certainly. (Leaving the Euro strikes very few as a good idea.)

It is unlikely (IMHO) to matter that the VVD pipped the PvdA, since the vastly most plausible outcome is that they will grind their teeth and share power.

The PvdA lost most of its “old-fashioned social democrat” credentials the last time it teamed up with the centre-right CDA and no one could tell which was which.

The VVD are free-market “liberals” heavily dosed up with right-wing authoritarian and nationalist tendencies. To call them “right-wing conservative” does no violence at all to the facts on the ground.

(Disclaimer: I am in the Netherlands but not of it.)


Chaz 09.13.12 at 9:12 am

Re: Zamfir’s post:

Can someone explain why it matters who gets the first chance to form a coalition (in the Netherlands, in Greece recently, or anywhere)? Or for that matter, why they take turns at all? Surely no party leader waits around for the King/President to ask them before meeting with other parties and figuring out what coalition they want to make. Once several parties have agreed on a majority coalition, wouldn’t they just announce it? And if they’re supposed to take turns, wouldn’t they just wait until it’s one of the new coalition parties’ turn to announce it and flatly refuse any other proposals until then?


J. Otto Pohl 09.13.12 at 9:19 am

Interestingly enough Ghana imports a lot of chicken from the Netherlands. But, in the last couple years the Dutch have pretty much ended all money for scholarly projects related to history in West Africa. The only European country that has been funding new research projects in history here recently has been Germany. Compared to other Europeans they have been extremely generous. But, the Dutch are currently not giving us anything. Any chance that any of the parties would resume funding of cooperative academic research especially in history with places like Legon and other African universities?


Agog 09.13.12 at 9:26 am

How much impact did wider European issues have on voters’ attitudes compared with purely domestic ones (the housing market especially)?


Anspen 09.13.12 at 11:07 am

Re: 20

Partly it’s because coalition negotiations are quite expansive and complex since the resulting agreement have to last for four years (a lesson Nick Clegg apparently didn’t pick up from visiting his mothers Dutch relatives). It’s difficult to create a comprehensive deal in a few hours. And partly the whole formation process is one long political game. Even if party A has more in common with you than party B, they might get more of their program achieved with party C that is more desperate to get into a coalition.

Beyond that there is the electorate to consider. Often you can’t just start with the desired result. For example in early 2003 the CDA (Christian centre-left) narrowly won the election (by one seat more than the PvdA Social-Democrats). They clearly wanted to govern from the right (among other things the dotcom bust had just started to hit the Netherlands seriously and they wanted the be the “Good” cop in a rightwing austerity coalition rather then the Bad cop in a centre-left one). But because the Social Democrats had clearly won that election (almost doubling vs. a lateral move by the CDA) they had to at least pretend to consider them. When those negotiations broke down, being the largest was crucial. If the PvdA had been in the driving seat a left-right coalition without the CDA might have been formed, now the end result was the desired rightwing one.

Of course that also shows that what you described does happens, just not in public.

Re: 21
The cuts in West-Africa where likely the result of a very large cut in total development spending, largely the result of pressure from the populist PVV (though the liberal/rightwing VVD has always been in favour of reducing aid as well). Now that the PVV is certainly out, further cuts are highly unlikely but since the odds are that the VVD will remain in power I suspect there will be no increases either. The austerity religion continues unfortunately.

Re: 22
The general consensus in the (smarter) media is that the European issues played only a very small roll in this election. In exit polling it was clear that the main drivers where the economy in general, housing (slumped market due to the market bubble plus the coming end of the tax deductibility of mortgage payments) and healthcare (rising costs, all very familiar). The important EU part is what didn’t happen: voters didn’t go for the “it’s all the EU/Euro/Southern Europe’s fault” line of the PVV and to a lesser extent the SP (Socialists).

But this doesn’t mean they aren’t critical, it’s just they where more concerned with issues closer to home. The two unabashedly pro-Europe parties didn’t really win (one lost big the other gained slightly). The VVD has been quite critical about the EU at home (though very cooperative at EU meetings apparently). There is a lot off coincidence at play here as well. If the leader of the PvdA hadn’t done very well in the debates it’s is highly probable the SP would have been the other big winner. In which case the international media would likely call it a tie ( “Dutch election give mixed result on Europe” or something along those lines).


Nicodemus 09.13.12 at 11:07 am

Having voted in the elections myself, I’ll try to answer a couple of the more recent points that came up.

John, the main import of the VVD’s two-seat lead over the PvdA will be that they will probably take the initiative in starting off coalition negotiations by holding preliminary strategic talks with most parties and then entering into more detailed policy-focused negotiations with one or more parties that they would like to enter into a coalition government with. However, this is more of an unwritten rule rather than a strict criterion, and in case preliminary talks encounter a lot of resistance it may fall to the number two (PvdA) to step in with a coalition proposition of its own and see how that fares with the other parties.

Coalition negotiations in the Netherlands are always a protracted process in which parties try to take stock of what their opponents’ demands are, weigh them against what they feel they can concede and periodically report back to their constituencies (i.e. party congresses) and the public at large. The process is a bit different this time round because for the first time in the history of parliamentary elections, the queen (our head of state) is no longer entitled to initiate the negotiations. Hitherto it fell to the monarch to appoint a so-called “informateur”, a lead negotiator who made rounds past all the main parties and gauged their ability to enter into a coalition, after which a “formateur” would be appointed (usually the leader of the largest party) to actually divide the ministries and portfolios among the coalition parties. But from now on parliament will actually appoint these positions by a simple majority vote. Nobody nows quite how this will turn out because it hasn’t been tried before, but given the majority (80 seats out of 150) that VVD and PvdA enjoy together it may be possible to appoint an informateur and subsequently a formateur rather quickly – if they share an implicit understanding of the need to get arrange things quickly.

If this whole process comes across as a very un-democratic way of doing things (I won’t deny it isn’t by the way), do hold in mind three things. Firstly, and most importantly, there is a longstanding tradition of consensus-based politics in the Netherlands, not only at parliamentary level but also in municipal administrations, civil service, negotiations between “social partners”(unions and employers organizations), etc. Most of you will have heard of the name “poldermodel” that this political culture goes by. Secondly, ideological differences in the political spectrum are not extreme, and although Wilders’ PVV has polarized politics to a certain extent in recent years, yesterday’s election results bode well for the future of a centrist focal point among all the parties. Lastly, the extended time that coalition formation usually takes reflects the many interest groups, party leaderships and voters that have to be appeased, taken into account in formulating a coalition agreement and persuaded of the soundness of the proposed policies. Points on the parties’ political programs are traded tit-for-tat in this process. In the end this means ensures that no voter gets everything that they voted for, and it is a common source of resentment against politicians that so much is decided without much oversight after the elections in backroom politics. But then again, it also ensures that there is usually something in the new coalition agreement to please most people (particularly with the current results and the likelihood of a centrist coalition this seems plausible) and it makes sure that we don’t wake up to the sound of boots when brownshirts march on down the streets.

Agog, to answer your question: Europe was a huge theme in these elections, closely behind the state of the economy which was the major issue. However, many discussions about the economy revolved in some way or other about the Dutch future in the EU; the situation in Greece was elaborately discussed by all the candidates, as was the behavior of European leaders, the ECB and the position that the Netherlands ought to take within the Eurozone.
After the economy and Europe came healthcare (a concern for many due to the structurally rising costs and the increasing population of people aged 65 and over) and housing. The order and magnitude of these issues was largely determined by the way that they were framed in the media, something which I very much regret. There were many other issues that were important (education, innovation and sustainability for instance) that did not receive much attention at all. In addition, much more could have been said about some of the more egregious measures taken in recent years under the pressure of Wilders’ right-wing nutjobs, such as the harsh attitude taken towards certain minorities and the abolishment of the option of having dual nationality (for “loyalty” reasons).

But all in all, I’d say one could be moderately content with these results. It seems that an end has come to the spitefully obstructive way in which the Netherlands has behaved in a European and wider international context in recent years, and that it may in time return to its position as one of the leading European nations. Even better, Geert Wilders is now past his prime and has been sidelined by the political mainstream, and the political center has regained power at his expense.


Ot de Wiljes 09.13.12 at 11:26 am

Being a Dutchie, I may be able to shed some light on the questions asked here. I am identifying several questions:
1) How does coalition formation work, and how does tactical voting figure into that?
2) What is the difference between the PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid; Party of Labour) and the SP (Socialistische Partij; Socialist Party), both in terms of policy and history?
3) What is the nature of this conservative-liberal VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, People’s party for Freedom and Democracy)?

First, some technical background and the actual results. These latest elections are for the Tweede Kamer, the parliament. Senate elections are separate.
Party seats delta party politics
VVD 41 +10 conservative right-wing
PvdA 39 +9 left-wing social liberal
PVV 15 -9 populist extreme right-wing
CDA 13 -8 Christian democrats
SP 15 – populist socialists
D66 12 +2 progressive liberal
GrLinks 3 -7 progressive left-wing
CU 5 – Christian socialist
SGP 3 +1 Christian fundamentalist
PvdD 2 – animal welfare
50+ 2 +2 elderly

1) Coalition formation.
There are 150 seats in total. No single party ever wins a majority. This means that government is made up of a coalition of parties together forming a majority or a minority cabinet depending upon varying support from other parties. Given a majority coalition, upon formation of that coalition a ‘regeerakkoord’ (governing plan) is agreed upon by the parties in it. This is where election promises meet political reality: this phase is rife with wrangling and compromise.
The largest party has an important role in the formation of the coalition. It also tends to supply the prime minister.
One can vote tactically if one wants a party which is in line with one’s own views to become the biggest. This is why the seeming neck-and-neck race between the PvdA (major left-wing party) and the VVD (major right-wing party) was such a good deal for both of them: they drew voters who might otherwise have voted for more marginal parties (like right-wing PVV, left-wing GL and conservative CDA) in order to make either a left-wing or right-wing party the largest. For example, a friend of mine, card-carrying GroenLinkser, voted PvdA to prevent VVD from becoming the largest and therefore most prominent.

2) The differences between PvdA and SP.
SP is more populist. PvdA has a long history of governing; SP has a long history of opposition (their slogan used to be ‘vote against, vote SP’).
PvdA’s origins are in in the labour movements of the late 19th century; the SP’s origins are Maoist.
SP is anti-European, PvdA is pro-European.
SP is xenophobic (opposing migrant workers), PvdA is in favour of a multicultural society.
PvdA has recently (2000’s) shifted to market liberalism; SP has remained firmly anti-capitalist – though the PvdA has recently shifted back to socialist evergreens once more.

3) The VVD: in short, nominally liberal conservative, in effect secular conservative. Like the Republicans without the idiocy. Quite like the UK’s Conservatives in many regards.


nick s 09.13.12 at 11:45 am

It sounds as if they can’t form another coalition that includes PVV (thankfully).

The numbers don’t add up in ways that would require including them, and since they were the big losers in the election, there’s not much incentive even to talk to them. Assume some kind of purple coalition, basically.


Ed 09.13.12 at 1:24 pm

On the results, the key takeaway isn’t that the PVV gets to try to form the coalition first. Its that PVDA + SP + D66 + Greens = 69 out of 150. That is not enough to form a left-of-center coalition. They could add the CDA to that and get to 84 seats, but that means the CDA, the PVDA, and the SP in the same governing coalition.

However, though the PVV lost 9 seats, at 15 seats it means that you can’t have a right-of-center coalition without the PVV. If the VVD doesn’t want to deal with the PVV, they have to be include one of the four parties on the secular left. That means they would have to include D66 and two small Christian fundamentalist parties.

This all points to a PVV-PVDA coalition (it appears they don’t even need one of the smaller parties to pad their margin), with Rutte as Minister-President again due to the two seat PVDA plurality. And this means I wouldn’t read too much in the disappointing results for the SP and even the PVV. Four more years of the combination of Thatcherism and Blairism that the government will be offering will mean that the “extremists” will bounce back.


Anspen 09.13.12 at 1:38 pm

One problem with a PvdA-VVD coalition (well apart from the obvious) is the lack of a majority in the upper house. Even with D66 (which was the glue for that combination the last time) they only have 35 out of 75 seats.


stostosto 09.14.12 at 10:20 am

For Netherlands to be anti-Europe is like a knee being anti-leg.

I have a clarifying question about how the “anti-EU” issue is/was discussed in the Dutch campaign.

I get that the Dutch are incensed that they will have to suffer austerity policies – and with good reason, imho. But there are two main stories about this that point to very different causes for this sad condition of things, and hence places to direct your anger.

One – the true one – is the frustrating story of the idiotic rigidities that the EU, urged by misguided German right-wingers, has imposed on itself and its member states. There is ample reason to be angry at this, for sheer common-sense Keynesian reasons.

The other one – which seems to have carried the day in the understanding of the situation in large parts of North-Western Euroland – is the misguided German right-wingers’ warped moralistic tale of profligate south Europeans.

The few noises I have heard from the Dutch debate up here in DK seems to support this latter view. Yet, I would have thought that such a view would favour a Geert Wilders type party which seems to not have happened. So which is it?


stostosto 09.14.12 at 11:04 am

Sorry, I should recognise that Anspen @23 did comment on this, cf: “The important EU part is what didn’t happen: voters didn’t go for the “it’s all the EU/Euro/Southern Europe’s fault” line of the PVV and to a lesser extent the SP (Socialists).”

Well and good. My take, then, is that the Dutch don’t think that either of the two stories I mentioned are to blame for all their troubles, and/or that other issues and remedies overshadowede the EU debate all things considered. Plus, Wilders’ apparent calls for the Netherlands to actually abandon the Euro were too extreme for most voters.

But was there any criticism of the entire logic, such as it is, behind the Merkel line on the Euro crisis, which rules out expansionary policies and places the whole burden of adjustment on the debtor countries?


Anspen 09.14.12 at 12:19 pm

I get the feeling (whole based on anecdotes/people I speak to) that people do sort of accept the proliferate southerners spending our money, but that they don’t see that as the reason for the economic difficulties. Which is probably part of the reason it wasn’t a main concern for most voters.

The acceptance of anti-expansionary logic has evolved a bit. The idiotic “a household has to cut back when it is in deficit” fallacy was very strong before the summer and still finds a lot of agreement in the Netherlands. However even people who agree with it are questioning the rush to balance the books nownownow. Not only is the first round of cuts starting to be felt, the election process finally gave some airtime to the other side. The SP leader was crucified when he said his party simply wouldn’t pay any penalties but it did shift the Overton window somewhat.

With regard to the debtor nations (well those and Spain which after all still has a lower debt to GDP ratio than the Netherlands) there is less room, but if are rules relaxed for northern nations they will have to be more supple for the crisis countries. The IMHO most important measure to resolve both the internal housing crisis and the overall European one, increased inflation, hasn’t really been a topic, but one can hope.


stostosto 09.14.12 at 1:30 pm

It would seem to have been an encouraging week for Europe, considering the alternatives. The ECB announced its new OTM policy, the German federal court failed to block the (minimal) German support for the plans to save the euro, and the Dutch failed to elect a rabidly anti-EU parliament.

The IMHO most important measure to resolve both the internal housing crisis and the overall European one, increased inflation, hasn’t really been a topic, but one can hope.

Well, it seems a long shot at the moment, but I agree. On this front yet another encouraging development came from the US with the Fed’s announcement of an open-ended quantitative easing. Would that this is the beginning of a new trend.


stostosto 09.14.12 at 1:40 pm

btw, I found this a useful post-election roundup even if the author caveats that it “carries the traces of an election-night hangover – more alcoholically than politically”.



Anspen 09.14.12 at 3:08 pm

Well, the continuation of the crisis is starting to chip away at the neo-classical solutions. Even Cameron and his ilk are ever so slowly starting to push some minor expansive measures. I have little faith in a real solution (which I personally would say would be a combination of a large EU wide stimulus package, a clear cleaning out of bad bank and morgage debt and a temporary increase in targeted inflation) but I am getting more hopeful that there will be enough half measures to avert complete disaster and perhaps even some slight improvement of the speed at which we climb out of this hole.

Comments on this entry are closed.