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Post Election-Report: Netherlands 2012 Parliamentary Elections II

- September 14, 2012

In our continuing series of election reports, we are pleased to have a 2nd post-election report (or 3rd if you count Erik’s paragraph at the end of his turnout post yesterday) on the Dutch parliamentary election, this time from Martijn Schoonvelde, a PhD candidate in political science at Stony Brook University.


Yesterday’s parliamentary election results in the Netherlands showed big gains for the liberal VVD (+10 seats out of a total of 150) and the social-democratic PvdA (+8), whereas Geert Wilders’ eurosceptic PVV went from 24 to 15 (-9). Although pundits were quick to describe this as a pro-European vote there is more to the results than just this.

To begin with, more than anything the Dutch vote seems to be a risk-averse one. Rather than favoring new parties (PVV) or parties that are untested in office (the socialist SP), the winning parties were those that are either traditional catch-all parties (VVD, PvdA) or have a good deal of cabinet experience (the liberal democratic D66). This follows ten years of unstable cabinets, starting from the first cabinet of Jan-Peter Balkenende in 2002 that resigned after only a couple of months on the job following the swift demise of the post-Fortuyn LPF party, a minority cabinet party. Possibly, this risk aversion is reflected in the large number of undecided voters. Ipsos Synovate, a polling firm, found that on 6 September, only a week before the election, 43% of the voters had yet to make up their minds about whom to vote for. With underwhelming economic performance at home as well the looming Euro crisis, voters seem to have chosen in favor of political stability more than anything else.

In the last weeks of the campaign, the fortunes of both the SP and the PvdA have changed radically. Using data from Tom Louwerse’s PeilingWijzer, which averages 4 national polls, it is found that less than 3 weeks before the election the Socialist Party was still projected to win 35 seats, and the PvdA less than 20 (see Figure 1). Analysts have ascribed this, for example, to the solid performances of PvdA leader Diederik Samsom in televised debates, as well as the mediated horserace between the PvdA and the VVD, and strategic voting. Yet the larger point to be made is this: campaigns matter in the Netherlands. After all, the 2006 and 2003 campaigns saw similar role reversals in the run-up to these elections. Despite the polarized political discourse of the last couple of years, Dutch (undecided) voters can still be enticed to change their minds.

With the VVD and the PvdA having a majority (80 out of a 150) of seats in the legislature, a two-party ‘Purple’ coalition is to be expected (even though this coalition would not have a majority in the less important senate, it could rely on ad hoc majorities there). However, for this to happen both parties need to reconcile some fundamental differences. Whereas the VVD has campaigned on a platform of fiscal austerity, the PvdA prefers to spend the Netherlands out of its economic slump. Unsurprisingly, both parties also disagree on the role of the market in health care. The PvdA opposes the recent introduction of a more competitive health care system. The VVD, on the other hand, blames the health care wait lists of the 1990s to an overabundance of government. Despite these differences, both parties are aware of their shared mandate as evidenced by the reconciling election night speeches of both Rutte and Samsom.

So then there is the cabinet formation. On Thursday, Henk Kamp, a prominent VVD member and outgoing minister of social affairs, was assigned the task of ‘exploring’ potential cabinets and informateurs. Once the new Tweede Kamer has been sworn in next week, it will then choose an actual informateur following these explorations. This will be the first time — following a legislative procedural vote this spring initiated by D66 — that Queen Beatrix, who usually appointed the informateur, is sidelined in the formation process.