Netherlands 2012

Legislative elections were held in the Netherlands on September 12, 2012. All 150 seats of the lower house of Dutch Parliament, the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives/Second Chamber) were up for reelection. I didn’t write a preview for this election, but if you want some quick stuff about Dutch politics since 1918, I would think that my preview post for the 2010 elections is still worth something.

The members of the Dutch lower house are elected by proportional representation, with an effective real threshold of 0.67% of the votes (roughly 50,000 votes) required for representation. After the initial seats are allocated, the remainder seats are allocated using the d’Hondt method of largest averages. This system favours slightly the larger parties, hence list combinations (lijstencombinatie) are formed by the combination of several party lists where they form a single slate which compete for the remaining seats. Afterwards, the seats are allocated to the parties within the list combination using the largest remainder method.

In the Netherlands, voters vote for a candidate on a party list rather than the list as a whole. However, oftentimes, a vast majority of voters cast their vote for the party’s lijsttrekker (top candidate) even though they may vote for any candidate lower on the party list. Preferential votes are only taken into account once the seats have been allocated, and a candidate can be elected ahead of candidates placed higher on the party list if he/she received one quarter of the threshold (0.1675% of total valid votes) on preference votes.

Government formation in the Netherlands takes a long time, but it does not take long for some cabinets to fall. This election is the fourth early election in a row – all elections since 2002 have been held before the government came to its natural end. Following the 2010 elections, the liberal VVD led by Mark Rutte formed a cabinet with the participation of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the external support of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV). Geert Wilders’ PVV propped up Rutte’s cabinet in exchange from stricter immigration policy, similar to what happened in Denmark between 2001 and 2011 when the far-right offered external support to a liberal-conservative coalition government.

Wilders decided to pull the plug on the government in April 2012, unwilling to accept a new round of austerity policies aimed at reducing the Dutch deficit from about 4% of GDP to the EU deficit limit of 3%. Wilders claimed that he was opposed to new budget cuts which would have a negative impact on social programs, notably old age security.

The Netherlands has one of the lowest electoral thresholds in the world. This has made the formation of strong, stable governments increasingly difficult, and has allowed for the proliferation of all types of political parties. Given that any party which can manage about three-quarters of a percentage can realistically hope to win representation in the lower house, there is little which keeps dissidents or minority factions within an existing political party from creating their own political party.

The Dutch electorate used to be one of the more predictable electorates in western Europe until the 1960s, but since then it has turned into one of the most unpredictable and unstable electorates in Europe. Until the 1960s, the Netherlands was a very polarized – or rather pillarized – society built up along four pillars – the Catholic, the Protestant, the “socialist” and the neutral or “liberal” pillars. Each pillar had its own church (or lack thereof), its own newspapers, its own schools, its own unions, its own social activities and, of course, its own political party(ies). The Catholic Party, successively known as the AB, RKSP and KVP, received nearly 80-90% of the votes in the heavily Catholic provinces of Limburg and North Brabant. Protestants split their votes between the ARP (which represented the Reformed Churches), the CHU (which represented the Dutch Reformed Church) and the so-called testimonial parties which represented small, traditionalist, Orthodox (Calvinist) churches. The SDAP, and after the war the Labour Party (PvdA) and the Communists (CPN) represented the socialist pillar. The pillarized society was completed by liberal parties, most significantly the liberal-conservative VVD in the post-war era.

Pillarization declined in the 1960s, victim of the secularization common to all Western European societies. Between 1918 and 1963, the three major confessional parties (KVP, ARP, CHU) polled roughly 50% of the votes altogether (and were the mainstays of every government), but by the 1972 election these three parties only accounted for 31% of the votes. In 1977, to confront their decline, the Catholic and Protestant parties (ARP and CHU) came together to form the non-denominational Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA). In these years, Dutch politics were also marked by the growth of new political actors, representing emerging ideologies. There was the left-liberal and reformist Democrats 66 (D66), the left-wing Christian PPR, the eco-socialist and pacifist PSP, a destalinized CPN and smaller movements on the far-right and the far-left (including a small Maoist-oriented Socialist Party, SP).

Since then, the tendency has been one of electoral instability. To be fair, a lot of this electoral instability takes place within the ideological blocs (left and right) rather than between the larger ideological blocs, but since the turn of the century, the list of parties which have had their rise and fall is long. Most will remember the Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) in 2002-2003, which won 17% in 2002 on the heels of Fortuyn’s assassination, but collapsed to 5.7% in 2003. Most recently, in 2010, the CDA collapsed to fourth place with 15.5% of the vote, its worst result in its history, while Geert Wilders’ far-right PVV surged to 15.5% and 24 seats. In 2006, the Socialist Party (SP) placed a very strong third with 16.6% and 25 seats but in 2010 it fell back to only 15 seats and 9.8%. D66, finally, has a famously fluid electorate, which has allowed the party to win as much as 15.5% (1994) and as little as 2% (2006).

Opinion polls in the Netherlands since January 2012 (source:

This election was another textbook example of the Dutch electorate’s instability. Going into the election, the VVD was running neck-and-neck with the SP, with the PvdA trailing quite badly. This was attributed to the PvdA’s lackluster performance in opposition since 2010 and the popularity of SP leader Emile Roemer. The SP ran a markedly left-wing anti-austerity and Eurosceptic platform, it opposed raising the retirement age, opposed the Rutte cabinet’s stringent austerity measures and said that it would net feel obliged to abide by the EU’s 3% deficit limit. If you are interested about each party’s platform, the Votematch test in English matches you up with a party and allows you to explore party positions on major issues.

However, just as everybody was preparing for an election which would have placed the SP on nearly equal footing with the VVD, the SP started collapsing rapidly as the PvdA surged back. The last-minute reversal was attributed to a very strong debate performance from the PvdA’s new leader, Diederik Samsom, and negative press about the SP (an independent economic analysis agency projected major job loses based on the SP’s platform).

Turnout was 74.3%, down from 75.4% in 2010. The results were:

VVD 26.58% (+6.09%) winning 41 seats (+10)
PvdA 24.81% (+5.17%) winning 38 seats (+8)
PVV 10.11% (-5.34%) winning 15 seats (-9)
SP 9.66% (-0.16%) winning 15 seats (nc)
CDA 8.52% (-5.09%) winning 13 seats (-8)
D66 8.00% (+1.05%) winning 12 seats (+2)
CU 3.13% (-0.11%) winning 5 seats (nc)
GL 2.34% (-4.33%) winning 4 seats (-6)
SGP 2.1% (+0.36%) winning 3 seats (+1)
PvdD 1.93% (+0.63%) winning 2 seats (nc)
50PLUS 1.88% (+1.88%) winning 2 seats (+2)
Others 0.95% (+0.24%) winning 0 seats (nc)

Google Politics (again) has the best map for visualizing results at the municipal level.

The election ended as a very closely fought contest between the liberal VVD and the PvdA, with both parties achieving very high levels of support. The VVD itself, with 26.6% of the vote and 41 seats, won its best result in its history, while the PvdA has won its best result since the 2003 election (27.3%). This particularly heavy polarization around the two major parties is rather impressive when you consider that the PvdA surged into contention only in the final stretch of the campaign.

Winners and Losers

Mark Rutte and the VVD are the clear winners of the election. As noted, 26.6% and 41 seats is the best result ever won by the VVD or in fact, any liberal party in the Netherlands since the introduction of proportional representation in 1918. Rutte’s government is probably not phenomenally popular, but Mark Rutte is a fairly popular leader who is rather well liked by the wider electorate. He apparently gives off a “fresh” and straight-talking vibe, which is a contrast with his CDA predecessor Jan-Peter Balkenende. Even if his government took some unpopular decisions and was embroiled in some controversies, Rutte was able to successfully deflect almost all major controversies which could have hurt him.

While no trend is set in stone in Dutch politics, the VVD has emerged as the main right-wing party, taking the spot which the CDA had usually occupied. This shift has paralleled a significant ideological shift in the VVD, part of which has likely been the result of the rise of the far-right in Dutch politics. The VVD has adopted increasingly conservative positions on immigration, law and order or crime; while retaining its traditional economically liberal views on taxes, government spending and so forth. I guess comparisons could be made with Denmark, where the mainstream right-wing party – the Liberals – hold conservative views on immigration but liberal views on economic policy. However, the comparisons stop there; the Danish Liberals have usually been the major party on the right, and its original base is predominantly rural rather than urban.

The VVD has been able to break out of its traditional urban upper middle-class electorate and dig deep into the ranks of former CDA voters. I don’t have data, unfortunately, on vote transfers in this election, but I would logically suspect that the VVD’s gains this year came in large part on the back of the CDA’s loses. Indeed, the areas where the VVD gained the most since 2010 are primarily rural municipalities where the CDA had previously been dominant.

In the past, the VVD’s strongholds had been in the extensively urbanized Randstad region of Holland, where it polled best in wealthy upper middle-class suburban municipalities. This year, while the Randstad provided the VVD with its best results, the VVD won municipalities across the board, including in rural areas in the south and in the east where the CDA had found its last bastions of support in the 2010 election.

The VVD likely gained some voters from the PVV. Indeed, the municipality in which the VVD gained the most support from 2010 (Edam-Volendam) is also the municipality where the PVV lost the most support (but turnout also dropped considerably there…). Though I have not crunched the numbers, I don’t see a whole lot of evidence for the idea that there was a significant numbers of voters who switched from the PVV to the VVD. While 56% of PVV voters in the final poll by Maurice de Hond indicated a preference for Rutte over Samsom for Prime Minister, this is much less than with CDA voters (81% preferred Rutte over Samsom). There are grounds for some PVV voters to have switched to the VVD in this election. Some right-wing voters who had backed Wilders in 2010 primarily because of immigration could have backed Rutte’s VVD this year without too much unease, considering how far to the right Rutte (pushed by the PVV) had pushed Dutch immigration policy since 2010. However, it is hard to see voters who backed the PVV in 2010 as a populist/protest option switch allegiances in large number to the VVD.

The PvdA clearly had a very successful election, especially if you consider how badly the campaign had started for them. A month ago, if somebody had said that the PvdA would end up with 38 seats and come within a hair of first place, most would have laughed them off. Since the 2010 election, already an underwhelming result for the party, the PvdA had performed relatively poorly in the opposition and bled many supporters to the SP. Until the last week of August, the PvdA was projected to win less than 20 seats and finish a distant third behind the VVD and the SP. Polls showed that a significant share of voters who had backed the PvdA in the 2010 election were planning to vote for the SP, but Diederik Samsom’s very strong performance in a debate really turned the tide around and by the first few days of September, the PvdA was narrowly ahead of the SP and its support started soaring past even its 2010 results (30 seats) and was tied with (or narrowly trailing) the VVD in the final polls, both parties predicted to win more or less 35-37 seats each. It is quite remarkable that Samsom managed to convince voters who were on the verge of abandoning the PvdA for the SP throughout most of the campaign to come back home.

Samsom and the PvdA clearly had the momentum going into the election, and he benefited from the “curtain bonus” – that last-minute switch in voter allegiance which is commonplace in Dutch elections – at the expense of the SP. Voter allegiance is soft in the Netherlands, and there is much fluidity on the left. Such sudden reversals are not unknown (but they are quite impressive nonetheless) in the Netherlands, and it is no surprise that much of the SP’s additional support was (very) soft support from unhappy PvdA voters.

In the final week, the election really shifted into a polarized one-on-one battle between Rutte (VVD) and Samsom (PvdA). The PvdA (and the VVD)’s apparent “curtain bonus” is likely the result of strategic voting on both the left and the right. On the left, many voters may have liked Roemer and the SP and considered him, but ultimately there certainly was heavy strategic voting for the PvdA in the hope that Samsom would place first, making him the frontrunner to become Prime Minister. After all, around 75% of SP voters indicated their preference for Samsom over Rutte as PM in Maurice de Hond’s last poll.

After a paltry debate performance by Roemer and a very strong performance by Samsom, many left-wingers likely judged Samsom to be more prime-ministerial and on top of the issues than Roemer. After all, the SP’s “soft” gains came from 2010 PvdA voters who were disappointed with the way the party, led by Job Cohen, had performed in opposition. After Samsom proved himself, many of them naturally flowed back.

With the “prime ministerial” nature (rather than purely legislative) of the election in the final week and the extent of strategic voting on both sides, I can’t help but draw comparisons to the 1977 election which had seen a similarly polarized “prime ministerial” contest between the PvdA’s Joop den Uyl and the CDA’s Dries van Agt. In 1977, the PvdA ran under the slogan “Vote for Prime Minister” and the result was a consolidation of left-wing votes behind Joop den Uyl’s party, at the expense of smaller left-wing parties like the CPN, PPR or PSP. Of course, there was no similar consolidation of the right-of-centre vote in 1977.

The PVV, after a very successful election in 2010, tumbled down the stairs in 2012 (though 10% is still a fairly significant base of support). Since 2006, Wilders’ political ascension was described by many as irresistible. He played the other parties off against themselves and gained the support of a significant number of voters with his fiery anti-Islam, anti-immigration populist rhetoric. The 2010 election, after which the PVV managed to get the government to implement some of the tough immigration laws it wanted (in return for supporting the government’s austerity measures), was perhaps the peak of Wilders’ power.

While the PVV did not participate in the Rutte cabinet and only propped it up from the outside (even if Wilders tried to play the role of the opponent at the same time), being close to an incumbent government is rarely a good idea for any far-right party in any country (especially under the present economic conditions). It is much easier for the far-right to grow while it is in opposition, and can freely oppose any government policy.

The far-right’s appeal is built on the rejection of other parties, their ideologies, their style, their policies and their record. Naturally, once a far-right party becomes closely associated with a government, it risks becoming tainted by any unpopular decisions that government might have taken and its own voters might perceive it as guilty by association.

The PVV has shifted towards some fairly ‘left-wing’ positions on certain economic issues such as pensions, wages and so forth. However, at the same time, Wilders’ party supported a cabinet which implemented pretty stringent austerity measures. The far-right, the PVV no different, always has a strong attraction for lower-income voters who feel as if they have been “forgotten” by the major parties and see in the far-right a way to protest their perceived exclusion from society. I would assume, though without data to back me up, that the PVV likely lost a lot of those voters this year.

Other factors also played against Geert Wilders this year. Firstly, in the run up to the elections, there was much public infighting within the party. One of its MPs, Hero Brinkman, left the party in March 2012. Some other members left the party, some citing Wilders’ autocratic leadership of the party. Though Brinkman’s splitoff party, the “Democratic Political Turning Point” (I have no clue what’s that supposed to mean!) won only 0.1% (7.6k votes) of the vote, public infighting is never beneficial for any party.

Immigration was a major issue in the 2010 election, something which obviously played to Wilders’ advantage. This year, immigration did not feature as prominently in the election, rather the economy was the overarching issue. Wilders attempted to reinvent himself and move outside of the far-right’s traditional reliance on its niche issue, immigration. He ran a very anti-European, anti-Euro campaign, presenting himself as the defender of Dutch sovereignty against Brussels. He called on the Netherlands to ditch the euro and readopt its old currency, the guilder.

When he pulled the plug on the government in April, Wilders was convinced that he would have the momentum on his side and that voters would flock to his party in the context of the Euro crisis. However, for the first time in a long time, Wilders apparently miscalculated. To some of his original voters, he had lost his credibility by backing a pro-austerity government. Other voters grew tired of Wilders’ roughshod style and his incessant aggressiveness towards other party leaders. In this election, Dutch voters expressed not only a ‘pro-European’ choice but also a vote for political stability.

Many voters disapproved of Wilders’ decision to pull on the plug on the government, in addition to his other antics. Voters wanted stability, they don’t want another election and they don’t really like politicians like Wilders who topple government for partisan reasons.

The PVV lost 5.3% support compared to the 2010 election. It lost the most, by far, (-9%) in Limburg province, Wilders’ home turf and the PVV’s strongest province (it won 17.7% in Limburg this year, a far cry from the impressive 26.7% the party got there in 2010). In Limburg, his decline likely helped the SP a bit. However, in general, it seems as if a good share of those 2010 PVV voters who abandoned Wilders this year shifted towards the ranks of non-voters, with smaller amounts shifting to the VVD or the SP.

People should not be writing Geert Wilders’ obituary just yet. He remains a very strong politician with a remarkable ability to hurt other parties, and this defeat may only be a setback for the party. The PVV will be in opposition no matter what during the next legislature, and being in opposition is, of course, the most lucrative spot for a far-right party like the PVV. Just because Wilders lost 9 seats doesn’t mean that he’s politically dead, nor does it mean that the ideas which he represents in the Dutch political discourse have been soundly rejected. The electorate’s general mood in the Netherlands remains pretty conservative on immigration and integration issues, and regardless of what happens to Wilders and the PVV from this point forward, he will have left his mark on Dutch politics and policy for quite some time.

The SP had a very disappointing election, victim of the legendary volatility of the Dutch electorate. I don’t need to restate that the SP was on track to winning an historic result and place itself in contention for first place, until the train totally came off the rails and it lost everything it had gained back to the PvdA. Furthermore, at the last moment, the SP lost another chunk of support. Final polls had predicted that it would win 20 seats, still a modest improvement over its 2010 results (15 seats), but it managed to win only 15 seats and remain at its 2010 levels. We can attribute this last-minute shift away from the SP, likely to the PvdA, to strategic/tactical voting for Samsom and Labour.

I’m not sure if SP leader Emile Roemer deserves blame for this very underwhelming result. Sure, he’s responsible and his debate performance was apparently sub-par, but I feel as if he was the inadvertent victim of the Dutch electorate’s legendary volatility and of the fact that most of the SP’s impressive gains earlier in 2012 was apparently very “soft” in nature. Perhaps voters on the left did prefer pro-European options like the PvdA, maybe they did prefer a more “prime ministerial” leader like Samsom over an untested populist leader like Roemer. I’m not Dutch and can’t judge the campaigns, but my opinion is that Roemer and the SP didn’t necessarily lead a bad campaign, just that it turned out that the PvdA ran a (much) better campaign which was closer to the political desires of left-wing voters.

Nevertheless, it was a very disappointing result for the SP in the end. It was really on the edge of making a fairly historic breakthrough, but everything seemed to come off the rails for SP at the last moment. When the rain started falling on the SP, it really poured. Its gains – all its gains – evaporated at a dizzying pace.

The SP held up better in its traditional southern strongholds, where the party grew its first roots in the 1980s and 1990s, rather than in the left-wing areas of the north where the SP’s strength is more recent. The party won only one municipality this year, Boxmeer in North Brabant, which is Emile Roemer’s hometown. It placed a close third with 20% in Oss, a working-class town in North Brabant which was the SP’s first stronghold (by the 1980s). In working-class regions of Limburg and North Brabant, the SP benefited from the traditional weakness of the other major left-wing parties (PvdA, CPN) in these two heavily Catholic provinces which voted monolithically for the KVP until the 1970s.

The CDA had an horrible election. With a puny 8.5% of the votes, the party won its worst result in its history. From an historical perspective, this is really something which is quite exceptional. Consider, for a moment, what the CDA was. It was the merger of three parties which had been the mainstay of basically every government in Dutch history since 1918, it is a party which represents (represented?) the Christian democratic tradition which had been the dominant force of the “right” in the Netherlands. The CDA wasn’t the natural governing party because Dutch politics don’t work like that and the CDA had some pretty terrible results prior to 2010 already (1998), but the CDA is/was very much the natural party of government. Since the CDA’s foundation in 1977, the only time it was not in government was between 1994 and 2002 with the Purple coalitions of Wim Kok. Prior to that, every government since 1918 had included at least one of the CDA’s three ‘mother parties’.

The CDA’s original collapse in the last election was because its incumbent PM, Balkenende, had really served his time and voters had grown tired of him and his inability to keep his governments together for very long. Following the 2010 defeat and Balkenende’s resignation as leader, the CDA remained in government, but it lacked a permanent leader until earlier this year (its de facto leader and Deputy PM in Rutte’s government, Maxime Verhagen, was extremely unpopular). It’s certainly not very good for a junior coalition partner to lack a permanent leader for two years.

The CDA proved to be an utter disaster as a junior coalition partner, with the appearance that it was getting run over by the VVD and the PVV. The CDA keep insisting throughout the Rutte government that it was, fundamentally, a “centrist” party. Unsurprisingly, it’s a tough sell to explain a centrist party’s participation in a government which most have judged to have been one of the most right-wing in recent Dutch history, one which was propped by the far-right.

Lacking a strong leader and devoid of any particularly attractive ideas, the CDA was utterly crushed at the polls. Since 2010, the CDA really had the appearance of an ideologically ambiguous party which was particularly eager to remain in government, at any possible price, including sacrificing what it claimed to have stood for. Many CDA voters voted for the VVD this year. Senior coalition partners in the Netherlands usually receive a “Prime Minister bonus” when they seek reelection, provided they are not unpopular.

The CDA’s electoral geography shows how far the party has fallen. It won only two rural municipalities in Overijssel this year. The party has dropped down into irrelevance in the bulk of the urbanized Randstad region of Holland, it won only 2.2% in Amsterdam (less than the animals’ party!) and won low single digits across all major urban areas. But it has dropped off to single digits in the North Brabant and Limburg, the old monolithic strongholds of the Catholic Party. In 2010, it held on to a rump of support, largely rural and predominantly from the east (Overijssel in particular). This year, it lost that last remaining base of support, largely to the VVD.

What the CDA desperately needs is a really long stay in opposition, where it can try to reinvent itself, ask itself who it as a party and where it must go from this point forward. As it stands right now, the VVD has really supplanted it as the major right-of-centre force in Dutch politics, and while Dutch voters are very volatile, I admittedly have a hard time seeing the CDA roar back to its former glory in the next election unless it has some fabulous leadership material which I don’t know about.

D66, on the other hand, had another good election. The party has a famous tendency to see its support evaporate once it enters government (see, for example, the 2006 election for D66 after it was in government between 2003 and 2006). After the 2006 election, D66 and its leader, Alexander Pechtold, gained a solid reputation as one of the vocal opponents of Geert Wilders.

I’m not really sure where D66’s minor gains this year came from. It improved most in places where it usually strong, gaining, for example, over 3% in Amsterdam and Utrecht. Are these GL voters unhappy with all the infighting within their party? Are these a few VVD voters who disapproved of the right-wing direction their party had taken? D66’s electorate is remarkably volatile and the party generally attracts highly educated, middle-class social-liberal voters without a strong partisan affiliation.

The GroenLinks (GreenLeft) had a very bad election, its worst result since the GL’s creation in 1989. GL’s significant loses can be attributed to internal infighting and the party’s unsuccessful ideological transitions. In recent months and weeks, the GL was wracked by internal wranglings, with dissident MPs denouncing the leadership of Jolande Sap or retiring MPs revealing how group communication had broken down within the party. It is never a good idea for any party to let its dirty laundry hang outside.

Since 2002-2003, the party has attempted to transform itself ideologically. Since the 1980s, all major Dutch parties (CDA, VVD, D66, PvdA, SP) have shifted to the right to an extent or another, and the GL has been no exception. Early on, the party leadership worked to marginalize the ‘radicals’ – pacifists, eco-socialists or activist types. Under the leadership of Femke Halsema and now under Jolande Sap, GL has tried to present itself as a pragmatic, responsible centre-left party. The party supported the wars in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, already a significant shift for a party whose ancestors included staunch pacifists (from the PSP). In 2011, the party’s decision to back the government’s extension of the Dutch police training mission in Afghanistan generated much controversy within the party. On economic issues, the party also progressively shifted to the right, for example supporting measures which would make it easier for employers to fire employees. Its goal was to profile itself as a responsible and respectable centre-left party which backed “innovative” economic policy.

Halsema had defined herself and the party as “left-liberal” or social-liberal, which was outrageous for some of the party’s core activists, who resented a shift from the “radical left” to the centre-left. It must be remembered that the GL’s ideological shift rightwards is a long-term process, and it was initially met with some success. What seems to have destroyed the party was its decision, after the PVV pulled the plug on the government, to support the centre-right government’s emergency budget (the Spring Agreement). The Spring Agreement, in which all signatory parties agreed that the country should meet the EU’s 3% deficit limit at all costs, was supported by the VVD/CDA, the CU, D66 and the GL. The GreenLeft didn’t come out empty-handed, but it did accept major cuts in entitlements and social services.

In seeking to reinvent itself, the GL has seemingly forgotten who it was to begin with. It may have a responsible governance-oriented leadership, but it lacks clear political coherence and has a demotivated membership and a leaky electorate. Basically, in joining the Spring Agreement and shifting to the right, the party’s leadership severely miscalculated and seemed to have forgotten who its electorate was. The party’s electorate is fundamentally left-wing, but the party’s leadership basically preferred to transform GL into a second D66. D66 already successfully serves the role of a centre-left, social-liberal and ‘responsible’ party, there is no room for a second D66.

The party’s electorate was either demotivated or disillusioned by GL, especially after the Spring Agreement. Most of GL’s sizable loses likely flowed to the PvdA, maybe a few to D66, the SP and the animals’ party.

The Christian testimonial parties remained, roughly, at their levels. The SGP did manage to win a third seat, the first time since 1998, and its best popular vote result since 1973; something which is particularly amusing but also interesting, though I guess that people in that small gene pool reproduce really well (it likely also regained votes that it had lost to the PVV in 2010). The CU lost a bit, but it held its 5 seats. These two uniquely Dutch parties represent conservative, traditionalist factions of the Dutch Protestant (or Reformed) church, the so-called bevindelijk gereformeerd.

The SGP remains the most traditionalist (and openly theocratic) of the two parties, it is famous for shutting down its website on Sundays and for banning women from the party until quite recently. During the campaign, SGP leader Kees van der Staaij echoed Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape”, stating that he believes that women who get raped seldom become pregnant. The party has a small but extremely tight-knit, solid electorate concentrated in the Netherlands’ Bible Belt, a conservative religious region where church attendance remains high. The former island of Urk is a noted stronghold of this ultra-conservative Protestant tradition, the SGP won 51% in Urk this year with the CU pulling in 18%.

The CU is a more ‘open’ party, which accepts participating in governments, and has attempted to open itself to conservative Catholic voters as well. It was formed by the merger of two parties, one of which represented a 1944 split in the Reformed Churches and which was closely tied to that church, and another party which represented orthodox Protestants who rejected the merger of the ARP and CHU within the CDA. The CU has very right-wing positions on moral (‘social’) issues and is Eurosceptic, but it is more left-wing on economic issues. It too is predominantly concentrated in the Bible Belt region.

The Animals’ Party (PvdD) held its two seats and came very close to winning a third seat, with 1.9% of the vote, it has won its best result yet. The party’s additional support this year likely came from particularly environmentalist left-wing GL supporters. Another party made its entrance into the Second Chamber, 50PLUS, a new centre-left pensioners’ party.

Government Formation

The VVD/CDA/(+PVV) coalition will not be continued, it no longer has a majority (only 69 out of the required 76 seats) and the PVV has announced that it will be in opposition regardless. There are relatively few options on the table, which means that the formation of the new government – probably still led by Mark Rutte – will probably not take as long as in 2010.

The option which almost all parties seem to accept is a small Purple government, similar to the Wim Kok cabinets between 1994 and 2002 which included the PvdA and the VVD (plus D66). Both of these parties on their own hold 79 seats, but they lack a majority in the Senate. The two parties will negotiate with each other first, and then they will invite other parties to join negotiations. There a few roadblocks on the way. The PvdA has shifted slightly to the left since the Kok Purple cabinets of the 1990s, while the VVD has shifted to the right since then. The two parties are pro-European but they have disagreements on economic issues (austerity) or healthcare (the VVD supports private options in healthcare). A small Purple government would probably not last for its full term, but both parties have some interest in working together in a relatively stable pro-European government.

Still, a small Purple government remains the top possibility. It could be extended to the CDA (which doesn’t seem to understand that they really, really need some time-out from governments!) and D66. During the Kok cabinets, D66 was seen as the glue which held the PvdA and VVD together. It seems interested in the possibility of participation in a VVD/PvdA cabinet, as does the CDA. VVD+PvdA+D66 would still lack a majority in the Senate, but VVD+PvdA+CDA or VVD+PvdA+D66+CDA would have senatorial majorities.

If negotiations between the VVD and the PvdA ultimately fall through, the PvdA has signaled interest in trying to work out something with the SP (a shift from the party’s attitudes in previous years, when it was very reticent of working with the SP), which rejects a VVD/PvdA cabinet but is interested in a centre-left government with the PvdA. A “red” coalition with only the PvdA and the SP would lack a majority, so it would need the participation of the CDA and D66. However, neither of these two centrist parties seem too keen on the idea of working with the SP.

It will be interesting to observe the effects of a new government, even with the same Prime Minister, on Dutch politics. Was the PVV’s big tumble a final defeat or only a setback along the way? Are the CDA’s days as one of the major parties in Dutch politics gone for good, or can the party roar back spectacularly? What is the next step for the SP after a very underwhelming election? Will D66’s possible participation in cabinet lead to the party getting hammered, as per tradition? Where will the GreenLeft go from here? So many questions, and so many answers which will be so interesting (like everything in Dutch politics!).


Posted on September 15, 2012, in Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Nice article.
    “The CDA wasn’t the natural governing party because Dutch politics don’t work like that… but the CDA is/was very much the natural party of government.”
    What did you mean by that?
    Also, perhaps you would be interesting in reading my own article about the election (written a few days before 12 September):

  2. Another fascinating analysis which made me much more familiar with Dutch politics and their recent trends. The election in itself was pretty fascinating, with such sharp trends (even though the result is not exactly optimal in my view). Still, there’s little doubt that the next Dutch government will be better than the previous one.

  3. Good post as always. I notice that in a few places, you speculate about what the exact vote transfers will have been, between parties, compared to 2010. I haven’t seen any exit poll data about that, or any exit poll about voting behavior by demographics. (In 2010, exit pollster Synovate posted some charts about those questions a couple of days after the elections, but this time they don’t seem to have done so yet.) However, pollster Maurice de Hond did a post-election poll about exactly those things: what voter shifts took place, and what’s the behavior by demographics? His write-up is in Dutch, but should be largely decipherable (what, with all the party acronyms), and is online here: . Cheers.

  4. 1.: PvdA may have received many GL-votes, as Samsom is a Greenpeacer. 2.: CDA had no good time in opposition either.

  5. The reason for the SGP gaining a third seat is almost certainly to do with turnout. I can guarantee that its not because of them taking votes from the PVV. The SGP’s vote is incredibly loyal. It exchanges votes with no party.

    The point about the growth in population from high fertility does have some validity albeit only slight. No the reason is turnout. SGP’s voters are incredibly loyal. If you look at the municipalities it wins you’ll see turnouts North of 90% in some of them.

    So when turnout is low amongst the population at large, the SGP can gain a third seat. This is the lowest turnout election since 1998 when the SGP also got a third seat.

    Oh and additionally the CDA did have a potential leader who was extremely popular and loved amongst the population at large – former Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager. Unfortunately he didn’t run in this election as he is apparently tired of politics. Even if they changed their minds and decided to make him ljisttrekker next time he’s Protestant and the informal rules of the CDA state that the next leader has to be a Catholic as the current (Sybrand van Haersma Buma) is Protestant and it switches between the two. The Catholic side of the CDA is rigidly hierarchical, so if Haersma Buma decides to resign, for whatever reason, the next leader will be whoever is currently considered the most senior Catholic (I’m not sure who that is, I’m afraid). The Protestants are a bit more meritocratic and prefer a leadership election.

    OH! And a third comment

    We should be aware of the possible negative effects of a Purple coalition. The last Purple coalition became too comfortable and close. The similarity between parties lead to a feeling that ‘they’re all the same’. This created an opening which was filled by Pim Fortuyn, something which the Netherlands is still feeling the aftershocks from today. Less well known the 2002 election actually saw the growth of the SP from 5 seats to 9 as well.

    Purple coalitions are a recipe for success for the flanks. By wedging together the centre-left and centre-right party they leave nowhere for disaffected voters, and there will be many on both sides, to go but the extremes. If the CDA can get its act together as an opposition party there may be hope, but previous records are not particularly encouraging. The CDA knows how to govern from the centre and that’s it. It’s useless as an opposition party just as its useless as a junior coalition partner.

    The next election will be a great opportunity for the SP and the PVV…

  6. Chris, I’m not entirely sure I agree about the SGP vote. Of course, you are right – compared with any other party’s electorate (at home or abroad, I’d almost add), the SGP vote is incredibly loyal and stable. There’s a reason the party has had either 2 or 3 seats in parliament since the 1920s. But the turnout explanation for the party’s third seat doesn’t immediately seem to hold water, since turnout this year was barely below 2010’s. Turnout two years ago was 75.4%; this year, it was 74.6%.

    The SGP did, in fact, gain a significant number of extra votes – it’s not just that the same number of votes translated into a higher percentage of the vote because of a change in turnout. In 2010, the SGP won 163.581 votes; now, 196.780 votes. So that’s a proportional increase in their absolute vote of something like 20%.

    Even the SGP, for all its exceptionality, can suffer or benefit from some exchange in votes. Take the ultimate SGP bulwark: the fishing village of Urk. Easily the highest percentage of votes for the SGP in the country. Also easily the biggest gains for the SGP in the country. Two years ago, the SGP won 39% of the vote there: 3.635 votes. This year, it won a whopping 51% of the vote: 5.161 votes. This is not a question of benefiting from lower turnout; nor, of course, is such a short-term shift the result of higher birthrates. It’s the SGP winning (or winning back?) votes from other parties.

    Not so much from the PVV, though, in this case. In Urk, the PVV went from 1.013 votes to 884; a loss, but not a major one. The CDA vote, however, went from 2.412 to 1.275. Seems a fairly straightforward shift in votes within the Christian camp, then.

    In most of its bulwarks, the SGP did not post similar gains. In Reimerswaal, Staphorst, Neder-Betuwe, the party’s runner-up best results, it gained some 3-4% more of the popular vote than in 2010 (still constituted 300-500 extra votes in each place though). There are, however, also towns like Bunschoten, where the SGP really wasn’t very strong at all but now clawed ahead significantly. In Bunschoten, the SGP went from 357 votes (3,0%) to 887 votes (7,5%), again apparently thanks to the implosion of the CDA vote.

    I have no idea, really, why the SGP was able to attract so many voters from the CDA in some of its bulwarks, like Urk, than in others, like Staphorst. Obviously, in municipalities where the CDA was already very small (like Neder-Betuwe), there wasn’t much to win, but the CDA wasn’t much smaller in Staphorst than in Urk. Would be curious about theories on that count.

  7. I’m surprised there’s that much exchange between CDA (Catholic and Mainline Protestant) and SGP (hardline fundamentalist). CU I can understand, as they’re pretty fundamentalist too, but I don’t see what in particular about the CDA and SGP would cause them to “share” certain voters. Great link nim! Can’t believe that the SGP got 1% of the non-religious vote. Did a bunch of people go to the ballot on peyote and choose somebody at random?

  8. Josh, maybe people like this poor guy on Reddit who voted for the SGP in 2010 because that’s the advice he got from the Kieswijzer website after plugging in his preferences … he smartened up and voted D66 this time :-) :

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