The Dutch election is not what you might expect

With just six days left to go till the people of the Netherlands cast their vote for the 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives, we’ve taken a closer look at what to expect – and be surprised by – from 2017’s first big European vote.

The first thing to expect is a coalition government, with multiple parties gaining ground in the election – a common result spawning from the country’s proportional representation voting system.

In recent decades, the three largest parties talking the helm have been the CDA (Christian Democrats), PvdA (Social Democrats), and the VVD (for simplicity’s sake, the Conservatives of the three).

Given the decline of vote share given to this traditional trio over the past few decades, it can also be expected that the election won’t give a particularly strong result for any one party or set of parties.

The PvdA looks set to lose most of the 38 seats it won in 2012, while the CDA looks unlikely to recover from losses incurred in 2010.

We should expect that there will be no immediate or explosive change following the vote. There is no time limit for a government to form, and if the representative members change, this could take longer than we expect. Since 1946, the average coalition negotiation period has been 89.5 days.

Additionally, some elements of the Dutch voting system – assigning seats by the D’Hondt method – can mean opposing parties have to negotiate who to hand overspill seats to.

This means that the number of seats won on election day is often not the decisive factor in government formation; rather, parties’ ability to negotiate coalitions is critical.

Now – what not to expect?

Firstly, while it’s easy to draw parallels with the rise of the right and euroscepticism across the continent, especially given some shaky ground in Germany and Marine Le Pen’s popularity in France – painting the Dutch election with this loose brush should be avoided.

It’s no coincidence that while insiders and commentators are disregarding a potential Nexit, growing waves of uncertainty across the EU are prompting others to keep returning to the possibility.

However, a Eurobarometer poll of all EU countries in November 2016 showed that 77% of Dutch respondents are still in favour of the euro (above the EU-28 country average of 58%).

While recent polls have shown Geert Wilders’s populist, anti-EU, far-right PVV leading over the incumbent VVD, outside the traditional parties, there are few coalition opportunities for Wilders to gain real power.

Even in the improbable situation that Wilders assumes a controlling position in the next parliament, a legally binding ‘Nexit’ referendum would still be unlikely.

Under current Dutch law, public referenda are not binding. As such, both houses of parliament would need to pass legislation to effect a ‘Brexit’ style vote. Legislation for a binding referendum has been discussed, but needs a two-thirds majority across both houses.

Nuance is key

It’s often said that Dutch politics is a barometer for British politics – just a few years ahead – but this election could actually show a divergence between the two countries.

We cannot expect the Netherlands to follow a path down euroscepticism seen as inevitable by some, chiming with conversations around populism and the rise of the alt-right.

Crucially, European sentiment in the Netherlands is far different to that in the UK – and this is something we should remember with France, Germany or any other member state.

Pro or anti-EU sentiment is as different in the UK as it is France, in the Netherlands, Germany or Italy.

It is essential that we start seeing this nuance if we are to effectively communicate and connect with different member states after Brexit.

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