Surprise. That was the overwhelming feeling in the Netherlands after the results of the elections on Wednesday. Surprise at the margin of victory for the VVD, even among party insiders themselves. But also surprise at the shocking loss of the Labour party, which entered the election as a governing coalition party with 38 seats but ended the day with a historic low of nine.
“The traditional bond with party politics has disappeared over the last 20 years .That in combination with our electoral system and the huge amount of parties that participate, means many voters waver and choose to vote differently in the last few days before the election,” Kees Aarts, a professor of electoral behaviour at Groningen University, told The Independent. That worked out well for Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who showed off his statesmanship in a diplomatic spat with Turkey during the last few days before the vote.
The result left a parliament that is more fragmented than ever, with 13 parties gaining seats. Although the VVD came out on top, it did so with the smallest number of seats a winning party has ever held, bar one occasion. Back in 2010, when Mr Rutte was also in charge, the party won even fewer seats. “It could become a very difficult formation,” Mr Rutte admitted in an interview on Dutch radio.
A first attempt will almost certainly be centred on Mr Rutte’s VVD party and the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Liberal Democrats (D66), who each won 19 seats. However, that constellation leaves the party five seats short of a majority.
GroenLinks, the party that was the biggest winner yesterday after it quadrupled its seats to 16, is most likely to be approached first. However, party leader Jesse Klaver said that any formation with the VVD party would be “difficult.”
Another option that would achieve a majority in parliament and the senate would be a coalition with the Christian Union and another smaller Christian party, the SGP. Yet that coalition would need to overcome disagreements on ethical issues, including expanding euthanasia and drug policy.
Geert Wilders’ PVV will be excluded from such formation talks. Most parties had already dismissed the option of ruling with the PVV before the elections due to the party’s extreme positions, which include plans to ban the Koran and the closure of all mosques. Now the PVV has only won five additional seats it becomes easy to justify the exclusion.
The PVV has missed a crucial opportunity, Mr Aarts said. “This was the election in which the PVV could and should have had a breakthrough to become the largest party in the Netherlands.”
The PVV’s base has held steady at roughly 13 per cent of the population since Mr Wilders started his own party in 2006. In 2012 Mr Wilders, who is the third-longest serving MP in the Netherlands, picked up 15 seats.
The problem for the PVV was how well the VVD did, not that it hasn’t managed to broaden its base, Mr Aarts said. “The strange thing about the electoral system in the Netherlands is that with 20% you can become the biggest … If VVD hadn’t done so well, the PVV could have been the biggest with 15%. So you only need a certain base, as long as the other parties are fragmented enough.” Mr Wilders is looking towards the future and tweeted on Thursday that he expects to win next time.
PVV supporters had mixed feelings about the result, which Mr Wilders hailed as a win. “The only consolation I have is that a lot of his positions were co-opted by the other parties. So I can hope that they will be executed in one way or another over the next few years,” Jolande Meijer told The Independent by phone. She has supported the party since its founding in 2006.
That shift to the right put the jubilant reaction across Europe, that populism had been vanquished, into perspective. The Dutch population overwhelmingly voted for centrist or centre right parties. A new party which presented itself as a civilised alternative for the PVV, Forum for Democratie, is entering parliament for the first time with two seats.