This commentary was sent exclusively to EurActiv by FRIDE.
"'It's the economy stupid!'," could have well been the title of this article. Whereas everyone expected immigration to be the main issue during the Dutch parliamentary elections held yesterday, the campaign focused on the economy and the necessary cutbacks as a result of the crisis.
All parties but Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) managed to switch from immigration to economics. Budgetary savings in all fields were highly debated and backed-up by strong data. During a TV show, a journalist even visited families presenting figures from Rotterdam University that showed how much money they would lose annually if the plans of the liberal VVD were to be implemented.
But crying low-income and welfare dependent voters did not hurt the economy-orientated VVD, led by Mark Rutte, which for the first time became the biggest party in parliament, having won 31 out of 150 seats. The liberal conservative VVD campaigned effectively and, surprisingly, won votes from low-income households; this despite being considered a party of the rich with a liberal character and close to the banking and financial sectors, which spurred the economic crisis and had to be saved through government interference.
While Geert Wilders was laughed at by his peers during TV debates for pushing for an extreme line on immigration and safety on the streets, many voters did not forget the issue. Even though polls in the weeks and days prior to the elections indicated that Wilders would win only 17 seats (currently he has nine), his party actually came in third, with 24 seats, following the VVD with 31 and the social democrats (PvdA) with 30 seats.
Clearly, some people shied away from openly expressing their preference for the relatively new populist movement, while the PVV also attracted many young first-time voters. Geert Wilders will now have to work to turn his movement into a party and avoid falling into the same situation as Pim Fortuyn did eight years ago when his radical party (LPF) won 26 seats in Parliament and joined the governing coalition: within six months, the LPF disintegrated due to bad management, inexperience and internal rivalries.
The impartial 'informateur' that will now be appointed by the Queen to evaluate possible coalitions will face a difficult task. The results are mixed, with seven parties having 10 or more seats in Parliament, while a ruling coalition would preferably need a strong majority of well over 75 seats. With two big right-wing parties at the forefront and a scattered five party left-wing coalition out of the equation (70 seats), there are only two possible main coalition scenarios.
The two main winners – the liberal VVD and Wilders' PVV – will probably try to form a coalition, but they need the Christian Democrats (CDA) on board if they are to achieve a tight 76-seat majority. Wilders has indicated that he is ready to govern and the VVD has expressed interest in joining the PVV, in which case the relatively young VVD leader Mark Rutte would become prime minister. However, it is unlikely that the Christian Democrats will be persuaded to join after their biggest loss ever, from 41 to 21 seats, and the immediate resignation of Prime Minister of eight years Balkenende as head of party (and soon as head of government).
The second likely option is to exclude the PVV and turn the clock back eight years. A 'purple' coalition of VVD (blue), PvdA (red) and Democratic '66 (green) ruled the Netherlands in the nineties, spurred on by a positive economic trend, but overlooked the issue of immigration. Right-wing politicians refer to the current political climate as the 'ruins of purple'. Now, this neither-right-nor-left coalition would need to include an additional party to reach a majority. With Green Left being as much of a winner as VVD and D66, such a coalition would have an 81-seat majority. The PvdA is likely to participate, but not wholeheartedly, since the social democrats lost three seats and because their new popular leader Job Cohen (former Amsterdam mayor) would not become prime minister; the social democrats have one less seat than the liberals. Moreover, many right-wing voters would be unhappy with purple, which might be considered indecisive from the outset.
With the PVV in government, Dutch foreign policy is likely to show some isolationist tendencies and a critical stance towards the EU. But the party mostly thrives on a home affairs and justice political agenda, and so it is unlikely that Geert Wilders will deliver a PVV foreign minister or will be allowed to do so by any coalition partner. The defence ministry might be on the cards. A coalition without the PVV will not result in any overhaul of the traditional broad economy and values-driven Dutch foreign and European policy objectives. However, with the liberal VVD on board, there could be a more critical stance towards the EU and Dutch financial contributions.
A variety of these and other coalition options appear to depend on Wilders, but also on Mark Rutte's willingness to give in to smaller parties' wishes. It is unclear how far the PVV will go in adapting to traditional Dutch party and compromise politics.
However likely the new Prime Minister Rutte thinks a new government can be formed by 1 July, coalition debates will probably go on throughout the summer. A new government will have to come up with a tough economic reform policy and budgetary cut-back programme, while convincing the divided electorate that they take immigration seriously. All this is again part and parcel of traditional Dutch party politics, which seems to have won a marginal victory over populism."
Jos Boonstra is a senior researcher at FRIDE.