Dutch Disease Spreads in Europe as Party Allegiances Break Down

For a glimpse at the future of European government, take a look at the Netherlands.

Eleven parties in Parliament; a history of shaky coalitions; and no party with the support of more than 20 percent of the electorate. The result: only one Dutch government has lasted a full term in the past two decades.

That makes the Netherlands a European pioneer when it comes to political instability, as traditional party loyalties fray from the North Sea to the Mediterranean and around the Baltic. It’s a trend that groups like Podemos of Spain and the U.K. Independence Party are turning to their advantage, as increased polarization and a proliferation of small parties render coalition-forming and policy making more difficult. It’s also a lesson Britain may learn after it votes on May 7.

“They’re just ahead of the curve” in the Netherlands, Simon Hix, a professor of European politics at the London School of Economics, said in a phone interview. “I think we’re all heading down that route.”

Just before Christmas, ministers in The Hague breathed a sigh of relief as a last-minute deal on a health-care bill that could only be passed with opposition support averted a coalition collapse that might have necessitated early elections -- for the fifth time in ten years. Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte had to skip a European Union summit to sort out the crisis.

Rutte can be thankful his coalition lived to fight another day. Polls suggest early elections might have produced big losses for his alliance with the Labor Party after less than 2 1/2 years in power -- and gains for Geert Wilders’s anti-Islam Freedom Party, not to mention a group representing animal-rights campaigners and two Protestant Christian parties.

‘Fact of Life’

The latest coalition crisis had no effect on Dutch assets; Dutch government finances are stable, even amid the political instability. The same may not be true in the U.K., where the pound dropped after UKIP won a second special election in November.

“In this political landscape it has become a fact of life that a coalition constantly has to look out for opposition parties to close deals,” Wouter Koolmees, vice-chairman of Dutch opposition party D66, which won last year’s European elections, said in a phone interview.

Rutte’s coalition now has only 77 seats in the 150-member lower house of Parliament; two lawmakers of Turkish origin left Labor in November in a dispute over policy toward ethnic minorities.

Things are worse for Rutte in the indirectly elected upper house, where the two coalition parties have just 30 out of the 75 seats, and thus need to cut deals with the opposition, and that was where the pre-Christmas crisis came.

Crisis Talks

The coalition had reached agreement with three opposition parties -- including D66 -- to get its health bill, intended to achieve annual savings of about 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion), through the Senate. But then three Labor senators refused to back it because of concerns it gave health insurers too much power.

A compromise was reached, but only after Rutte’s missed trip to Brussels and late-night crisis talks with the opposition.

“In the Netherlands a majority is no certainty anymore,” the premier told reporters the following day. “I’ve often predicted that in the years to come, we will need to take into account that the coalition won’t always have a majority in both houses.”

Six Cabinets

Labor leader Wim Kok’s first government, formed in 1994, was the last in the Netherlands to serve out its full four-year term. Since then, six cabinets have collapsed. Jan Peter Balkenende, the Christian Democrat who succeeded Kok as prime minister, led four of them. His first, in 2002, lasted less than 100 days.

As in many Western European countries, Dutch politics became dominated by two main groups -- Labor and the Christian Democrats -- in the aftermath of World War II. Kok’s 1994 so-called purple coalition of Labor, D66 and the Liberals was the first to exclude the Christian Democrats since 1945.

“Everywhere in western Europe traditional parties are losing support and that goes side by side with the rise of new parties,” Sarah de Lange, associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, said in an interview. “At the same time there is increased polarization. Those new parties have become rather successful all over Europe and all operate on the extremes of the political spectrum.”

Dutch System

Wilders’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-EU Freedom Party is the latest in a series of such movements to gain prominence in the Netherlands, attracting about a fifth of the vote.

The splintering of the country’s politics is helped by an electoral system that means a party wins a lower-house seat if it garners 0.67 percent of the national vote. Compare that to Germany, where parties need a 5 percent share to gain seats, or the U.K, where minor parties are disadvantaged by the election of individual lawmakers on a district-by-district basis.

In Britain, though, the outcome of this May’s general election is looking increasingly uncertain as support for minor parties has grown.

UKIP, also campaigning on an anti-immigration, anti-EU platform, has drawn support from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives, while the Scottish National Party and the Greens have eaten into the vote share of Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The minor parties have about 25 percent of the vote, according to the latest polls, and look set to prevent either the Tories or Labour from winning a majority. Indeed, it’s possible to envision a scenario in which one of the big parties would need to gain the backing of two smaller ones to ensure it can get its bills through Parliament.

‘More Diverse’

Across Europe, “our countries and societies are now far more diverse and geographically split,” Hix said. That’s led to a decline in “mainstream parties that represent urban elites” and to “much more fluid party politics.”

UKIP’s success -- and that of Wilders -- is mirrored by the National Front in France and euro-skeptic, anti-immigration parties across Scandinavia.

In Spain, Podemos, an anti-austerity party founded only last year, has led in some polls as the country starts to look toward elections this year. The victory in Greece’s election last month of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of the anti-bailout Syriza movement, defeating the Pasok and New Democracy parties that have dominated Greek politics since the end of military rule in 1974, shows how far insurgent parties can go.

Latest Poll

Back in The Hague, the split in the Dutch vote is demonstrated by the latest poll from Peil.nl, published Jan. 25, suggesting Rutte’s party might lose 23 of the 41 lower-house seats it won in the 2012 elections, while Labor might lose 26 of its 38. Wilders’s Freedom Party had most support, equivalent to 30 seats.

With other parties unlikely to be willing to join a government led by Wilders, at least four groupings would need to come together to form a coalition with a majority on these poll showings.

For de Lange at the University of Amsterdam, early elections might be the only solution to the Dutch political disease.

“We know in general that after two years voters are unhappy with their government,” she said. “The current lack of trust is extreme.”

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