Dutch Government May Face Standstill After Elections to Senate

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition may be unable to do little more than tread water over the next two years, with elections Wednesday set to deprive it of a working majority in the upper house of parliament.

Rutte’s administration, made up of his Liberal Party and their Labor coalition partners, already needs support from three opposition parties to push bills and budget plans through the Senate. Polls suggest that all five groups may win no more than 33 seats out of 75 in the new upper chamber in The Hague, meaning Rutte would have to seek the help of even more opposition lawmakers to get new legislation approved.

“A majority will consist of so many parties with conflicting views on reform that it will be unable to do anything significant after the elections,” Andre Krouwel, an associate professor of political science at VU University in Amsterdam, said in an interview.

Since Rutte’s cabinet took office in November 2012 it’s had to come to agreements with the D66 Democrats and two religious-based parties to push through a 16 billion-euro ($17 billion) austerity package, changes to pensions and reforms to the housing market. With the next lower-house elections not due until March 2017, the premier may face difficulties in getting approval for an already-stalled health-care bill and tax changes intended to boost employment.

Wednesday’s elections in the 12 Dutch provinces are to choose regional councils. The newly elected lawmakers will in turn vote in May to select members of the Senate, which has to approve new laws passed by the directly elected lower chamber. The make-up of the upper house can be extrapolated from the provincial results, and NOS television will publish an exit poll when voting ends across the Netherlands at 9 p.m.

Seat Losses

The latest poll published by Ipsos suggests Rutte’s Liberals, known as the VVD, might lose four of their Senate 16 seats, with Labor, led by Diederik Samsom, losing half of their current 14 lawmakers. The coalition partners’ poll ratings have slumped since 2012 as a result of their austerity program.

D66, the Christian Union and the SGP Reform Protestants, the so-called constructive opposition parties that have backed Rutte in the Senate, are on course to take another 14 seats, leaving all five parties still five seats short of a majority.

Geert Wilders’s anti-Islam, anti-European Union Freedom Party is contesting first place with the Liberals, and is also set for 12 seats, according to the poll of about 1,100 respondents, carried out March 10-12. There’s a margin of error of two seats either way for each party. A TNS Nipo poll carried out March 12-15 showed similar figures.

Still Functioning

Even without a majority in the Senate, the government will be able to function, according to Krouwel, though it may be unable to push through major changes. “You can always make a budget plan without any reforms, and you can easily get that approved,” he said.

With this week’s election looming, Rutte and his Labor finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, have been attempting to strike a tough line on disbursing more emergency loans to Greece, whose deteriorating finances continue to dog the euro area.

“It’s up to the Greeks now,” Rutte told lawmakers in The Hague on Monday. “Funding will only be released if they fulfill all the conditions. This means they’ll have to show they’re acting, and if this doesn’t happen, they won’t get money.”

Rutte’s coalition is facing elections only one week after Liberal Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten and his deputy, Fred Teeven, resigned amid a scandal over money paid by the government to a convicted drug trafficker in 2000.

Christmas Crisis

It’s not the first time the government has been in trouble. Just before Christmas, a coalition collapse over the government’s health-care bill was averted by a last-minute deal, preventing early elections for the fifth time in ten years.

“It’s clear the cabinet wants to stay in position,” Sarah de Lange, associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, said in an interview. “It’s clear the Liberals and Labor will help each other out to stay in power. They work well together and they want to go on together.”

Without a Senate majority, Rutte may struggle to get sufficient support for the revised health-care bill, aimed at saving about 1 billion euros a year, which needs to go through both houses. Dijsselbloem also needs Senate approval for his income-tax cuts intended to help reduce unemployment, which the Finance Ministry estimates may cost the government as much as 5 billion euros.

Christian Democrats

One possible new partner for Rutte would be the Christian Democrats, his coalition allies in his previous government from 2010 to 2012, on course to win 11 seats, according to Ipsos. The party, though, is signaling it won’t be easy to win over.

“This country needs independent control of the cabinet,” Christian Democrat leader Sybrand van Haersma Buma said in an interview with the newspaper de Volkskrant published March 12. “That doesn’t mean that the Christian Democrats are the opposition, they’re going to reject everything. You can always come and talk to us. But I’m not, immediately after the elections, going to the prime minister to seal agreements for the next two years.”

Still, if Rutte’s government wants to push through more reform plans, it will be largely dependent on the Christian Democrats, according to de Lange. “Parties always get something in return for their support; it depends on what they can get,” she said.

With the economy forecast to grow 1.7 percent this year and 1.8 percent in 2016, and the central bank predicting a continued recovery in the housing market, the premier can perhaps afford to relax.

“Rutte will stay in power through the crisis,” Krouwel said. “When oil remains that cheap and the dollar keeps on moving into the right direction, Rutte doesn’t even have to get out of bed to improve the economy.”

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