Your Guide to Dutch Elections, a Bellwether to European Populism

  • Freedom Party set to lead in popular vote without taking power
  • Weeks, if not months, of talks needed for multiparty coalition

Geert Wilders.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

In normal times, nobody outside of the Netherlands takes much interest in a Dutch election. Now, a ballot on March 15 -- just as the populist surge sweeps Europe and the U.S. -- has raised the prospect that the Netherlands will be the next domino to fall.

But just how likely is that? Here are six charts that tell you.

Wilders Looks Set to Finish First

All the opinion polls are in agreement: The anti-Islam, anti-European Union Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders is ahead and poised to win the largest number of seats. But here’s the rub: On current trends, it will still have less than a quarter of the members in the new lower house.

The Dutch electoral system is based on fair shares for all: Essentially, about 0.67 percent of the national vote equals one seat in parliament. That means a multiplicity of parties. Coalitions are always needed. And none of the other main groups have expressed willingness to go into partnership with Wilders. Prime Minister Mark Rutte ruled it out altogether.

The Winner Doesn’t Necessarily Take It All

Taking first place confers no right to try and form a government, and there are historical precedents for the winning party being shut out of power. It’s happened three times since World War II.

Back in 1971, the four parties that formed the previous center-right government lost their majority in the election. They added the new Democratic Socialists, who had broken away from Labor, to form a five-party coalition. The new premier, Barend Biesheuvel, came from the third-largest grouping, the Anti-Revolutionary Party.

A More Fragmented Political Landscape

So multiparty politics are nothing new in the Netherlands. But over the past few decades, as elsewhere in western Europe, the traditional major parties have been losing ground to insurgent groups. And that’s a trend that makes building coalitions with a parliamentary majority that much harder.

The corollary is that the smaller groupings gain more clout. They are many and varied: two Christian parties that do well in the Netherlands’ so-called Bible Belt and an animal-rights party are well-established; one for the over-50s is set to join them in the chamber. Those four might get about 25 seats between them, polls indicate. And now a new party has been set up to appeal to the nonvoter.

The Election Is Just the Start

The process of forming a government in The Hague follows a well-worn yet time-consuming path. Parliament appoints a senior politician to take soundings, before a possible prime minister is named to finish the task of putting a team and a coalition accord in place.

Since World War II, it’s taken an average of 72 days to form a government. The speed record, dating from 1958, is 10 days. But be warned: A total of 208 days were required in 1977 to establish a coalition that consisted of only two parties.

How to Form an Anti-Wilders Coalition?

“The most likely outcome of the elections is for a coalition of four or five center-right and center-left parties,” Martin van Vliet and Dimitry Fleming at ING Groep NV in Amsterdam wrote in a Jan. 9 note to investors. But it’s going to be tricky. At the moment, the numbers don’t quite add up.

The four parties that cover the center spectrum would need to bring in a fifth partner to get to the magic 76-seat marker in the lower house. The Greens would make up the numbers, though party leader Jesse Klaver has said it’s very unlikely his party will team up with Rutte’s Liberals.

Another possibility: A myriad group of parties -- again involving the Greens -- has come together at times in recent years to back a Dutch police and military deployment in the Afghan province of Kunduz and a budget accord. But the so-called Kunduz coalition may not do the trick either.

And there’s one more thing to take into consideration: The new government will also need to ensure it has enough votes to get legislation through the indirectly elected upper house, the Senate. The positive for the mainstream parties is that either possible coalition outlined above would have a Senate majority.

— With assistance by Anne Van Der Schoot, and Corina Ruhe

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