Your Guide to Dutch Elections, a Bellwether to European Populism

  • Wilders’s Freedom Party now slipping in polls after leading
  • Weeks, if not months, of talks needed for multiparty coalition

The Anti-Islam Populist Who Wants to Run the Netherlands

In normal times, nobody outside of the Netherlands takes much interest in a Dutch election. Now, the 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 five charts that tell you.

Wilders’s Support Is Slipping

Late last year, all the polls were in agreement: The anti-Islam, anti-European Union Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders was ahead and poised to win the largest number of seats. But in the final month of the campaign, there’s been a marked shift, and now Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals are marginally ahead.

Even if the Freedom Party does come out on top, it looks likely to have less than a fifth 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 equates to one of the 150 seats 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. Rutte has ruled it out altogether.

The Winner Doesn’t Necessarily Take It All

Even if Wilders wins, 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 in the coalition, 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 boost its representation in the chamber. Those four might get about 20 seats between them, polls indicate.

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?

Most obviously, Rutte could keep his existing Labor coalition partners and add the Christian Democrats, with whom he’s worked previously, and the centrist D66. These four mainstream parties may just be able to reach to the magic 76-seat marker in the lower house. But it’s going to be tricky. At the moment, the numbers don’t quite add up.

So they might need to bring in a fifth partner. “A five-parties government led by PM Rutte is still the most likely after the elections,” economist Theo de Kort at ABN Amro Group NV in Amsterdam said in a March 2 note to investors. The Greens would certainly make up the numbers, though leader Jesse Klaver has been reticent about teaming up with Rutte’s Liberals and there are large policy differences between the two parties. The small Christian Union, which has supported the government in key votes before, is another possible ally.

There is 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 four mainstream parties is that they already have a comfortable Senate majority.

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

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