One Dutch Election the World Will Be Watching: QuickTake Q&A

Dutch Voters Head to Polls to Test Populism

Rarely has a Dutch election drawn this much global interest and financial-market attention. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, seeks to score another victory for populism as the Netherlands holds parliamentary elections on March 15. His party lost its lead in opinion polls in recent weeks, slipping behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals, and a couple of election-eve surveys showed the gap widening. But the race is still close enough to warrant the world’s attention.

1. What’s at stake?

The opportunity to form the next government of the Netherlands. But there’s no guarantee. Usually, the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the lower house of parliament gets to become prime minister. But on three occasions since World War II the winner has been excluded from the new coalition government. (Labor was the excluded party each time.)

2. What will determine the next prime minister?

Basically, the ability to form coalitions. The Netherlands has so many political parties -- a dozen hold seats in parliament -- that no one party has ever won a majority on its own. Win or lose, this will pose a challenge to Wilders, since most other parties have ruled out a tie-up with his Freedom Party. Even if it wins close to 30 seats, the upper end of its performance in polls, it’s well short of halfway to what it needs to form a majority in the 150-member lower house.

3. How many seats does a governing coalition need?

The magic number for a majority in the lower house is 76 seats. That’s how many Rutte will seek to cobble together for his Liberals in alliance with other mainstream parties -- Labor (his current coalition partner), the Christian Democrats and the centrist D66. The Greens will be seeking a role too, but there are big policy differences with the Liberals.

4. When do the polls close?

Polling stations across the Netherlands close at 9 p.m., and counting of the votes, which is done by hand, starts immediately. Polls will still be open for five more hours on three Dutch islands in the Caribbean -- Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius -- but they represent only a tiny fraction of the overall electorate of 12.7 million.

5. Is there an exit poll?

Ipsos is conducting one for broadcasters NOS and RTL, to be published just after 9 p.m. The first version, which will estimate turnout and the distribution of seats, is based on responses up to 8:30 p.m.; it’s updated at 9:30 p.m. with last-minute voters. It’s a big exercise: The pollsters expect to get about 38,000 respondents. By comparison, the 2015 exit poll in the U.K., a country with more than three times as many voters, had a sample of 20,000 respondents. Usually the exit poll is a pretty accurate prediction of the end result in the Netherlands. In 2012, it was a total of six seats off out of 150.

6. How are the seats divided up?

The total number of votes cast is divided by 150, the total number of seats, to determine the threshold for winning a seat. In 2012, it was 62,828. Then the cumulative total for each party is divided by the threshold to determine the number of seats it’s entitled to. The handful of seats left over are shared out according to a mathematical formula.

7. How long until official results come in?

Maybe as soon as 40 minutes after the polls close. The island of Schiermonnikoog off the north coast, with a little more than 1,000 voters, was the first to report official results in 2012. Don’t expect much insight from this and other tiny municipalities early on, but once enough representative results are declared the broadcasters will update their seat forecasts. The big cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam -- both historically Labor bastions -- aren’t likely to report until after midnight. There can be shifts in seat numbers late on if it’s close: The Liberals moved a seat ahead of Labor not long before 3 a.m. in 2010. There should be a preliminary result in the course of the night.

8. Will there be moves toward a coalition that evening?

Rutte and other leaders will be speaking at their parties’ election-night events. Some may express preferences, but others may keep their powder dry before assessing options in the cold light of dawn.

9. When do we get the final result?

Not until 4 p.m on March 21, when the the Dutch Electoral Council makes its formal announcement. But unless it’s really very close, the seat distribution shouldn’t change.

10. So how long before we get a new Dutch government?

There’s no fixed timetable. If the final result is anything like recent polls, which showed five parties not too far apart in terms of votes, discussions could take a while. Informal talks will start the day after the election, though the formal process doesn’t get going until the newly elected parliament meets for the first time on March 23. A senior politician will then be named to start the formal process of determining which parties might work together and which policy hurdles need to be overcome. It takes an average of about three months to form a coalition, but in 1977, the process lasted 208 days. The current government of Liberals and Labor was installed in 54 days after the 2012 elections.

The Reference Shelf

— With assistance by Corina Ruhe

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