Dutch Take Steps Toward Coalition After Rutte Beats Wilders

  • Liberal health minister named to start informal discussions
  • Vote for Freedom Party’s Wilders falls short of expectations

Dutch Liberals Deliver Clear Win Over Populist Movement

Dutch political leaders took the first steps toward forming a new multiparty coalition government after Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals beat off a challenge from the anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders in Wednesday’s election.

The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Khadija Arib, met with the leaders of all the 13 parties in the newly elected legislature Thursday and announced that the Liberals, which took the most seats in the 150-member chamber -- 33 -- would take the lead in the process.

Arib named Liberal Health Minister Edith Schippers as a so-called scout -- verkenner in Dutch -- to hold initial informal consultations. It’s the start of a highly choreographed process of forming a new government that will last for weeks if not months. At least four parties will be needed for a parliamentary majority, and all the other leaders have ruled out any cooperation with Wilders, whose haul of 20 seats for his Freedom Party fell 10 short of his expectations.

Read how the Dutch coalition-forming process works.

“We are at the beginning of one of the most important processes in our parliamentary democracy,” Arib told reporters in The Hague. “It is customary for the biggest party to take the lead and nominate a scout who enjoys broad support.”

With votes now counted in all the country’s 388 municipalities, the Christian Democrats and the centrist D66 party were tied one seat behind Wilders on 19. With those two parties, Rutte would command 71 seats, just five short of a majority, making it likely that grouping will form the core of any new coalition.

The outcome was worse than the majority of opinion polls had suggested for Wilders, showing diminished support for his platform of pulling the Netherlands out of the European Union, abandoning the euro, closing Dutch borders and stopping all immigration by Muslims. The result suggests that the nationalist sentiment that prompted the U.K.’s Brexit vote and won Donald Trump the White House will struggle to secure as big a foothold in Europe’s core.

The euro climbed to the highest level in more than a month on the result before paring its gains on Thursday. The Dutch benchmark AEX Index rose as much as 0.9 percent to 516.11 at the opening in Amsterdam and was 0.4 percent higher at 5:13 p.m.

With key elections in France in April and May, then in Germany in September, Wednesday’s vote in one of the EU’s founding members was in the international spotlight like never before. Faced with the prospect of a major shift in the direction of their country, Dutch voters responded by flocking to polling stations: Turnout in Rotterdam, the second-biggest city, was the highest in more than 30 years.

‘Netherlands Said Stop’

“What a celebration it was for democracy today,” Rutte told supporters in The Hague. “After Brexit, after the U.S. elections, the Netherlands said stop to the wrong sort of populism.”

Now the domestic spotlight turns to the coalition talks. Forming a new government has taken an average 72 days over the years since World War II, and on one occasion, in 1977, it was 208 days before agreement was reached.

Rutte will need to make sure he has enough support to get legislation through the smaller upper house as well as the newly elected lower chamber. The last time there were this many parties in the lower house was in the 1970s.

“There is an enormous fragmentation,” Sarah de Lange, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, said in an interview. “Forming a coalition with a majority in both houses of parliament will be an enormous task, in which left and right will have to work together and smaller parties will be needed to get a majority.”

Green Success

The most obvious fourth partner for Rutte would be the Christian Union with five seats, a partner that would provide the slimmest possible majority in both chambers. But the Greens, who more than tripled their vote under 30-year-old leader Jesse Klaver and emerged as the biggest party in Amsterdam, will argue they should have a place around the cabinet table.

Schippers will start her consultations Monday and report back when the new lower house meets for the first time later next week.

Paradoxically, Rutte emerged as Wednesday night’s winner even though his party lost eight of its seats from the 2012 election, and Wilders was one of the losers although the Freedom Party picked up five seats.

Wilders’s opinion-poll lead was gradually eroded as the campaign neared its climax. Surveys on the eve of the election suggested a dispute with Turkey that Rutte was deemed to have handled well accelerated the trend. The Freedom Party is now set to be the main opposition force in parliament.

“Rutte isn’t rid of me yet, not by a long way,” Wilders tweeted Wednesday night. He later told reporters that “the patriotic spring will continue.”

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