The Dutch Waited 209 Days for a Government, and It's OK

Coalition talks in the Netherlands went on longer than ever, but they produced a meaningful result.

Got there in the end.

Photographer: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images

After the Netherlands' centrist prime minister, Mark Rutte, defeated a strong nationalist challenge in March, the country seemed to disappear from the radar. While no one was watching, it took Dutch parties 209 days -- the longest in the country's modern history -- to form a coalition that is shaky and may not last long. The arduous process and its underwhelming result are not signs of instability, however; it might even be an exemplary way to run a democracy.

The talks, which follow an elaborate process, with the parliament appointing outside mediators who help parties conduct talks and who are replaced if they fail, are extremely specific. They go into minute detail on the legislation the coalition intends to pass during its time in power. The current coalition, for example, agreed on a 55-page document that includes the elimination of the dividend tax, a cut in the corporate tax rate, deductions to stimulate home ownership, a plan to legalize small cannabis plantations, a move from appointed to elected mayors, measures to strengthen control over humanitarian immigration, and military and security budget increases.

It's an ambitious, solidly center-right program, with detailed costings, that looks more like it was compiled by one party. In fact, it's the fruit of difficult compromise, mainly between the socially liberal D66 party and the social conservatives from the small Christian Union, whose votes were necessary to give the government its one-vote majority in the parliament (apart from these two political forces, the coalition includes Rutte's centrist People's Party for Freedom and Democracy and the moderate Christian Democratic Appeal). The CU's price was a delay to the euthanasia bill promulgated by the previous Rutte government. There will be a public discussion before it's reintroduced.

The thin majority means even one or two defections can sink the government and its legislative program. But the lengthy process has ensured that the participants are invested in the plan. It's much harder to jump ship after working on a project for months and hammering out difficult consensual decisions.

While the talks went on, Rutte's previous cabinet functioned as a caretaker team. Things went smoothly; the economy grew 1.5 percent in the second quarter and some 0.4 percent in the third, unemployment went to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent. The Netherlands is a top-20 global economy, and its running wasn't disrupted by the lack of a fully fledged government. Voters, too, showed patience. Current polls are remarkably close to the March election results. The only worrying development for the prime minister is the growth in the popularity of a newer, smaller nationalist force, Thierry Baudet's Forum for Democracy, but despite rising in the polls, it's still not a contender for power.

While covering the 2016 election in the U.S., I often head that the country would just chug along regardless of who won the presidency, thanks to the strength of its institutions. That's not quite what happened, though: The Trump administration, with its erratic actions and divisive politics, has made Americans unusually jumpy and created uncertainty about U.S. commitments abroad. There's an atmosphere of strife, and a search for external enemies has intensified.

One can see the benefits of the Dutch tradition, in which, after a hotly contested election, political forces that have to cooperate in governing hunker down for lengthy talks on their specific moves. There's no deadline; the talks last as long as it takes to produce a sensible result. You can't simply graft the traditions and majority preferences of one system on to another, but as a thought experiment, imagine you could: It's likely the U.S. Republicans' multiple, embarrassing public failures to change the health care system wouldn't be possible in such a framework; they would either have negotiated a bill or dropped it. While it's superficially more democratic, when battles over critical policies are fought in the public eye, made-for-TV grandstanding can derail important policies and make election promises worthless. The Dutch bargaining tradition makes sure every coalition partner gets something and keeps the most important pledges made to voters.

A coalition-building process that's somewhat similar to the Dutch one (without mediators but also with a binding agreement as the goal) has now started in Germany. It, too, will take months, and it will result in a clear picture of what will get done by the fall of 2021, except, of course, solutions to any surprise crises. 

Perhaps it's no coincidence that in Germany, like in the Netherlands, the main nationalist party was held to just 13 percent of the vote and kept out of government. In a system where voters mainly get what they expect, major upheaval is hard to bring about, no matter how messy protracted coalition-building -- and the early elections that sometimes follow it -- may look from afar.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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