When it rains, it pours! Here is our third post-election report on the 2012 Dutch parliamentary elections (first two are here and here), this time from political scientist Joop van Holsteyn of Leiden University.
On September 12, 2012 it was Election Day again in the Netherlands. Again, since this was the fifth time in the last ten years that the Dutch voters had to decide on the allocation of the 150 seats in the Dutch lower house, the Second Chamber or Tweede Kamer. The parliamentary elections of 2010 had resulted in a rather fragmented political landscape and were the basis of a minority Cabinet of the Liberal Party (VVD) and the Christian Democrats (CDA), with support but without full government participation of the right-populist Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders. In early Spring 2012 this Cabinet came to an end when the PVV withdrew its support. New elections were called.
The September 2012 elections followed a short but remarkable and influential election campaign. At the start of this campaign the VVD was the major party of the right, and the Socialist Party (SP) the major party of the left. Next to substantive issues with respect to for instance the financial crisis and the economy, the health care system, and the relationship with the EU, an important question during the campaign was which party would become the biggest party, since according to Dutch political informal rules and conventions this party takes the initiative to form a new government. In 2012 the VVD with 31 seats just outscored the Labor Party (PvdA) with 30 seats, and then political leader Mark Rutte became the Prime Minister of his first VVD-CDA Cabinet. At the end of August 2012 a similar scenario was very plausible, this time with the SP in the role of the major left-wing contender of Rutte and his VVD.
Things turned out dramatically different, at least for the SP. Its political leader Emile Roemer did not make a strong impression during the early days of the ‘hot’ phase of the campaign, in particular during the televised elections debates. At the same time the new leader of the PvdA, Diederik Samsom, did surprisingly well. After the first debate the SP started to decline in the polls and the PvdA began a stunning rise in the polls. The fight between the SP and the VVD became the fight between the PvdA and the VVD.
Ultimately the VVD won this contest for the biggest party, very likely partly as a result of strategic voting of a substantial number of voters. These strategic voters affected both left-wing and right-wing voters: both the VVD and the PvdA had a better election result than was expected on the basis of the final election polls. With over 10 percent of the Dutch voters deciding on their party choice on Election Day, even the final polls are quickly outdated, and may due to strategic voters become self-denying prophecies. The VVD had 31 seats in 2010 and made an electoral jump to 41 seats; never before did the conservative liberals have a better elections result. The PvdA came in second with 39 seats (+9), and this success might be considered even more impressive since only three or four weeks earlier the party stood at about 15 seats in the polls. The PvdA success came at the cost of the SP: this party was at over 30 seats in the polls at the start of the campaign, but with 15 seats did not do better than it had done at the 2010 elections. The PVV also scored 15 seats, and this was a bad result after the 24 seats in 2010 – there appears to be some truth in the political folk wisdom that the party that breaks, pays. The traditional key player in Dutch politics, the CDA, lost again after heavy loss in 2010 and will return to Parliament with a historical low of only 13 seats (-8). The small religious parties Christian Union (CU) and Dutch Reformed Party (SGP) scored 5 (2010: 5) and 3 (2010: 2) seats respectively. The good result of the PvdA and strategic behavior of voters of the left probably did cost the GreenLeft a substantial number of votes: from 10 seats in 2010 the party fell to no more than 3 seats, even less than the poor election polls had predicted for the party. As in 2010 the Party for the Animals (PvdD) managed to gain 2 sets and finally a political newcomer, the party for the elderly (50+), will enter parliament with 2 representatives.
Of course both Rutte and Samsom were extremely pleased with the good election results for their respective party. However, the polarization between left and right that colored the election campaign may hinder the formation of a new coalition government. Forming a governmental coalition is never easy in the Netherlands and the election result of September 12, with the major political rivals more or less condemned to cooperate in the new coalition does not make things easier. It is an interesting but as yet unanswered question how a stable and solid cabinet can be formed that will last for the full four years. So maybe in two years time the Dutch will have new elections again…?