Election Report: 2012 Netherlands Parliamentary Elections – An Unexpected Outcome

Continuing our series of election reports, we present a post-election report of yesterday’s Dutch parliamentary elections. The report is provided by political scientist Gijs Schumacher of the University of Southern Denmark and VU University Amsterdam.


Most pundits agreed that the Dutch parliamentary elections held on September 12th would strengthen the radical left Socialist party and thereby would signal a strong anti-Europe vote. Also, the political centre would be decimated and there was much speculation about which obscure combination of parties would form the next government. All these predictions turned out to be completely false. Unexpectedly, the two largest parties – the Liberals and Labour – received about a quarter of the seats and increased their seat share by respectively 6% and 5%. The Liberal party maintained its lead over the Labour party and therefore the prime minister – Mark Rutte – will probably stay on. Nine other parties made it to parliament, but none of them has more than 10% of the seats. As a consequence, the only likely coalition government seems to be a Liberal-Labour coalition, which was in power from 1994 to 2002 together with the smaller social liberal party (D66). The radical left Socialist Party remains stuck at 9.6% of the vote, despite the fact that for most of the summer the polls indicated they would receive almost 20% of the vote. The radical right Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, suffered a major defeat losing 9 of their 24 seats. Also the Christian Democratic Party that dominated Dutch politics until recently suffered a humiliating defeat, now receiving only 8.5% of the seats.

This is a very surprising result, especially because polls – even to the day before the elections – were wrong by between 20 to 24 seats (out of 150 seats). The two election winners were both polling almost 10 seats less than they received. Obviously, pollsters were quick to point out that many voters had cast strategic votes for the two major parties. Indeed, the media had portrayed the election more-and-more as a battle between Mark Rutte (Liberal party leader and prime minister) and Diederik Samson (the recently elected Labour party leader). As a consequence, voters may have changed their vote from the Socialist Party to Labour in order to get a left-wing prime minister. An alternative explanation is that many voters are moderately left-wing rather than radical left, but found the Socialist Party more competent than the Labour party. Indeed, the ratings of Emile Roemer – the Socialist Party leader – were much higher for much of the year than that of Diederik Samson and his predecessor Job Cohen. This changed in just a few weeks with Roemer performing poorly in debates and Samson presenting a solid vision for the future. The effect was not strategic voting, but voters returning to the party that is most proximate to their policy preference.

For analysts of coalition formation this result will (still) be interesting. We will not have a coalition with 4 or 5 parties that includes socialist, liberals and radical Christians. In the so-called Second Chamber Liberal and Labour have a handsome majority, however in the First Chamber (the Senate) they lack a majority, and Rutte has emphasized the importance of having a majority in the Senate as well. With Senate elections three years away, Liberals and Labour may invite a third party to their government in order to have a majority in both houses.

Pro-European parties won 110 of the 150 seats, so these elections should definitely be seen as a vote for Europe. It, however, remains to be seen whether the newly formed government will support austerity politics a la Merkel or austerity+growth politics a la Hollande, because this reflects a major difference in opinion between the Liberals and Labour.

My last remark on the Dutch national elections of 2012 is for analysts of small parties: you can rejoice. A party called 50plus led by a gay activist – Henk Krol – and founded by a compulsive initiator of new political projects – Jan Nagel – entered parliament with 2 seats. The party is committed to defending pensions, health care rights of the elderly and their position on the labor market. They will join a list of existing and defunct Dutch niche parties in parliament that include an animal rights party, a pacifist party, two pensioner parties, five radical Christian parties, a farmers party and many more.

8 Responses to Election Report: 2012 Netherlands Parliamentary Elections – An Unexpected Outcome

  1. Markus September 13, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    I’m afraid I’d disagree with your characterization, because the data doesn’t back it up.

    The Dutch press and the pollsters reported that the Socialists had been losing support for more than a month, so I’m not sure who was “surprised”. The same polls show that the VVD led or was neck-and-neck with the Socialists all year, with the brief exception of a one-month break in late July.


    As they say, where’s the beef?

  2. Gijs Schumacher September 13, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

    Hello Markus, all the polls were predicted at least 20 seats or more for the Socialist Party up to the day before the elections, the 15 seats they got on election day surprised a lot of people. Of course they were losing seats in the polls for some weeks already, but not so fast as what happened on election day.

  3. Viktor September 13, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    How could the polls have been so dead wrong?

    Does anyone outside of the Netherlands understand the logic of a right-left coalition?

    • Joshua Tucker September 13, 2012 at 5:01 pm #

      I think this is a great research question: why were the polls so wrong? Is this common in the Netherlands?

      • Erik Voeten September 14, 2012 at 1:14 am #

        Josh: the polls were wrong but they warned that they could be wrong before election day because 20% of likely voters mentioned in the pre-election polls that they had not yet made up their minds (“zwevende kiezers” or “floating voters”). I suggest in the post above that many of these picked the tickets of the mainstream parties with positive momentum (perhaps strategically).

        • Bill September 14, 2012 at 3:33 am #

          Yeah, voting for the people with momentum is common voter behaviour…

  4. Noel Maurer September 13, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    Has there ever been a shift in opinion as rapid as the one registered in the recent polls? If not, then it might be that the election was out-of-sample rather than that the polls were systematically wrong. What’s the evidence on that?

  5. Bill September 14, 2012 at 3:31 am #

    I have to agree with Markus here. According to de Hond, before the debate on 26 August the SP was still polling as high as 35 seats, and 10 days later (after Roemer’s poor showing) they were on 20 seats. That’s a pretty precipitous drop, and makes the further decrease just before and on Election Day no surprise at all. And the same polls showed the VVD and PvdA around 36 seats, making the Election Day shifts +5 and +3, respectively, not +10. Notable but not outlandish.

    As someone who’s a natural SP or GL voter, I’d agree that the SP’s anti-Europe stance (along with Roemer’s poor performance and Samsom’s strong showing) really hurt the party. That’s certainly one of the policies that turned me off. And ironically, I think GL’s participation in the budget agreement — in the hopes of seeming “ready to govern” and obscure the party’s feckless leadership since Halsema’s departure — turned off a lot of traditional GL voters as well.

    If we end up with VVD+PvdA or another Paars cabinet, I just hope Samsom is smart enough to avoid Nick Clegg’s fate of not having any real power in the coalition, as I find the prospect of pure VVD-style “government” scary. Rutte can seem reasonable, but the party is full of potential Fortuyns, Verdonks, and Wilders — where else does the radical right come from, after all?