Local elections overshadowed by national politics
The Dutch electorate was fractured even further in Wednesday's local elections. All eyes are now on the June 9 parliamentary election.
More than a democratic evaluation of the performance of local politicians, the municipal elections in the Netherlands were a poll for the upcoming national election. Established parties lost, the liberals won more than the left wing parties, and Geert Wilders' party was successful in the only two cities where it participated.
A few important trends emerge from Wednesday's results. The Dutch electorate has become even more divided than it already was. But while the traditionally large parties Christian-Democratic CDA and Labour both lost seats in municipalities, the upcoming election campaign is likely to focus on the battle between their leaders. Since prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende and Labour leader Wouter Bos pulled the plug on their coalition government last month, they are preparing to take each other on with even more rivalry than they did in the 2006 election.
Can they form a coalition?
They have one important new competitor: Geert Wilders. Wilders, whose main platform is his rejection of Islamic immigration, acquired so many seats in the two municipalities where his party participated, he is a serious contender to become the biggest party in June.
In the Netherlands, many different political parties compete both on a local and national level. The Socialist Party, which became the biggest national opposition party in 2006, lost a substantial number of council seats on Wednesday. Right-wing liberal party VVD did well, as did the left-wing liberals D66.
The big challenge after June 9 will be the formation of a coalition government. The Netherlands is traditionally ruled by coalitions of two or three parties, but at least four may be needed to form a majority government next summer. If any three-party coalition stands a chance, it would be one composed of CDA, PVV and VVD. Another option is a revival of the 'Purple' coalition that was in power from 1994 to 2002. But even augmented by the green GroenLinks party, the former coalition of Labour, VVD and D66 might still not reach a 76-seat majority. The ever-more divided electorate confirms a trend that has been developing in the Netherlands for years now. The electorate is adrift and becoming ever more fragmented.
System coming apart at the seams
The Netherlands has long been a country where religion and social class decided party support. But while this strong connection between parties and their constituency has been diminishing, a populist politician named Pim Fortuyn really shook things up in 2002. Fortuyn was assassinated before that year's election, and Dutch politics has not been the same since. Like Fortuyn, Wilders is finding a lot of popular support for his strong stand against immigration and his harsh judgement of Islamic minorities.
The Dutch political system, based on consensus and cooperation, is coming apart at the seams. This is making it ever more likely the Netherlands will be ruled by a minority government, as is common, for example, in Denmark. This kind of coalition would have to fight to get a majority in the 150-seat parliament on each and every issue.
But the results of the municipal elections cannot be directly translated to the national ones. Turnout, first of all, is traditionally much higher in parliamentary elections. The dramatic low of less than 54 percent will not be repeated in June. Also, local politicians who garnered votes on Wednesday are not competing in June. And it is hard to say how parties will fare in municipalities where they did not compete on Wednesday.
The most important difference will be the campaign itself; the real election battle is yet to begin. When it kicks off, small events, remarks or incidents can have a major impact. Labour was very successful in the 2006 local elections, but failed to consolidate its winnings in the national vote six months later. The opposite was true for the Christian Democrats.
Who will become prime minister?
In addition, the national campaign is always about who will become prime minister. Preliminary local results show it will be between Balkenende and Bos, with Wilders knocking on the door. A horse race like that usually benefits the larger parties, as issues take a backseat as to who should come to power.
The consequences of their coalition's collapse could be felt both by the CDA and Labour. Polls show the Christian Democrats would still get the most seats in national elections, but that is about all the good news for the party. This is significant, because Balkenende has said he is be available for another term as prime minister, but will not lead his party as a junior coalition partner or in the opposition. He has ruled out having another go with Labour, so that only leaves a potential cabinet with the PVV and VVD. The question is whether he can rule together with Wilders, who has called him the "worst prime minister since the Second World War" and whose party wants to impose a tax on women wearing headscarves.
Wilders will definitely play a key role in the campaign. Over the past weeks, he has once again shown he is a hard debater with radical proposals. In Almere and The Hague, his party will have to prove it can take responsibility to govern. If it shies away from that, other parties will point out that Wilders is all talk and no action.
While CDA garnered more municipal seats, PvdA got more votes on Wednesday. Relief was the predominant emotion amongst Labour politicians after the exit polls. Yes, they lost substantially compared to 2006, but it could have been much worse. The party appears to have benefited from the fall of the government and its fierce criticism of the PVV. Bos seems to have profited from the strong stand he took against Wilders in a one-on-one debate this week.
All this gives the social democrats a boost in the run-up to the election. Some are even whispering their party could be the biggest and Bos could yet become prime minister.
But first there will be a long, fierce and unpredictable campaign.