Dutch political spectrum splinters into rainbow of rivals

March general election could result in five-party coalition headed by Mark Rutte

Former Dutch Labour leader Diederik Samsom (left) with prime minister Mark Rutte.  Mr Samson was ousted as s party leader last month and has resigned from parliament. Photograph: Michael Kooren/Reuters

Former Dutch Labour leader Diederik Samsom (left) with prime minister Mark Rutte. Mr Samson was ousted as s party leader last month and has resigned from parliament. Photograph: Michael Kooren/Reuters

 

If one Dutch MP symbolises his country’s political turbulence over the past four years, it is former Labour golden boy Diederik Samsom, the green energy campaigner and serial national quiz winner – better known as “the quiz king” – who was elected party leader by a landslide in 2012.

In retrospect, Samsom was always going to be the fall guy for what became known as “Rutte II”, the second consecutive coalition government led by prime minister and Liberal Party leader, Mark Rutte – a term characterised by a faltering economy and popular anger over immigration.

Samsom was elected leader with 54 per cent of the vote and his appeal as the new face of Labour – complete with much-vaunted high IQ – survived right up to that September 2012 election, from which he emerged with a record 38 seats in the 150-seat parliament, second only to the Liberals’ 41.

In a country accustomed to unwieldy multi-party coalitions, Rutte (49) and Samsom (45) were able to form a majority Lib-Lab government relatively easily. The view on the left was that Samsom would be able to rein in the more austerity-driven policies of the economically conservative Liberals.

As so often happens, however, the junior coalition partners took the brunt of public fury over the migrant crisis, the EU-Ukraine partnership treaty – rejected by Dutch voters in a referendum – and rising health costs. By mid-2016, opinion polls showed Labour had lost most of that new electoral base under Samsom. With a general election to come on March 15th, the golden boy’s days were numbered. Last month, Samsom was ousted from the Labour leadership and resigned from parliament five days later.

A promising young politician had gone from hero to zero in less than one four-year term. The extent of the fragmentation in Dutch politics is evident from the fact that Samsom was just one of an extraordinary 42 MPs – nearly one-third of the parliament – who failed to complete the four-year term for which they were elected. An additional eight MPs abandoned the parties that got them elected – and started their own.

Further evidence of that fragmentation is the fact that 81 political parties – the highest number to date – have so far registered to contest the March election, compared to the 42 that registered in 2012, with 21 eventually taking part.

Among those 81 are groups as diverse as the new Party for Non-Voters and the long-established Protestant fundamentalist party, the SGP, which is under pressure from some members to include the return of the death penalty among its 2017 election pledges.

A new report for Dutch bank, ABN-Amro, by its chief economist Nico Klene, and senior rates strategist Kim Liu, notes that “voter support for the current government has plummeted and the political landscape is fragmented”. As things stand, says the report, with the Liberals and Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party jockeying for dominance, it looks as is if each is likely to take in or around 20 per cent of the seats.

Because the other parties have vowed not to form a government with Wilders – a position confirmed by the Liberals’ parliamentary party leader last week – it is most likely that Rutte will ultimately form “Rutte III”, regardless of which of the two parties comes out on top. Because Labour and the other mid-sized parties, including the Christian Democrats, are polling so unimpressively, it looks most likely that to cobble Rutte III together, Rutte will need the support of four other parties – in a five-party coalition.

The bad news about a five-party coalition is that it will take longer to form, be less stable and less decisive in implementing policy. The good news about a five-party coalition formed by Rutte, in particular, however, is that a Nexit referendum – on the Netherlands’ continuing membership of the EU – can “virtually” be ruled out, says the ABN-Amro analysis.

Political scientist Hans Vollaard of Leiden University agrees that a five-party outcome is the most likely. He agrees too that Wilders is considered “too controversial to be included in a government”. That will certainly be the position entering negotiations – but will it be the same position coming out?

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