How people elect parliaments
The results of yesterday’s election in the Netherlands have seen several realignments, but did not see the rise of the populist anti-immigrant political right that had been predicted for several months.
Over 12 million voters have sent 150 members to the Tweed Kamer, the lower house of the national parliament.
Voter turnout was just shy of 80% – fairly normal for Dutch elections, although a little higher than the previous two.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte, of the centre-right VVD party, will most likely be able to cobble together a broad coalition of politically centre-right and centre parties, made of four parties, or even just three if he can work with a slight parliamentary minority.
The anti-immigrant populist Freedom Party of Geert Wilders (literally so – Wilders is legally the sole individual member of the ‘party’, over which he asserts complete control) failed to achieve earlier expectations of winning around 25% of the vote. His party vote only rose from 10% in 2012 to just under 13% yesterday.
Wilders will have no role in the coming Dutch government, after all other parties declared in advance that they would not touch him.
But there have been some clear re-alignments in Dutch politics nonetheless.
Election results are still being collated, and will not be official until March 21, but Dutch news site NOS is posting progressive totals from municipalities (the page is in Dutch, but party percentages and projected seat numbers are fairly easy to read).
Most political analysis has been concerned with how Wilders’ anti-immigrant, anti-EU stances have been dragging Dutch politics to the political right.
Certainly Prime Minister Rutte adjusted his positions on immigration noticeably to fight off public attraction to Wilders, and also picked a prominent fight with the Turkish government in the last days of the election campaign.
But the election results indicate that the overall national swing has been towards the political centre, at the expense of the left.
Dutch politics has a fairly strong political centre. Vote share percentages for these broad categories (left-centre-right) stood at close to 40-20-40 at the 2012 elections.
That balance now stands at roughly 30-29-41.
The political profiles of a number of seat-less parties are hard to categorise, and the vote totals are still not yet finalized.
But the net vote share of progressive parties has clearly fallen by around 9% since the 2012 election.
Nominally centrist parties have gained virtually all of that 9%.
That analysis is complicated by the fact that one of the biggest gains in this election is by the Christian Democratic Appeal party, which would have been categorized as centre-right in previous decades but is now more of a broad centrist party with many centre-left policies and members.
After all the Wilders-driven anxiety, the right wing of Dutch politics has undergone a minor reshuffle. The governing VVD party has lost about 5% of the national vote (yet remains the single most popular party), with around 3% of that vote shifting to the Freedom Party, and the remainder scattering to others.
It is likely that the Freedom Party actually picked up new voters from other parts of the political spectrum, with some more conservative voters shifting to the Christian Democrats.
The mood late in the campaign seemed to include a view that a strong vote for the Christian Democrats would help block the Freedom Party’s chances of a role in government.
In any case, the expected Freedom Party surge has failed to manifest. Of four significant parties which gained parliamentary seats overnight, Freedom appears to have gained just 4 seats. On latest projections, the Christian Democrats gained 6 seats, the centrist Democrats 66 party gained 7 seats, and the GreenLeft party was the biggest improver, gaining around 10 seats.
The left of Dutch politics has had a far more disruptive reformation. The centre-left Labour Party – coalition partners with VVD in the last government – has been massacred, falling from around 25% voter support to just 6%, and from 38 seats to around 9.
The two previously governing parties (VVD and Labour) are, in fact, are the only main parties to have lost votes, falling from a joint 51% of electoral support in 2012 to around 26%. In one sense, this should amount to a massive rejection of the previous administration.
The major winner on the left is the GreenLeft party, which jumped from 2% support to 9%. The Socialist party held steady at around 9%, and minor progressive parties have added around another 5-6% to their collective tally. The rest of this vote has scattered.
All these national vote share percentages translate very precisely into parliamentary seat numbers in the 150-seat Kamer (often called the Dutch House of Representatives) due to the mathematically proportional allocation of seats to parties based on national vote share.
Dutch voters do not directly elect individual candidates to the parliament, although voters do indicate preferred candidates on their ballots. Using these preferences a complex formula is applied, within the party-proportional seat allocations, so that the ballot preferences influence which candidates are eventually allotted each party’s seats.
Yesterday’s election result sees 13 parties winning seats in the Kamer. Barely one of them – the VVD – can now claim to be a ‘major’ party in the ordinary sense, scrapping just over 20% of the vote to win around 32 seats.
Another 6 parties would ordinarily be termed ‘minor’ parties – with between 6% and 13% of the vote, and the final six would be ‘micro’ parties, with between 1% and 5% of the vote.
But with this degree of diversity, being a minor- or micro- party does not mean a political group lacks influence.
With VVD leader Mark Rutte easily holding the most seats, he has the right to attempt to build a governing coalition totaling 76 seats.
Pre-election fears were that this would require at least five parties to build a coalition to keep the Freedom Party out of any government role.
It can now be done with four parties, necessarily including the VVD, the CDA, and almost certainly the centrist/liberal Democrats 66 party. Those three parties get Rutte to around 70 seats.
Renewing an association with the brutalized Labour party’s 9 surviving members – if they are in the mood – would create a majority government.
Rutte may, however choose to stick to a simpler three-party coalition minority government, judging that a final 6 parliamentary votes can be found from many sources during the coming term to pass budgets and legislation.
The risk of any alternative coalition finding the numbers to overthrow such an administration would be virtually nil, especially if the spectre of the Freedom Party continues to haunt all other factions.
Such is the nature of Dutch democracy, which manages to remain relatively stable and politically centrist despite a wide array of parliamentary factions, with active representation of the political ‘extremes’.
Although Dutch voters cannot directly choose their own individual members of parliament as their personal representative, this election will see around 99% of voters represented institutionally by a political party which they support.