On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Dutch, Germans, Kiwis edge towards governments

Government formation in nations using party list proportional representation is proceeding at very different rates in three countries which held elections during 2017.

The Dutch, which held their parliamentary elections in March, just broke their previous record of 207 days needed to agree on a governing coalition.

The efficient Germans – who voted on September 23 – should manage to settle on a government in around four weeks, although the range of options there if far simpler than in the Netherlands.

And following their September 24 election, the New Zealand situation – despite reducing to a single choice for the balance-of-power party – looks set to drag on for some weeks, and be decided by the minor party’s anonymous party board.


image - Netherlands - Tweede-kamer chamber

The Netherlands

It has now been settled that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will continue in office at the head of a 4-party coalition.

The previous record for a Dutch government formation process was 207 days in 1977, but this year the process took 208 days, with agreement finally reached in early October.

Rutte’s centre-right Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) topped the March election national vote share, but that was with just 21% of the vote. His party holds just 33 of the 150 seats in the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the Dutch parliament.

The Dutch electoral system involves a straight proportional allocation of the 150 available seats in a single pool. The system uses no vote share threshold, and as a result it awards seats to any party that achieves as little as 0.66% of the national vote.

Rutte declined to include in his government the second-placed populist far-right Party of Freedom (PVV), which won 20 seats.

Instead he has wrought an alliance including the Christian Democratic Appeal (19 seats) and the more conservative Christian Union (5 seats) parties, as well as the more liberal Democrats66 party (19 seats). Together the four allies have a slim majority of just 76 of the 150 seats.

image - Mark Rutte cycling to Dutch palace

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte cycled to a meeting with the King of the Netherlands (image: Twitter – Mark Rutte)

Rutte and other players considered various combinations before settling on the current coalition. There will be notable policy differences to resolve between the socially liberal D66 group and the more conservative Christian groups.

The coalition discussions have had to work through agreements on a range of budgetary, economic and social differences among the parties concerned. Each party will need to set aside various of the campaign commitments they made to voters during the election last March.

Kamer opposition to the new governing coalition for the next four years will be divided among a spectrum of opponents, with a total of nine non-government parties having seats.

The PVV party is the coalition’s largest parliamentary opponent, but most other parties are of the political left and centre.

More reports:

Dutch parties agree coalition government after a record 208 days (Guardian, 9 October)

Dutch government coalition deal receives parliamentary backing (Politico, 10 October)


image - Bundestag in session


The new German Bundestag, elected using the mixed-member proportional (MMP) electoral system, will have by far the largest ever number of additional seats to balance the party seat-vote proportions, with 111 bonus MPs above the nominal 598 seats in the chamber.

But the political process of forming government will be far simpler than that facing the Dutch. With a national vote share threshold of 5% of the vote to win any seats, there are just six parties elected.

Last month the German major parties – the centre-right CDU-CSU and the centre-left SPD – both lost vote share compared to the previous election in 2013.

Both major parties have ruled out working with either the left-wing Die Linke party or the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). The two ‘extreme’ parties both recorded significantly higher voter support in the states of the old eastern part of Germany, a reminder of the political volatility even nearly 30 years after reunification of the nation.

In addition, the SPD has announced that it will withdraw from the current coalition government.

If the positions already outlined by the parties are adhered to, there is just one single combination left which could form a majority government – the ‘Jamaica coalition’ of the CDU-CSU, the Free Democrats and the Greens.

With the only alternative for any of those negotiating parties being to walk away from government, the negotiations may only need to be brief.

The Bundestag will meet on 24 October and – barring some entirely surprising combination of parties – it will promptly vote to re-elect Angela Merkel as Chancellor. Merkel has already invited the two ‘Jamaica’ partners to coalition talks in the days before the opening of parliament.

More reports:

How Germany chooses its chancellor (Deutsche Welle, 24 September)


image - New Zealand Parliament building

New Zealand

New Zealand’s election – also conducted using the mixed local MP-party proportional MMP system pioneered by Germany – has seen four significant parties elected.

The incumbent National Party, holding 56 of the 120 seats in the unicameral House of Representatives, is competing with the Labour Party (46 seats) for the support of the crucual New Zealand First Party (9 seats).

The Green Party (8 seats) has confirmed that it supports Labour forming government, while the ACT party (1 seat) supports the National Party. But neither show of support moves the real balance of power away from New Zealand First.

The long-experienced NZ First party leader Winston Peters could go either way. The process of him reaching a decision seems to have been referred in part to the board of his political party, although the media have been unable to pin down who even makes up such a committee.

On election night the incumbent National Prime Minister Bill English worked hard to give the appearance that his party had prevailed over Labour, while the Labour leader Jacinda Ardern looked more defeated.

But the final result is effectively entirely up to Peters – and whatever internal counsels he will take within his party.

More reports:

New Zealand election result ‘held hostage’ by anonymous board of minor party (Guardian, 13 October)

[update] … and still no clearer: New Zealand election limbo continues as kingmaker talks end with indecision (Guardian, 17 October)


4 comments on “Dutch, Germans, Kiwis edge towards governments

  1. Pingback: Final German election for 2017 may buck right-ward swing | On Elections

  2. Oli
    October 15, 2017

    The incoming VVD+CDA+D66+CU government should hold 76 seats rather than 77 in the Tweed*e* Kamer – the bare minimum for a majority. (Holyrood really ought to be a ‘tweed’ chamber though!) I believe there is a legal threshold of 0.75% in the Netherlands which is slightly higher than the effective hurdle of 0.66% that you state, although it wouldn’t make much difference either way at most elections.

    As for New Zealand… one of the recurring worst nightmares for proponents of electoral reform from FPTP jurisdictions is coming true: the leader of a minor party is openly being treated as kingmaker.

  3. Malcolm Baalman
    October 15, 2017

    “Tweed” – yes autocorrect is the bane of writing!

    On the minimum percentage, I have a PDF of the Dutch electoral law, 2010, in English happily!, which if I read it correctly has the implicit (not hard) threshold of one ‘electoral quota’ – that is 1/150, or 0.6666%. The law also makes provision for how the last few remaining seats are allocated to parties according to below-quota remainders. The details of that provision states that no party which won less than 0.75 (i.e. 75%) of the quota (which becomes 0.5% of the total vote) is eligible to be considered in that final phase of seat allocations, so a party which won 2.48 quotas is capable of being allocated a third seat, but a party which won 0.49 quotas is not eligible to be allocated a first seat.

    • Oli
      October 15, 2017

      Ah, thanks, that explains the confusion between 0.666% and 0.75% as the threshold! Mathematically you’re quite right that one quota should be the former figure. As I said, in practice a party rarely falls between those two percentages (although I think ‘Trots op Nederland’ [Proud of the Netherlands] came close to doing so in 2010) and thus all parliamentary parties win at least 2 seats each.

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