Dutch coalition talks: A minor accord can bring greater harmony

Binnenhof_met_Hofvijver_en_torentje_(Den_Haag)_-_panoramioConventional wisdom dictates that the best outcome of the talks to form the next Dutch government is a strong coalition of four parties with a majority in both houses of Parliament. It is the preferred option of Mark Rutte, who barring a catastrophe will shortly receive his third invitation from the monarch to form an administration. As a fiscal conservative, Rutte is known to favour small, efficient, non-interventionist governments. He also has an unhappy history of minority rule, as his first cabinet was brought down in less than two years by Geert Wilders’ refusal to support an emergency budget cuts package.

Majority coalitions have been the standard model since the Netherlands adopted the party list system a century ago, and Rutte’s first instinct is to follow convention. But conventional thinking is often wrong. As the Dutch political landscape fragments we may well be entering an age of minorities. Rutte’s proposed construction depends on keeping four parties on board, which carries a high risk of deadlock, especially if the economic climate turns sour.

The ideological differences between the VVD, CDA, D66 and GroenLinks will make extensive horse-trading inevitable, both during the coalition talks and afterwards. The last cabinet almost collapsed in its first weeks over its plan to restructure the health insurance system so that higher earners paid more – a Labour Party initiative that proved unpalatable to the Liberals’ constituents. Rutte was able to dodge the bullet on that occasion thanks to the pliability of Diederik Samsom’s PvdA, the pressure of the economic crisis and the lack of any viable alternative government. This time the other three parties outnumber the VVD, there is less urgency to compromise for the good of the nation, and Rutte has other irons in the fire if one of the junior partners drops out.

That leads neatly to the dilemma for the smallest party, GroenLinks. Jesse Klaver’s faction stands out as the only one elected on an avowedly left-wing ticket, with a manifesto of far-reaching spending pledges funded through taxes. Though he may be able to form a progressive partnership with D66 on many social issues, Klaver is diametrically opposed to Rutte on two of his three main priorities: the accommodation of refugees and reducing inequality. On the latter point he is unlikely to find much common ground with D66 or the Christian Democrats either, and the CDA share Rutte’s hardline stance on asylum. The prospect of a first shot at government is a huge temptation for GroenLinks, but Klaver knows that his party’s largely young, idealistic and economically vulnerable support base could disintegrate if he makes too many concessions to the right. He will be aware of the history of junior coalition partners who are punished at the next election by disgruntled voters, a fate which befell the PvdA last month.

Klaver’s influence at the negotiating table is hindered by a fundamental imbalance within the group: while the VVD, CDA and D66 are indispensable to the coalition, GroenLinks are not. If the core group form a united front on any issue, he will have to lump it or leave it. A supply deal would have the advantage for Klaver of giving him scope to press for concessions in policy areas where the other three parties are prepared to compromise, such as climate change, and revert to opposition mode on more polarised issues such as healthcare. That will enable him to appease the activist sector of his electorate by showing he can influence government policy without ditching his principles. Rutte, conversely, will be able to take the slings and arrows of GroenLinks on the chin knowing that he has a good chance of sourcing the votes he needs from other parties such as the ChristenUnie.

Rutte’s aversion to minority cabinets is partly rooted in the experience of the supply deal he brokered with Geert Wilders’s PVV, but the conditions this time are different. Rutte I was inherently unstable because it was propped up by an unreliable partner in a time of economic distress. Even so, for the first year the makeshift alliance functioned reasonably well until the government choked on its stringent economic rules, which demanded swift pre-emptive action as soon as the budget deficit threatened to exceed its tight constraints. This time the economic outlook is brighter. There is money to spend to iron out awkward scruples. GroenLinks is unlikely to be as capricious as Wilders, and even if the supply deal fails, there are fallback options. And Rutte’s second cabinet, which relied for most of its life on support from opposition parties, especially in the Senate, showed that such stitch-and-mend deals are compatible with stable government.

It would be surprising if the negotiating parties have not already considered the option of a supply deal with GroenLinks as a more supple alternative to the four-party coalition. The extra flexibility has advantages for Rutte and Klaver, as well as Sybrand Buma, who would not relish having to check his language on cultural issues. Even D66, GroenLinks’s main supporter within the quartet, would face a conflict of loyalties between its liberal partner and its progressive ally, and risk neglecting the conservative CDA in the process. The longer the talks go on, the more a minority deal will start to look like the less painful compromise.

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