D66 could pull the strings in Rutte’s next quartet

Four years ago it was all about the ‘motorblok’: three parties that were the common denominator of all potential coalitions. In 2021 it looks as if the same trio – VVD, CDA and D66, whose ministers resigned en masse two months ago in a scandal that still lingers in the body politic like a troublesome hernia – will again form the basis of the next cabinet.

An inert election campaign has given the impression that little will change. Other party leaders have accepted from the start that Mark Rutte’s VVD party is unassailable and rarely challenged him directly. Most parties have fished in their own back yard, concentrating on locking in their core vote rather than seeking new supporters. The issues that have dominated the last four years have barely been touched upon: the tax office scandal, the gas earthquakes in Groningen, the knotty problem of making the agriculture sector conform with the nitrogen ruling, which led to phalanxes of tractors travelling to The Hague. Even the coronavirus crisis has barely got a look-in. The closing leaders’ debate on Tuesday was like a family funeral where everyone anxiously avoids speaking ill of the deceased.

Yet in recent days the polls have started to shift. The progressive-liberal D66 have closed the gap on the CDA and may even chase down Geert Wilders’s PVV in second place. (Something similar happened in the local elections of 2014, when the PVV looked to have become the largest party on The Hague city council, only for D66 to sneak ahead on polling day.) D66’s leader Sigrid Kaag appears to have made the biggest impact during the campaign, but the ‘Kaag effect’ has kicked in too late to give the VVD headaches. Much of D66’s gains seem to have been at the expense of the VVD, perhaps because liberal voters and business owners prefer its problem-solving approach to corona. While Rutte has spent the campaign defending the increasingly unpopular lockdown, Kaag has proposed solutions such as vaccine passports and frequent testing to enable society to open up faster, which may have struck a chord with the corona-weary electorate.

Rutte has already pencilled in the CDA as a coalition partner, but a strong showing by D66 will give Kaag an irresistible case for inclusion. Rutte has effectively ruled out working with Wilders, despite headlines to the contrary, and D66 sit with their fellow liberals in the European Parliament. There is a scenario in which Kaag could opt to sit out the next cabinet term and build her base as opposition leader, especially as Rutte is expected to stand down before the next election, but that goes against the instincts of Dutch politics and D66 in particular.

The three parties are currently on course to win around 70 seats. If D66 keep up their momentum they could take more than 20, but with the VVD sliding backwards at roughly the same speed the aggregate total is unlikely to change much. The fourth partner in the last coalition, the ChristenUnie, could be invited to make up the numbers again. The CU worked unexpectedly well with D66 in the last cabinet, despite the parties’ deep-lying ideological differences. But a stronger D66 may deter the CU, whose leader, Gert-Jan Segers, has already said he will demand a ‘higher price’ on issues such as soft drug production, freedom of education and D66’s longstanding plan to regulate assisted dying for over-70s (voltooid leven).

The other issue is that the CU’s block of five or six seats would only give the cabinet the narrowest of majorities, and none in the Senate. Rutte may prefer a stronger mandate in both houses with an eye to pushing through broader reforms once the pandemic is over. GroenLinks, which dropped out of the cabinet talks last time over the refugee crisis but is eager for a first crack at government, has a manifesto that overlaps closely with D66 on energy, education and Europe. But leader Jesse Klaver has been adamant that he will not join a government without another of the left-wing parties, Labour (PvdA) or the Socialists (SP). The SP is surely a bridge too far for Rutte, who already develops wobbly knees at the prospect of GroenLinks on his team. That leaves his old partner from 2012, the PvdA, which has made some recovery from the debacle of 2017 but still has much to prove under its new leader, Lilianne Ploumen. Once the dust settles, it’s conceivable that the four parties who have shared power since 1982 will come together in a grand amalgamation – or perhaps, given their culpability for the tax office scandal, an abomination.

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