Dutch elections, the eurozone and disenfranchised citizens
by Pieter Cleppe
A number of economic factors will serve to make it harder and harder to convince Dutch citizens of the need for eurozone bailouts, regardless of who is in charge, claims think-tank
On September 12, the Netherlands will hold general elections. The elections will be watched closely because of the country's position as an important creditor country in the eurozone and a traditional ally of Germany in economic affairs. The most likely outcome remains a centrist, pragmatic coalition, which clearly is the preferred option in Brussels and Berlin. The Dutch elections are therefore unlikely to radically change the immediate political dynamics of the eurozone crisis.
The country is likely to continue to oppose more bail-out cash for Greece or any topping up of the eurozone's bailout funds, while remaining a steadfast supporter of austerity in the struggling eurozone economies. There are 150 seats in the Dutch lower chamber - the Tweede Kamer - and 76 seats are needed to gain a majority. This leaves at least three main possibilities.
First, a centrist 'grand' coalition. The most likely outcome remains a centrist coalition, which clearly is the preferred option in Brussels and Berlin with the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy or VVD, the Labour Party or PvdA and the Christian Democratic Appeal or CDA - and could also include the Democrats 66, if needed for majority. This could also feature the Christian Union – though the PvdA is likely to oppose the latter on the grounds that it would push the coalition too far to the right.
Second, a centre-left plus coalition with the Social Democrats, the Socialist Party, CDA and the GreenLeft. This would, at best, narrowly obtain a majority and might in reality need the support of D66 as well. It is questionable, however, whether the CDA would go for it - and whether other parties will want to have what is perceived as a far left party in a dominant government position.
Thirs, a 'purple coalition' with the VVD, PvdA and D66, could possibly muster a majority.But in the 1990s, similar constellations were perceived as increasing the gap between voters and the government; and it is likely to be resisted by Mark Rutte and others. Although the parties will to want to avoid drawn out negotiations, particularly in light of the decisions that needed to be taken as a result of the single currency crisis - it could take months to agree a coalition. The last election preceded four months of negotiations before a government was formed. The record is seven months, back in 1977.
As in most elections, the economy is at the top of the agenda. Dutch prime minister Rutte has promised tax cuts, while pushing for more personal choice in healthcare. Pensions have also been a prominent theme with the Dutch - like many Europeans - fearing dwindling pensions as the economy worsens and the population gets older. However, Europe has featured prominently as well. Like elsewhere in Europe, domestic politics and economic matters are becoming increasingly linked to the eurozone crisis. After all, the last government fell after Geert Wilders withdrew his support for an European Union-mandated austerity budget.
With respect to individual parties, Socialist leader Emile Roemer has been the most effective at tapping into voters' anxiety over the crisis and the bailouts, although his performance in televised debates has hurt his party's poll ratings. He strongly opposes the EU fiscal pact and has said he would "never pay" union fines for breaking European fiscal targets. Roemer has also said that any transfer of power to the EU would need to be put to voters in a referendum, a notion similar to the United Kingdom coalition government's EU 'referendum lock'.
Rutte has repeatedly said that Greece should be given no more financial support, although possibly more time. He has also warned that a Greek exit might be inevitable - something which drew rebuke from the PvdA, D66 and the Christian Democrats. Geert Wilders, too, has played the Europe-card heavily during the campaign.
If no solution is found to the crisis, public support for 'Europe' in various forms could continue to drop. While traditionally one of the most pro-EU countries, support for the EU in the Netherlands has steadily dropped in the wake of the crisis, while an increasing majority opposes further bailouts. The eurozone crisis may well be exacerbating the crowding out of the Dutch centre – a trend triggered by the emergence of the Pim Fortuyn List or LPF in the early 2000s. The CDA, the party of Jan Peter Balkenende - who was prime minister between 2002 and 2010 - has increasingly been squeezed out.
Although this election could see the major centre parties stabilise their share of seats in parliament, the centre is likely to remain weak. As is the case elsewhere in the eurozone, disparate coalition governments that have to cope with divided parliaments invariably make it more difficult to reach quick decisions – and to implement decisions that EU leaders have reached. There is also a strong danger of even greater disconnect between voters and politicians if the coalitions of the centre force through deeply unpopular decisions. On top of all this there is the worsening Dutch economy, which is suffering from a real estate crisis. This will only serve to make it harder and harder to convince citizens of the need for eurozone bailouts, regardless of who is in charge.
Pieter Cleppe is head of the Open Europe think-tank's Brussels office
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