The Dutch mainstream parties have held together a polder model-style agreement on structural reforms ‒ but local and European elections look set to fracture this governing coalition in 2014.
Dutch coalition – I am writing this piece for State of the Left while watching a live press conference with French President Francois Hollande and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (January 20th). Hollande has been in the Netherlands for a one day state visit with the goal of strengthening economic and business relations between France and Holland. He was accompanied by a big business delegation of grand patrons. It looks as if, immediately after his January speech ‒ broadly on reform and austerity ‒ he wants to demonstrate that even the French Socialist Party is now Third way-ish, embracing the business community as the hope for the future. Socialists turning into social democrats or worse?
The visit was of course accompanied by a sea of jokes on twitter revolving around tips Monsieur Hollande, the presidential womaniser par excellence, could give to Mr Rutte ‒ the Dutch prime minister is the most well-known single in the Netherlands, with his private affairs and sexuality a big mystery to everyone.
Beyond this visit, the good news for Dutch politics is that the Grand Coalition has survived the start of the New Year. The bad news is that 2014 will be dominated by two notorious second order elections, the municipal elections in March and the European elections in May, and they constitute a potential risk for the stability of the Dutch government coalition.
Just to remind the State of the Left-readers who are not that familiar with politics in the Netherlands: Holland is governed since 2012 by a Grand Coalition of the conservative-liberal VVD and the centre-left PvdA, the political antipodes of the mainstream parties. This coalition of the fragmented ‘responsible middle’ is constantly under pressure from the right-wing ‘populist’ and left-wing ‘populist’ flanks ‒ even more so, because it has turned out to be built on vulnerable foundations.
The coalition has a comfortable two-party majority in the Lower House, De Tweede Kamer, but the leaders Mark Rutte (VVD prime minister) and Diederik Samsom (PvdA party leader; Labour group leader in the Lower House) underestimated the role and silent political importance of the Upper House, De Eerste Kamer. There, the PvdA and VVD are in a vulnerable minority position, depending completely on the support of the opposition parties.
So in practice, opposition parties have to agree with all main policy reform packages (and laws) that the government decided upon, demonstrating their obedient compliance with the Fiscal Compact of Euro-Tsar Olli Rehn in Brussels. These include controversial reforms of the housing market, the pension system, decentralisation of health care and social security, and energy ‒ a whole range of austerity arrangements which deeply impact on society, and, it has to be said in the context of electoral coalitions, on vested interests within the public sector.
As said, the good news is that the VVD/PvdA-government did succeed in getting support for this large policy reform agenda. Support came from what is called the ’Constructive 3’: three opposition parties, i.e. social-liberal D66, social-protestant Christen Unie and the orthodox-calvinist SGP. Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem christened them the “most beloved” opposition parties. Indeed, they are the brave saviours of the Grand Coalition ‒ voting mainly in the national interest, they only get small concessions for their political support.
So right now in Holland, we not only have our famous “polder model”, the realistic-pragmatic reformist cooperation between employers and the trade unions, but also – for the time being – one big political polder model, in which all moderate centre parties cooperate together in working out reform agreements and accords in times of eurocrisis, private and public debt and low growth. The outsiders to this political polder model are, of course, the populist flanks, Geert Wilders’ Freedom party (PVV), and the anti-neoliberal Socialist Party.
The great exception in this picture is the Christian democratic centre party, CDA. They were once the hegemonic pillar of the post-war political party system in the Netherlands, but now find themselves in complete disarray after their risky and party splitting adventures with Geert Wilders’ PVV in the previous coalition government. CDA now prefers to lick its wounds rather than enter an arena of compromise and complexity.
This is the political setting for election year 2014. A year of second order elections, which can make or break all the political leaders’ prospects for first order national elections.
Some people state that contemporary politics has lost all seriousness and gravitas, and that politics and politicians are now in a permanent mode of election campaigning. Due to the fragmenting complexities of the modern world, politicians and parties can no longer count on fixed constituencies and supporters, so politics is a permanent struggle for positive and popular media imagery, besieged by on-going polling results.
This statement is too blunt, generalised and over the top. But, nevertheless, the thesis that politics equals campaigning, and that even the government transforms itself into campaign clothes, may be true for Dutch politics in the first half of 2014.
Second order elections will test a vulnerable coalition government, which at the moment is scoring all time-lows in the opinion polls, but this has proven to be quite meaningless in contemporary “media politics’’, where campaigns can be lost and won in just one week. But the elections will certainly test the ties and agreements of the Polder Agreement between coalition and constructive opposition. They will test the support for the unpopular welfare state retrenchments and for the troublesome management of the eurocrisis.
All hands on deck! Sound the alarm! Cancel all leave! 2014 will bring stormy political weather in the Netherlands. That’s for sure.
This column was first published by Policy Network