The Dutch general election next month shows signs of following a familiar narrative: populist movement upsets the established order.
Geert Wilders and his far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) are part of a wave of populism that has swept Europe, capitalising on fears over immigration, growing Euroscepticism and anti-establishment sentiment.
Elections in the Netherlands are contested by a patchwork of parties, but a few traditional contenders usually top the bill to form a moderate coalition. This year will be different: eight parties are projected to gain 10 or more seats of an available 150, meaning a narrower lead for the largest parties. It is this more uniform distribution of votes, rather than a dramatic increase in support, that could lead to the PVV gaining the most seats on March 15.
Even if it becomes the largest party however, the PVV’s path to power could be blocked. Many parties, including the conservative VVD, have refused to join a coalition involving Mr Wilders.
Populist parties in the Netherlands have won significant numbers of seats in elections since the early 2000s, suggesting the social issues driving Mr Wilders’ success are longstanding. But these charts show that the landscape of Dutch politics is shifting even farther away from traditional parties than before, and that the country could struggle to form a ruling coalition after election day.
Mainstream parties in decline
The number of seats in the Dutch parliament occupied by the top three parties has been shrinking since the 1980s. In 1986, the three largest parties accounted for almost 89 per cent of the seats in the Tweede Kamer — the House of Representatives — but by 2012 their share had dropped to just over 60 per cent. The latest polls indicate a share as low as 42 per cent is possible after the coming election.
This decline in support for traditional parties has gone hand in hand with a drop in party affiliation. Membership figures have plummeted across Europe with older, consolidated parties bearing the brunt. In the Netherlands, the trend has benefited younger parties with brief, targeted manifestos. As a result, this year’s race has a record 28 parties on the ballot.
What do the polls say?
First, a note of caution: while polls used to be a reliable indicator of voting intentions, for Britain’s 2015 general election, the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US presidential election they failed to reflect the final result.
Polling can also be skewed by undecided voters. In both the Brexit referendum and the US election, the “undecideds” overwhelmingly opted for the anti-establishment option.
In the context of the Netherlands, the PVV has a history of polling well before its support drops off in the actual vote.
At the time of writing, the Dutch electorate appears more fragmented than usual. The PVV and Conservative VVD, led by current prime minister Mark Rutte, are projected to take about 32 and 23 seats respectively, a historically low share for the top two participating parties. Even if they decided to rule together, their combined 55 seats would fall well short of the threshold of 76 required for a majority.
Winning the most seats would not automatically put Mr Wilders in the prime minister’s seat, a position reserved for the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in the coalition only.
This establishment solidarity sets the Netherlands apart from the populist surges in the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, where mainstream conservatives threw their support behind populist movements.
Meanwhile, the biggest loser in the polls is the Labour party (PvdA) — the VVD’s current coalition partner — which is projected to take fewer than half of the seats it has won in recent elections.
Mid-size parties are the new norm
Labour’s lost voters are split between a group of mid-size parties polling at about 10 per cent. Only a tiny fraction of these are projected to go to PVV, while most will be distributed among the left-leaning GroenLinks, Christian-Democrats (CDA) and Democrat 66 progressives.
If several of the smaller parties win seats in March, forming a coalition might be a protracted process, even by Dutch standards. In 1977, it took 208 days to form a two-party alliance, a period that remained a European record until 2010. The task promises to be even more difficult in 2017, given Mr Rutte’s decision not to partner with Mr Wilders’ PVV and the Socialist party’s declaration they will not rule with VVD.
Electoral arithmetic: a five party coalition?
If these refusals to enter into coalitions hold up and if we rely on current polling, the new coalition would require at least five parties to muster a simple majority without Mr Wilders in the 150-seat Tweede Kamer.
There are a limited number of scenarios in which this is possible and we examine them in the graphics below.
To build the scenarios, we calculated every possible combination of five- and six-party coalitions, avoiding those groupings which would be impossible due to parties refusing to work together and removing any that failed to reach the required 76-seat majority.
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