Dutch politics — a primer for foreigners

This part of QuirksMode explains Dutch politics to foreigners. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, even though I estimate that worldwide only about twelve non-Dutch speakers will be interested in the topic.

The Dutch politics section falls apart into two parts:

  1. In eleven articles I will treat the political history of the Netherlands from 1848 to the present day. This page gives a general introduction to those articles.
  2. On my Political quirks blog I will follow current Dutch politics, especially as they apply to the elections.

Basically the articles provide background, while the blog follows recent developments.

Key points

Bias

As a professional historian (though not of modern Dutch politics) I’m required to be as fair as possible, although that's pretty hard when it comes to the CDA. I vote left, and that will undoubtedly introduce a bit of bias in my treatment.

For the record, here's my own voting history:

I’m a historian originally, and not a political scientist. That has consequences for my treatment of the material; although some political science theories have greatly helped my understanding of Dutch political history, others mainly want to prove an abstruse theoretical point that has little bearing on the everyday workings of politics — at least, that’s how it seems to me.

Dutch politics are best understood in the context of themselves; although there is some overlap with Belgian, German and Scandinavian politics, the Dutch political system is unique and has features not seen anywhere else. (The same goes for all other political systems, by the way.) I doubt there are universal lessons to be drawn from these pages, but I’ll leave judging that to you.

In general the Dutch consider nine the minimum number of parties necessary to adequately represent themselves politically. Foreign students of Dutch politics, especially those from the Anglo-Saxon countries, will have to learn to live with this fact.

Proportional representation

The Dutch elect only their legislative bodies; all executives are nominated by the Crown.

Dutch elections are based on proportional representation. A party that gets 7% of the national vote gets 7% of the seats in national parliament. It does not matter where these votes were cast; there are no electoral districts.

Proportional representation allows small parties to be represented in parliament, which is generally considered a Good Thing. The downside is that no party ever gets a majority by itself; in order to form a stable government, several parties will have to form a coalition.

Parliament and the three large parties

Dutch parliament has 150 seats; and 76 are necessary for a majority (and hence a viable government coalition).

A government coalition consists of two of the three large parties. Until 1994 that was enough; thereafter the two large parties had to invite a third, smaller coalition party to obtain a majority.

Note to American readers: in European politics, Liberal denotes the moderate right, and not the left. This site uses Liberal exclusively in this European sense.

If you know something of German politics, compare PvdA to SPD, CDA to CDU, and VVD to FDP.

The three large parties are:

  1. left-wing PvdA (Labour; social-democrat)
  2. centrist CDA (christian-democrat)
  3. right-wing VVD (liberal)

Generally the VVD is about 10 to 20 seats smaller than the other two.

The two-out-of-three rule favours centrist CDA. Left-wing PvdA and right-wing VVD rarely agree with each other and can therefore only form a coalition with the CDA. This rule was broken only during the Purple period, and that was considered a radical turning point in Dutch politics.

Government formation

After elections, the largest party takes the initiative and selects another large party (as well as, nowadays, a smaller one). If they can reach an agreement, a new government is formed. If, after protracted negotiations, the largest party is unable to form a government, the second-largest can have a try.

The party leader of the largest party becomes prime minister. His government is known by his name, followed by a Roman numeral if it’s his second or later government. After the 2006 elections the Balkenende IV government was formed; i.e. the fourth government prime minister Balkenende (CDA) presided over.

Small parties

In addition to the three large parties there are tons of smaller ones; you will get to know 16 of them during the course of this series.

The two large parties have to select one small party for their coalition, and during this the selection process the small parties are on their best behaviour.

Thus, before the elections small parties have to be different enough for voters to prefer them over a larger party, and after the elections they have to be moderate and reasonable enough to present themselves as viable and serious coalition partners.

Some small parties skip the reasonable moderation and concentrate on the differences. They get to play in parliament, but not in government.

One of the current problems in Dutch politics is that the large parties grow smaller and some small parties grow larger.

Historical overview

Although this article series will treat events in chronological order, I’ll jump back and forth through the post-war era if I need extra examples or illustrations. Therefore you need to know the broad outline of Dutch political history since 1848.

1848-1888 - Liberals versus conservatives

In 1848 parliamentary rule was instated, and the first forty years were mainly about the struggle between liberals, who wanted to extend parliamentary power, versus conservatives, who wanted to defend royal prerogative. This period ended with a victory for the liberals, and the conservatives dissolved into a secular wing that became nominally liberal, and a religious wing that became anti-revolutionary.

During this period the catholics first allied with the liberals, then with the conservatives, and finally with the anti-revolutionaries.

1888-1918 - The Antithesis

From 1888 to 1918 Dutch politics were overshadowed by the so-called Antithesis. In this political theory all christian parties, both catholic and protestant, were each other’s allies against the secular liberal parties. The christian and liberal blocks alternated in forming a government, and fought out a bitter cultural war, the school struggle.

The christian block was led by the protestant anti-revolutionaries (ARP).

In the pacification of 1917 the christian parties were allowed to win the school struggle in exchange for their support for universal suffrage and the replacement of the district system by proportional representation.

The liberal parties committed electoral suicide by subscribing to the pacification; their share of seats went down from 39 to 18 out of 100.

1918-1940 - The Interbellum

In the Interbellum the three christian parties, RKSP (catholic), ARP (left-protestant), and CHU (right-protestant) ruled due to their constant majority in parliament. Unfortunately tensions between the catholics and protestants came to the fore. There was some old-fasioned religious warfare, and in addition the catholics moved noticeably to the left in this period, while the protestants moved to the right.

The second largest party, socialist SDAP, was excluded from government altogether, mostly due to the bishops’ command that the catholics not cooperate with them. This made the only alternative to the catholic/protestant alliance impossible. It was only in 1939, when the anti-revolutionaries disastrously overplayed their hand, that a catholic/socialist government was formed.

1940-1945 - The War

In 1940 the Germans invaded the Netherlands, and five bitter years of occupation followed. The only party to welcome the invaders was national-socialist NSB. The other parties offered various levels of resistance; the communists and anti-revolutionaries, especially, were implacable enemies of the nazis.

1945-1967 - The ancien regime

After the liberation the three christian parties took the game from where they left it. However, within the christian coalition the primacy shifted from protestant ARP to catholic KVP.

The KVP first governed with socialist PvdA, as well as the protestant parties, but in 1959 the PvdA was swapped for liberal VVD. All this must be seen in the light of the growing tension between the catholics’ left and right wings.

In 1956 parliament was enlarged from 100 to 150 seats.

1967-1977 - The times of trouble

In the sixties many once-reliable religious voters turned to the secular left and right, and the christian parties lost their absolute majority.

The old christian/liberal coalition became electorally strained, and finally impossible. This period ended with the PvdA leading the most progressive government in Dutch history.

To stem the electoral tide, KVP, ARP and CHU merged into the CDA. This move was succesful.

New parties appeared (and disappeared) at an astonishing rate. Of these, only left-liberal D66 became a permanent fixture in Dutch politics and was admitted to the circle of government-worthy parties.

1977-1994 - The three-party system

In the 1977-1994 era the CDA reigned supreme and used first the VVD as its coalition partner, and later the PvdA. During this period the fundamental workings of Dutch politics are best visible, uncluttered by smaller parties.

1994-2002 - Purple

After the 1994 elections PvdA and VVD combined with D66 to form the so-called Purple government. CDA was Out for the first time since 1918.

Internationally, the Purple government was best known for its liberal ethics: gay marriage and euthanasia became legal during the Purple period.

That's no coincidence: in ethical matters the CDA, being a Christian party, remains somewhat conservative. Therefore liberal ethics could only really catch on during the Purple government that consisted exclusively of non-Christian parties.

2002 - Fortuyn

The 2002 elections were overshadowed by gay, catholic, ex-communist populist Pim Fortuyn and his tragic murder. It inaugurated a period of intense electoral movements, in which the large parties lost ground — decisively, it seems — and right-wing anti-immigration populist parties gained a foothold in parliament.

In these days there was an unusual amount of international interest in Dutch politics.

2002-present - Balancing act

Since then, the CDA has returned to the centre of power, but the large parties have diminished in stature.

Since 1989 they have lost about 30 seats to the smaller parties, and this loss may become permanent. Whether the large parties can regain their iron grip remains the biggest question in contemporary Dutch politics.

Continue

After this quick introduction we’ll start with The rules of the game.

Contents

From the 2006 elections on I’ve been working on an article series that explains Dutch political history to foreigners. Unfortunately I miscalculated; I thought I’d have to publish them only in 2011, when the next elections were slated. The fall of Balkenende IV a full year earlier has forced my hand; I have to publish it now.

The problem is that of the twelve articles only eight have been written. The last three, which treat political history from the fall of Purple in 2002 to today, remain unwritten. The twelfth article is a recent idea, and I still have to think about it a bit, although part of the content is ready.

I hope to be able to write them before the 2010 elections, but I’m not totally sure that’s going to work. This is a hobby project; nobody’s paying me for it, which means I’ve got to work for a living, too.

Right now I plan to publish an article once every two weeks or so until I run out of material.

Article series

About elections, parliament, government, and government formation. -
About protestants and catholics, liberals vs. conservatives, the rise of Abraham Kuyper, denominational segregation, and the Takkian controversy. Political history 1848-1894. ARP
About the protestant and liberal denominations, and the district system that was in place until 1918. Political history 1894-1918. ARP, CHU, LU, VDB, BVL
About the catholic and socialist denominations. Political history 1918-1940. World War II. RKSP, ARP, CHU, SDAP, NSB
About the failed Breakthrough, the five parties, and the party system in general. Political history 1946-1967. KVP, PvdA, ARP, CHU, VVD

Documentation

My blog on which I follow current Dutch politics.
All current and past polls, the overall scoreboard, and a coalition game.
Graphs of all Dutch parliaments from 1888 on.
A table of all Dutch parliaments from 1888 on.

Timeline of governments 1977-present

The prime ministers

Portrait of Dries van Agt

Dries van Agt, CDA party leader 1977-1982, justice minister 1971-1977, prime minister 1977-1982.

Portrait of Ruud Lubbers

Ruud Lubbers, CDA party leader 1982-1994, economics minister 1973-1977, parliamentary leader 1977-1982, prime minister 1982-1994, UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2001-2005.

Portrait of Wim Kok

Wim Kok, PvdA party leader 1986-2002, finance minister 1989-1994, prime minister 1994-2002.

Portrait of Jan Peter Balkenende

Jan Peter Balkenende, CDA party leader 2001-2010, prime minister 2002-2010.

Portrait of Mark Rutte

Mark Rutte, VVD party leader 2006-present, prime minister 2010-present.

From the table below it’s clear that every government contains exactly two of the three large parties; as well as a smaller one, if necessary.

D66*: D66 in government, even though the two large parties held a majority by themselves.

Dutch governments 1977 - present
Year Government PvdA CDA VVD Small party
1977 Van Agt I OUT IN IN -
1978
1979
1980
1981 Van Agt II
Van Agt III (without PvdA)
IN IN OUT D66*
1982 Lubbers I OUT IN IN -
1983
1984
1985
1986 Lubbers II OUT IN IN -
1987
1988
1989 Lubbers III IN IN OUT -
1990
1991
1992
1993
Year Government PvdA CDA VVD Small party
1994 Kok I
(Purple I)
IN OUT IN D66
1995
1996
1997
1998 Kok II
(Purple II)
IN OUT IN D66*
1999
2000
2001
2002 Balkenende I OUT IN IN LPF
2003 Balkenende II
Balkenende III (without D66)
OUT IN IN D66
2004
2005
2006 Balkenende IV IN IN OUT CU
2007
2008
2009
2010 Rutte I OUT IN IN [PVV]
2011
2012 Rutte II IN OUT IN -
2013
Year Government PvdA CDA VVD Small party