How to watch the Dutch election like a pro

AMSTERDAM — Almost 13 million people are eligible to vote in Wednesday’s Dutch election, which some observers see as a test of the political order in Europe.

Will polls hold true and deliver victory to current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), or will the populist firebrand Geert Wilders upset the political applecart, winning on his anti-Islam, anti-EU message?

So far, the electorate has been deeply fragmented: 28 political parties are on the ballot but none have more than 17 percent support, according to an average of polls.

No matter the result, the next government will take weeks, possibly months, to emerge. In all likelihood, this will be painstaking coalition-building between as many as five different parties.

The magic number is 76. That is the number of seats needed for a majority in the lower house of parliament. Currently, the four biggest parties are set to get between 19 and 28 seats each. Wilders’ party is in second place, forecast to get between 19 and 22 seats.

Here are the key things to watch out for as the vote unfolds.

Measure for measure

Voting takes place from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Because voting patterns have changed so much in recent years, there will be no easy deductions based on turnout. The Ipsos exit poll, based on 40 representative polling stations, will be the one to watch.

Within an hour, the smallest municipalities should begin to announce their results. The national broadcaster NOS will call a preliminary result some time during the evening but Amsterdam and other big cities may not declare until after midnight.

“Should Mr. Wilders come out the strongest, then that will be a political crisis” — Harry van Bommel, one of the longest-serving lawmakers in the Dutch parliament

Wilders is projected to increase his party’s seats from the 15 he won in the last election. Consequently, he is almost certain to claim victory whatever the result. Though it is highly unlikely that his party will be able to form a majority government (no party has ever achieved this alone,) if his party wins the most seats it will be seen as a momentous rejection of immigration and the European Union from one of the bloc’s six founding members.

It will also make the formation of a government more difficult as the other leading parties have said they will not rule with Wilders.

“Should Mr. Wilders come out the strongest, then that will be a political crisis,” said Harry van Bommel of the Socialist Party, one of the longest-serving lawmakers in the Dutch parliament. “The voters will want Mr. Wilders to govern. But if he cannot find partners to govern with, then he might frustrate the whole process of forming a new government.”

Van Bommel said the fallout from such a political crisis could echo the aftermath of the 2002 assassination of Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing populist.

“People went to the streets. Politicians got personal security. Parliament had to be surrounded by policemen and anti-terrorist officers,” he said. “That was a very tough period and we might get the same situation if Mr. Wilders wins and he is ignored.”

How to watch the Dutch election like a pro
Dutch far-right Freedom Party leader (Partij Voor De Vrijheid – PVV) Geert Wilders (L) holding a fake banknote bearing his portrait after he officially launched his parliamentary election campaign in Spijkenisse on February 18, 2017 | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

If Rutte’s VVD comes out on top, talks will quickly focus on which smaller parties can shore up his third period as prime minister. Depending on how the vote goes, the likely coalition partners are the Christian Democrats, the progressive but market-friendly D66 and the GreenLeft, which is forecast to multiply its current four seats.

The margin of victory will be important, too. If Rutte wins a large share of the vote, it will give him a strong mandate to set the agenda for the next government.

Other key things to watch

To what extent has the Labor Party’s vote collapsed? Once a dominant force in politics, the center-left party led by Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher is forecast to drop from the second-largest to the seventh-largest in parliament.

It would be a brutal verdict on the party’s decision to go into coalition with its old rival, Prime Minister Rutte’s VVD, in 2012. It would also be an illustration of what has befallen the mainstream left across Europe: weakened, after challenges from the far right and the hard left.

If the Labor Party has a traumatic night, it could potentially take heart if the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) rebounds. In the last elections, the CDA found themselves in the position Labor is in now: a once-dominant force in politics reduced to a minor party with just 13 seats in parliament in 2012.

The CDA is forecast to win between 18 and 20 seats this time round, a far cry from the 1980s when the party commanded over 50 seats, but enough to get them back into government.

Have the Greens emerged as leaders of the left? Led by the 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, the GreenLeft party fought an ambitious campaign, arguing they could be the leading party in a left-wing coalition — though the polls so far have challenged that arithmetic.

Still, the party is on course to quadruple their four seats and could win as many as 18, something that Klaver is likely to claim as a repudiation of the populist wave.

Will Wilders effectively become the leader of the opposition? The fragmentation of the vote may force most of his rivals to go into government together, something he will hold up as proof that the elite conspires to frustrate the will of the people. Wilders is the consummate opposition politician: He uses his formidable command of parliamentary procedure and his knack for headline-grabbing to dominate the news cycle while others plod on with the business of government. If his party doesn’t come first, this result may suit him perfectly.

How to watch the Dutch election like a pro

The portraits of the leaders of the main parties in the running for the Dutch elections. Top row, left to right: Emile Roemer of Socialist Party (SP), Lodewijk Asscher of Labour Party (PvdA), Jesse Klaver of GroenLinks (Green Left Party), Alexander Pechtold of Dutch Democratic 66 (D66), Netherlands Prime Minister and People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy leader Mark Rutte. Bottom row, L-R: Sybrand Haersma Buma of the Christian Democrats (CDA), Gert-Jan Segers of Dutch Christian Union (CU) party, Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV), Henk Krol of 50+ The party for the over 50s, Marianne Thieme of the parliamentary party Partij voor de Dieren, PVDD (the animal rights party) and Tunahan Kuzu of DENK (“think” in Dutch) | Gianluigi Guercia/Robert Vos/Robin Utrecht/Philippe Huguen/Bart Maat/Robin van Lonkhuijsen/AFP via Getty Images

“The main opposition will be coming from Geert Wilders on one side and the Socialist Party on the other side,” said Sarah Leah de Lange, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. “Most of the other parties would be included in the governing coalition.”

In the two days following the vote, municipalities and constituencies will manually check the results and then post the detailed regional breakdown of the results online. This will be the moment when what has happened in Labor’s old heartlands will be clear: have the working class gone further left, to the Socialists or the Greens, or have they gone right, to Wilders?

The long slog ahead

The Dutch monarch traditionally played a role in forming the government — by appointing the politicians in charge of pulling together the coalition. But King Willem-Alexander was sidelined after a 2012 reform, and, since the last election, parliament has assumed that role.

Informal discussions will begin as soon as the election is over. But the process won’t kick off formally until after March 21 when the Electoral Commission posts the final official results online. The threshold for being elected is the number of votes cast divided by the 150 seats available in the lower house. (The remaining seats are allocated by the mathematical formula known as the d’Hondt method.)

The newly-appointed lower house will hold a debate and agree on one or more mediators. These are experienced politicians who go between parties, figuring out what coalitions are possible and what obstacles must be overcome to get there.

Another debate is then held to agree on a potential prime minister, charged with trying to form a government. The constituent parties must then agree on a political program for the coalition and talks can fail during this process — they collapsed multiple times at this point in 2010. The prime minister-to-be then puts together a cabinet of ministers and the new government is finally sworn in by the king.

In the last election, forming the coalition between the VVD and Labor took 52 days. But it is likely to take longer this time as more parties will be involved. Is there a potential for stalemate as in Belgium and Spain in recent years? The answer is most certainly yes.

This article has been updated to correct the year Pim Fortuyn was killed.

Your comment...
Naomi O'Leary
Naomi O'Leary
Mar 15
Brexit more generally has dampened talk of Nexit here, people are waiting to see how it goes for the UK
Matteo D'Orazio
Matteo D'Orazio
Mar 15
do you think the brit parliament green light to brexit will play a role in this vote?
Ireland / Ruth
Ireland / Ruth
Mar 15
C'mon the Dutch Greens! Where's me popcorn?