Something extraordinary happened in yesterday’s provincial elections in the Netherlands. It wasn’t a landslide of any sort; in fact the right-wing liberals of the VVD held on to their lead. Neither was there a new populist movement – and the Netherlands have seen rather a few over the past 15 years – that took the provincial parliaments by storm. What was remarkable, and I believe unprecedented, is that none of the parties secured more than one-sixth of the vote.
That’s right. Overall the VVD secured the biggest number of seats in these elections with just shy of 16 percent of the vote. Five other parties each polled between 10 and 15 percent nationally. The combined vote share of the three most successful parties in these elections fails to even hit 45 percent. Indeed in ten of the Netherlands’ 12 provinces, a minimum of four parties are needed to form a majority government.
The fragmentation of the political landscape in the Netherlands has been a gradual process, punctured by various shock results. The country’s undiluted proportional representation system has accommodated a tradition of political diversity, with new parties finding few obstacles on their way into parliaments. Often the political lifespan of such new parties has been short, particularly if they ran on a single-issue ticket. Having said that, some parties that made their entry into politics in my lifetime have become part of the fabric of Dutch politics with representation at all levels.
While the rise of new political parties is one aspect of a two-sided story, the decimation of formerly dominant parties is the other. In the general election of 1989, the christian-democrats (CDA) and social-democrats (PvdA) together obtained more than two-thirds of the vote. Yesterday’s result puts them on less than 25 percent combined. Oddly, this has not forced these former giants into the political margins. It would still only take a minor swing one way or the other for CDA or PvdA to be the Dutch voters’ top choice again – for what that is worth of course.
The 75 seats in the Dutch senate, which will be allocated on the basis of yesterday’s election results, will be divided between 12 political parties. Progressive liberals (D66), socialists (SP) and anti-immigration populists (PVV) will be present in similar numbers to VVD, CDA and PvdA. Other groups will include the animal rights party, the 50-plus party for senior citizens and two religiously-guided parties of protestant signature.
It will be worth keeping an eye on Dutch politics in the next few years. While the Netherlands have a long history of multi-party democracy, the balance of power has never been as delicate as it is now. Could this fragmentation be a blessing in disguise and result in greater representation of the electorate’s diverse priorities in decision-making, or will it expose the limitations of proportional representation?
Should the political parties fail to devise a credible way of working together constructively, how will voters respond: what would a vote against fragmentation look like?