With each other, no, that’s not possible. The differences between the six parties (VVD, D66, CDA, PvdA, GroenLinks and ChristenUnie) that participated in the talks with informateur Mariëtte Hamer were small. Yet they kept each other captive for months in a web of blocks and demands. And this was just the opening act. The formation has not even started, five and a half months after the elections.
It was, said a disappointed informer Mariëtte Hamer on Thursday, about “imagery”. About “thin lines” in personal relationships. Unkind things said about each other “in the media”. For rebellious constituencies and parliamentary groups. In short: a “complex”, unsolvable problem.
But without each other, that too is unthinkable. Apart from these six middle parties, there is virtually no other party with which a majority coalition can be formed. The parties on the flanks, both left and right, are not a serious option or are excluded in advance. A small centrist newcomer like Volt doesn’t want to.
Also read this reconstruction: Klaver was sometimes too eager and Hoekstra didn’t reveal anything; how could the formation get stuck like this
It is an impasse in which the political center has been in for years, but which is only now beginning to have major consequences. Most middle parties have been empty since the end of the Purple era (1994-2002). They have trouble distinguishing themselves from each other. Confessions, liberals and social democrats – sworn enemies a century ago – have their own priorities, odor and solutions. But in the end their agenda is more or less the same: a little more government, a little less market. Achieving the climate goals. Solving the nitrogen problem. Reform the labor market and agriculture.
Trapped in a power cocoon
The rise of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 exposed much social dissatisfaction with the established order. That storm never passed. The flank parties have become a stable factor among voters, especially on the right. In the meantime, the middle parties let the debate about politics and governance go on, political scientist Matthijs Rooduijn recently argued in NRC. Anxious and uncertain, they refused to engage in the debate on political culture, allowing radical right parties to wrap it up in a populist message of nationalism and anti-immigration. That failure, Rooduijn argues, ensured that “the middle parties increasingly locked themselves in their cocoon of power, which unintentionally made the anti-establishment message that The Hague mainly cares about The Hague stronger”.
The content has been flattened and electorally thinned – the center came under increasing pressure. The center left (PvdA, GroenLinks) and center right (CDA, VVD), supplemented by the ambiguous middle parties (sometimes center left, sometimes center right) D66 and ChristenUnie, now have 95 of the 150 parliamentary seats. That seems like a lot, but in 2002, when Fortuyn emerged, they still had 138 seats. Moreover: the flank parties are so unmentionable for the center that every majority has to be distilled from those 95 seats.
If center parties merge into a coalition, the flank parties will dominate the opposition
Tom van der Meer, professor of political science
Due to the fragmentation of the middle – with the VVD as an exception – at least four parties are currently needed to form a majority coalition. The result is that the middle ground will come under even further pressure, says political science professor Tom van der Meer, affiliated with the University of Amsterdam. “Not only is a coalition now being formed, but also an opposition. If center parties merge into a coalition, the flank parties will dominate the opposition. They will be the only alternative for voters who are getting tired of the middle.” Thus the middle parties of the radical parties make the only alternative.
For years, parties in the political center have not been making it clear to voters what their differences are, says Van der Meer. As more and more parties are needed for a majority coalition, coalition agreements get thicker and thicker. Coalition parties then have no room to come up with their own ideas.
In order to arm themselves against idleness and irrelevance, the centrist parties have elevated their middle position to a goal. In 2017, when VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie concluded their coalition, CU leader Gert-Jan Segers called this “a last chance from the political center”. The Rutte III coalition agreement stated that the cabinet would try to counter polarization in the Netherlands and restore confidence in politics. The cabinet would close ‘gaps’ between population groups, but also the gap between citizens and politics: leave it to us, otherwise you will have the chaos of the radicals.
It’s an echo of the book The Vital Center from 1949, from Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who has influenced generations of American politicians, right down to Bill Clinton. Schlesinger wrote that the political center should not be dull, but should actively combat extreme ideologies such as Nazism and Communism. Values that the center had to defend: “an aversion to fanaticism, willingness to compromise, persuasion and agreement in politics, towards tolerance and diversity in society”.
Pragmatism and compromise
But exactly what should make the middle parties so attractive – order, pragmatism, willingness to compromise – they are not showing that now. Put six parties prepared to compromise at a table and the result, after almost half a year, is: no compromise.
Let the ‘sensible middle’ rule, and the result is also: a ‘Rutte doctrine’, an allowance affair, MPs who are given a double function in the cabinet (and only leave the House after a critical judgment by the Council of State), and a minister of Infrastructure and Water Management who becomes a lobbyist for the energy sector.
“During the election campaign, VVD succeeded in getting all substantive themes off the agenda,” says Van der Meer. “They let it be, very cleverly, about the leadership of Mark Rutte. Time and again he has faced Geert Wilders in debates, and he could say: ‘I agree with you, but the difference between us is that I get things done.’ Substantive conflict is part of politics, it provides guidance. But that was denied to the voter.”
The long and closed formation period undermines the legitimacy of the middle even further, notes Tom van der Meer. Parties hardly spoke about coalition preferences before the elections, and suddenly became very firm after the elections. “The link between the result and a possible coalition is very thin. There was no substantive discussion, and the voter was not involved in the deliberations of the parties.”
They look too much alike
Mariëtte Hamer made a remarkable observation in her final report. One of the reasons for the obstinacy of the six parties was not that they were so different, but that they were so similar. Hamer said on Thursday: “As you get closer and closer, the urge in the middle to differentiate from each other becomes even greater.”
Read also about the informateur’s final report: Hamer warns the parties: don’t stay angry at each other
The less substantive conflict, the greater the urge for polarization. And so the parties start excluding each other, or they frantically look for sometimes minimal differences.
In a quest for stable majorities, the political center has become extremely unstable. Mariëtte Hamer writes in her final report that it is therefore logical to investigate the option of a minority government. Minority coalitions, which always involve making deals with the opposition, are not popular. But political science professor Sarah de Lange (University of Amsterdam) is a “great proponent” of it. She knows, she says, that the idea does not fit with the ‘consensus democracy’ that the Netherlands has been for a long time. But that very system is coming to an end, she says, now that the political landscape is fragmented. “It will be inevitable to form coalitions with four or five parties. The compromises required for this further erase the differences between them. That reinforces the image among citizens that there is nothing to choose between those parties.”
In a minority government, the proportions are less fixed. “You build in a nice flexibility. The coalition agreement no longer has to be so thick. Sometimes you can leave the contradictions in the coalition for what they are and look elsewhere for support for your plan.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 4 September 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 4, 2021