A guidance to the upcoming elections and explanation of the political situation in The Netherlands

By Gidi Brandes

On Wednesday, March 15, the Dutch voters will vote for the provincial council (Dutch: Provinciale Staten). While this implies that the upcoming elections are about the provinces, the provincial elections also have a strong national component. Two months after the elections the chosen provincial representatives will elect the 75 members of the Senate (Dutch: Eerste Kamer). The composition of the senate after the elections will be very important for the near future of the governing coalition. This article will explain how the upcoming provincial elections work, which political relations are at stake and what the most recent polls tell us about possible outcomes and what these mean for the future of the governing coalition.

Provincial council elections: how does it work?

The Netherlands uses a proportional representation system for all the elections. There is no electoral threshold. In order to win a seat in parliament you have to get at least the amount of all votes casted in the elections divided by the number of seats at stake. The amount of seats in a province depends on the number of inhabitants of a province (See table 1).

The Provincial Council is the parliamentary representation of the province and they check the provincial executive. The province as such is a governing body which makes decisions about, among other things, infrastructure and the environment, which is explicitly separated from climate policy, which is a matter for the national government.

Two months after these provincial elections are held, the chosen members of the provincial council will vote for the Senate. Also in this case, the weight of a vote of the Provincial Council member is decided by the number of inhabitants the province has. In the election for the Senate not only the 12 provinces, but also the members of the electoral colleges of the so-called openbare lichamen and ‘Kiescollege voor niet-ingezetenen’ (Electoral college for Dutch people living outside The Netherlands who are allowed to vote) are allowed to vote for the senate. 

Table 1: Number of seats per province

ProvinceNumber of seats
Extra: Water Board ElectionsOn March 15, not only elections for the Provincial Council are held, but also for the Water Board (Dutch: Waterschapsverkiezingen). These elections are totally separate from the provincial election, but have been held on the same day since 2014. An interesting fact about the Water Board is that they are the oldest democratic governing institutions of The Netherlands. Everyone, including internationals, can vote for these elections, so go out and vote! 

Provincial Council elections: what is at stake?

As mentioned in the introduction of this article, the indirect influence voters have on the composition of the Senate makes that the elections have a really strong national component. It seems that voters are more interested in national themes than provincial themes. This is not special, provincial elections have always had a more national view than a Provincial view. 

But before I focus on the national component, I have to note that the provinces are responsible for the implementation of the nitrogen policy, which makes the provincial aspect slightly more interesting than the previous Provincial elections.The current governing coalition, together with GroenLinks (GreenLeft) and the PvdA (Labour Party; Dutch: Partij van de Arbeid) are likely to be in agreement with each other on the current nitrogen policy, but since there is a lot of critique on the nitrogen policy, especially outside the urban areas, there will be a chance some provinces will refuse to execute the government’s nitrogen policy. This will cause a difficult political situation, but from a political science perspective, it will be really interesting.

Now, about the senate. At the moment, the governing coalition, consisting of VVD (right-wing liberals), D66 (social-liberals), CDA (Christian-democrats) and the CU (Social-Christians), has no majority in the Senate, since they have 32 seats, while 38 seats are required for a majority. The most recent polls tell us that those 32 coalition seats will drop a little further to around 30 or even less. This means that the governing coalition needs help from other parties. 

On the left-wing GroenLinks (GreenLeft) and the PvdA (Labour Party) (two separate parties that together will form 1 party in the Senate) are willing to compromise with the government. GroenLinks and the PvdA also seem to have the biggest chance to get in that position, but the polls also show us that even with these left-wing parties the governing coalition can still lack a majority (Some polls say 40 seats, other polls say 36 seats, while 38 is required). Some other left-wing parties like the Partij voor de Dieren (Animals’ party) and the SP (Socialist party) also have a chance, but it seems unlikely they will reach an agreement with the current coalition, in my view. The last option is Volt (Pan-European party), which will probably get 1 or 2 seats and can maybe help the coalition and the combination of PvdA and GroenLinks in order to get a majority. Looking at policy and party preferences, this seems the most likely option.

On the right-wing, JA21 (Conservative liberals, who are a break-off party of the extreme-right Forum for Democracy) and BBB (Farmers-Citizen Movement, which is a new party that currently holds one seat in the house of representatives), and maybe even the PVV (radical right-wing populists who are excluded from cooperation by D66 and the CU) have a chance to get influence on government policy. However, these 3 parties prefer to have new elections in order to get into power themselves. Four years ago, Forum for Democracy became the biggest party in the Senate with 12 seats, but they have since imploded. Given this and knowing that a lot of right-wing or conservative voters of the VVD are dissatisfied with, for example, the current policy on migration, a lot of right-wing seats are ‘available’. Therefore PVV, BBB and JA21 (probably in that order) will most likely win nearly one-third of the senate seats, given the most recent poll results. This result will give us a very interesting political situation, because it will mean that cooperation on the right wing seems a little easier in terms of seats, and VVD and CDA will probably prefer cooperating with BBB and JA21. Additionally , recent polls show that the voters of D66 and the CU prefer cooperation with the left-wing parties, while voters of VVD and CDA prefer cooperation with the right-wing parties. This could also be another point of contention for the coalition.

The future of the governing coalition

Looking at recent events and the trends in the recent polls (EenVandaag’s Senate poll and province poll, peil.nl, Ipsos), we know the following:

  • The governing coalition will further lose seats in the Senate
  • Cooperation on the left is possible, but the further the coalition (in particular VVD and CDA) drops, the more difficult and complicated cooperation with the left will be. Not only in terms of seats, but also because the left will ask for more influence in change for support. Thereby we also do not exactly know what to expect of the cumulative result of GroenLinks and the PvdA.
  • The right-wing parties will win a significant number of seats
  • VVD and CDA prefer cooperating with BBB and JA21 over GroenLinks and the PvdA.
  • D66 and the CU prefer cooperating with GroenLinks and the PvdA (and Volt) over BBB and JA21.

In the last couple of months, we have already seen existing divisions in the coalition on migration policy and agricultural policy. On the one hand, D66 wants to stick to the current nitrogen policy, but on the other hand, it seems the VVD, CU and mostly CDA have some doubts. On migration policy, D66 and the CU are in favour of a humane asylum policy, while VVD and CDA want to reduce the number of asylum seekers coming to The Netherlands.

A complicated election result can further divide the coalition and cause a serious cabinet crisis which may be the beginning of the end for the governing coalition. Whether that will lead to new elections or not, we do not know. What we do know is that all the possible outcomes already mentioned are all still very possible to happen. 

This leads to my last remark: if you are allowed, go out and vote! 

This election can really be decided by 1 or 2 seats less or short for your preferred party. So let the world know what you want in your province (and the water board, of course, don’t forget them!) for the upcoming 4 years. This election will show us once again that voting can make the difference!

Image by João Jesus from Pexels