By Gidi Brandes

The Dutch people have voted! On March 15, 2023, the Dutch elected their provincial representatives for the upcoming 4 years. A few weeks ago, I explained in my article that these elections also have consequences for national politics, because at the end of may, the elected provincial representatives will elect the members of the Dutch senate. This article will analyze the election results, shortly discuss the implications of the results for the provinces and explain what the results mean for the near future of the governing coalition.

The latest polls before the election showed us that the Farmers-Citizen Movement (Dutch: BoerBurgerBeweging – BBB), the combination of the Labor Party (Dutch: Partij van de Arbeid – PvdA) and GreenLeft (Dutch: Groenlinks – GL), and the (centre-) right-wing liberal party (Dutch: Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie – VVD) all had a chance to become the largest party in the Senate (Dutch: Eerste Kamer).

BBB has won the election, but the biggest surprise was that they won with an even a larger number of votes than expected. While the polls said that 15 seats in the Senate would be a maximum for BBB, the most recent projections say that they will get 17 seats in the Senate, which is an incredible number in the current fragmented political situation. To take this into perspective: no single party has controlled this amount of seats in the Senate since 2007. This is not the only record BBB set. It was also the first time in Dutch political history that a single party became the largest in all 12 single provinces! We already knew that BBB would get a lot of votes from rural areas, but the surprising outcome was that they also received a lot of votes in middle-large cities. Another key resource for the success of BBB was that a lot of so-called ‘protest votes’ also went to BBB instead of the extreme-nationalist party, PVV.

The Labor Party, which was one of the three dominant political parties in Dutch politics in the twentieth century, and the GreenLeft party together wanted to become the largest party in the Senate. This would have meant that a left-wing party would be the largest Dutch political party for the first time since 1998. The most recent projections say that they will reach 15 seats, which I see as a disappointing result for them because it means that they have won only 1 seat. It is especially disappointing comparing the 2023 Senate results to the 2021 House of Representatives (Dutch: Tweede Kamer) results. D66 lost half of their voters, but PvdA/GL clearly weren’t able to attract many of them, while the goal of the cooperation was to exactly to attract voters from other left/progressive parties to become the largest. D66 voters voted for Volt or the Animal’s Party.

The VVD, of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has been the largest party in the country since 2010. During this election, they became third, with a projection of 10 seats, which means a 2-seats loss for the largest coalition party. The three other coalition parties dropped seats as well (CDA from 9 to 5, D66 from 7 to 5, and the CU from 4 to 2). This means a total loss of 10 seats for the governing coalition.

Latest Projection of Senate seats:

Governing coalition (VVD, D66, CDA, CU)3222-10
PvdA + GroenLinks1415+1
Partij voor de Dieren (Animals party)34+1
SP (Socialist Party)43-1
JA21 (Conservative liberals/right-wing populists)03+3
Forum voor Democratie (Extreme-right)122-10
SGP (Orthodox Christian Party)220
OSF (Cooperation of regional parties)110
Volt (Social liberals)01+1

Because of the fact that the BBB became the largest party in all the provinces they have the right to initiate the formation of a new provincial government, which is called Gedeputeerde Staten, in Dutch. Looking at the provincial results, BBB can form a conservative (centre-) right government in probably 8 or 9 provinces, which is likely to be their preference. 

At the same time, if you look at the Senate projection, the coalition government will be looking for majorities on the left side of the spectrum. Together with PvdA, GL and Volt, the coalition can reach the required majority of 38. Of course, it would be logical to think that the coalition will seek cooperation with BBB, because they have won the elections, but BBB is opposing the coalition policies, D66 in particular, on some very fundamental themes like nitrogen, climate, and migration. PvdA and GroenLinks also oppose these policies, but I think they are standing closer to the currently proposed government policies than BBB. This might change in the near future since new info arrived on March 31, which will be discussed later on in this article.

These two thoughts lead to the last part of this article. We could have a situation in which we have a centre-left majority at the national level and a centre-right majority in a majority of the provinces. Why is this problematic, but very interesting for political scientists? Some of the most important policies of the current national government, like migration (legislature about spreading asylum seekers across the country) and nitrogen (discussion about the why, where, how and when of the nitrogen reduction policy), have to be executed by the provincial governments. But, as explained, a majority of the provincial governments will probably consist of parties, in particular BBB and maybe JA21, who oppose these policies. 

But this is not even the most interesting thing. A lot of provinces will be governed by BBB, VVD, and CDA. While BBB is an opposition party at the national level, the VVD and CDA are certainly not. What will happen when the VVD and CDA vote in favor of the government policies at the national level and the VVD and CDA will refuse to execute these plans at the provincial level? What does that mean for the national government and for the (near) future of these two governing parties and their (electoral) success?

A logical answer to these questions would be that the government will resign, eventually. I do not think that this will be the case. The CU is a party that always wants to take ‘responsibility’, whatever that may mean in politics, so it is not really their type of behavior to let the government collapse. D66 and the VVD will think twice about the electoral consequences for their parties before resigning. A resignation of the government will probably mean new elections. Looking at the Provincial election result, new elections for the House of Representatives (Dutch: Tweede Kamer) will probably be a heated race for becoming the largest party between PvdA/GroenLinks and the BBB. If voters know that these two parties compete to become the largest party, some VVD voters will vote for BBB and D66 voters will vote for the PvdA/GroenLinks combination. So, VVD and D66 will not let the government collapse, because of electoral reasons. Finally, we have CDA, which is a difficult case. On the one hand, CDA has already lost a lot of votes and they cannot really lose more. On the other hand, for the CDA goes the same as the CU, it is not really their type of behavior to ‘give up’ and let the government collapse. Therefore, I do not see why the government would decide to resign in the (near) future.

A few days ago, new info arrived. CDA has told its coalition partners that they want to renegotiate the coalition agreement. Currently, the law says that the amount of nitrogen should be reduced by 50% in 2035. The coalition agree ment states that this should already happen in 2030. CDA wants to renegotiate this specific year. D66 is not likely to agree with this, but, as mentioned above, it is not rational for VVD, D66, and the CU to let the government collapse, because for them snap elections will end up in losing seats. What I think is happening is that CDA wants to take back control over the coalition by saying ‘2035 or resign’ because they know their partners will not resign and therefore give in to CDA.

To sum it all up, the Netherlands has witnessed a historical election with some major political changes. The election results have strong implications for the national policy, the behavior of the governing parties, and the most relevant opposition parties. I cannot predict the future, but I can tell we have a very interesting time ahead. Stay tuned for more! 

Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz from Pexels