Netherlands election: Mark Rutte set to win big – but what next?

By Jon Henley

The outgoing prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, appears headed for a comprehensive victory and fourth successive term in office as the Dutch go to the polls in national elections on Monday, with voting spread over three days due to coronavirus restrictions.

Polls predict Rutte, who has headed three coalition governments of different political complexions since 2010, and his centre-right People’s party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) will win twice as many parliamentary seats as his nearest rival.

On course for 36 to 40 seats, the VVD has ruled out working with the second-largest party, the anti-Islam Freedom party (PVV) of Geert Wilders. Polls suggest Rutte will need three coalition partners and forming a government could take weeks.

The popular prime minister should win more seats than in the 2017 election despite violent anti-curfew riots and the resignation of his cabinet in January over a major child benefits scandal with racist overtones in which more than 25,000 families were wrongly accused of fraud.

“He has held on to his ‘rally round the flag’ boost from the start of the pandemic,” said Pepijn Bergsen, a Chatham House researcher and Netherlands specialist. “And Covid has completely pacified the political debate – taken all the energy out of politics.”

Rem Korteweg of the Clingendael thinktank said Rutte, who recently relaxed some coronavirus restrictions, had three key assets: politically, he was a “great technician” who also had “genuine personal appeal”, and he was “Teflon: problems don’t stick”.

What’s the political landscape and how does the system work?

There are 150 MPs in parliament, meaning a government needs 76 seats to form a majority. No single party ever manages this and the Netherlands has been governed by coalitions for more than a century.

The Netherlands has a pure proportional representation system in which the whole country is in effect a single, nationwide constituency. Any party that wins 0.67% of the national vote is assured of a seat.

This has produced a startling fragmentation of the landscape: a record 37 different parties are competing in this election, and up to 15 could enter parliament. Support for the big traditional parties (with the striking exception of Rutte’s VVD) has fallen sharply in recent decades.

What other parties are running and how will they do?

Rutte’s two main current coalition partners, the Christian Democrats (CDA) and liberal-progressive D66, are on target for 16-18 and 14-16 seats respectively. His third partner, the small conservative Christian Union, should get five to 7.

The ecologists of Green Left are on course for between 11 and 13, the Labour party (PvdA) should bounce back somewhat to 11-13 from a disastrous showing in 2017 when it lost three out of four seats, and the Socialist party could get 11.

After that, smaller parties expected to win seats include religious parties, the party for Animals (PvdD); the 50Plus party for pensioners; Denk (Think), which courts mainly Muslim immigrants; and the pro- and pan-European movement Volt.

What about the far right?

Wilders, who briefly propped up Rutte’s first coalition, is forecast to win 12-14% of the national vote and about the same number of seats as in 2017. His manifesto again calls for the “de-Islamisation” of the Netherlands.

He wants a minister for re-emigration, no more refugee permits for Syrians, and the army to “retake the streets”. His stagnation in the polls is down mainly to the fact that his key vote-winner, immigration, is not the red-button issue it was in 2017.

The flamboyant Thierry Baudet and his Forum for Democracy, which finished first in provincial elections in 2019, has all but imploded under allegations of racism and anti-semitism, and Baudet himself has turned Trumpian conspiracy theorist.

What is Rutte’s secret?

He is a savvy operator with a talent for building and maintaining unlikely alliances. He projects the kind of no-nonsense image the Dutch like, famously once refusing to let cleaners in parliament mop up his spilt coffee and doing it himself.

Critics say he is more interested in power than principles and he has no difficulty pandering to the far right on issues such as immigration, “Dutch values” and integration. But he is rarely out of step with the views of many of his voters.

Rutte still lives in the same part of the Hague in which he grew up, bikes to work, goes on holiday with the same friends, is single and has – to the best of anyone’s knowledge – never been in a relationship. He says he has no time.

The family has known hard times: Rutte’s father was interned in a Japanese camp in Indonesia; his mother died. The family fled the former colony amid anti-Dutch protests and started again from scratch in the Hague. His elder brother died of Aids, a tragedy he has said made him realise “you only get one chance at life”. He worked for Unilever before becoming junior social affairs minister in 2002, VVD party leader in 2006, and prime minister in 2010.

What are the issues?

This has been a flat campaign, with Covid knocking the wind out of Dutch politics. There is broad consensus on the government’s handling of the crisis. Other topics debated included post-pandemic tax changes and approaches to the climate crisis.

The VVD’s economically moderate manifesto focuses on the public sector, healthcare, a higher minimum wage and tax cuts. Socially conservative measures include green road pricing, a refugee quota and stricter integration requirements for immigrants.

What happens next and what might the next government look like?

Polls close at 9pm on Wednesday. Once the results are known, parliament appoints a respected elder statesman, known as an informateur, to explore possible coalition permutations with the main parties.

Then the informateur names a formateur (generally the leader of the biggest party, so probably Rutte) to begin coalition negotiations. This can easily take a couple of months, although in 2017 it took a record 208 days.

With both the CDA and D66 polling slightly lower than in 2017, it is likely Rutte will again need three partners to secure a majority. Potential candidates include, besides the VVD, the Christian Democrats, D66, Labour, Green Left and the Socialist party.