Dutch Governing Crisis Update

What’s going on in the Netherlands these days? How about only a caretaker government in power, or more precisely, the old government still hanging on, without much authority to take any sort of major initiatives – and all this more than two months after the last general election?

This might not matter so much if that election was just the latest round of political musical-chairs – some parties gain a little bit there, some lose a little there. Instead, this election actually produced some results of note. Actually, the last election (of not so long ago – held in May, 2002) also produced results of note, which were then simply reversed in the “results of note” of the latest election of January, 2003. To wit: in May, 2002, the List Pim Fortuyn came out of nowhere to rocket to second most-popular Dutch political party, while the Partij van de Arbeid (the PvdA, or Labor Party, which at the time had been the dominant governing party for years) lost a considerable share of its votes. (This is not the opportunity to give my take on the Pim Fortuyn phenomenon, of last year and this, in Dutch politics. Maybe another time. Or maybe it’s going away, so that it doesn’t matter anymore.) In this latest election, in contrast, the LPF’s vote largely evaporated, while the PvdA took its place as second most-popular Dutch political party.

With the apportionment of the Dutch people’s electoral will so different after the election, as compared to before the election, you would think a speedy change of regime was called-for. But this is only accomplished in practice by some combination of parties banding together to form a new government, which can command the confidence of the national legislature (here the Dutch Lower House, or “Tweede Kamer”). And it now seems that the way to do that is by means of a “grand coalition,” i.e. the two strongest parties, the parties which each represent, respectively, the Right/Left division in Dutch politics (the CDA or Christian Democrats, and the PvdA) banding together to form such a government.

It’s a cliché (which doesn’t mean that it is not true) that binding together the two leading opposition parties in government inevitably results in a “government of all” which turns out to be a “government of none,” where the fundamentally different guiding philosophies of the different parties result in the sort of compromise necessary to come up with a common government program becoming elusive. It also is said to result in the remaining opposition to the government necessarily taking extra-parliamentary forms, like taking to the street. (Just imagine a US government that needed to be formed by the Democrats and Republicans together – but these things are largely a result of the election system in force in a country, and we have a different one which, for all its defects, at least makes government by “grand coalitions” extremely rare.)

Nonetheless, the next Dutch government is expected to be a CDA-PvdA coalition – except that issue after issue crops up to underline their policy differences. One of the biggest latest issues, of course, is the war in Iraq; the PvdA is against it, the CDA is “for” it (under the formula “political support, but no military support” – i.e. we’ll cheer you on, but we won’t do anything to assist you).

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