Caretaker PM Mark Rutte is under pressure after surviving a no-confidence in parliament last week. A motion of censure was passed, accusing Rutte of misleading parliament over his attempts to sideline an MP – the same MP who had uncovered the benefits scandal that triggered the government’s (technical) resignation in January. However, Rutte convincingly won the March elections, gaining 34 mandates in the highly fragmented, 150-seats lower house. This means that forming a government against his party will be difficult. Coalition formation will likely take time, and a key factor to watch will be the degree of support the embattled incumbent receives from within his center-right Liberals (VVD).
One alternative would be a government led by the socially liberal D66. This party gained five additional mandates and became the second-largest force, at 24 seats. But to exclude the VVD, a coalition of some seven or eight parties would be required, covering the political space all the way to the leftist rim. At the other end, the Christian Democrats (CDA) – so far loyal supporters of Rutte’s center-right course – would also have to sign up. That this is, nevertheless, not an entirely unrealistic scenario has to do both with Rutte’s recent missteps and the CDA’s loss of four seats after having campaigned on a rather center-right platform, while D66’s socially liberal course paid off.
Therefore, one key question is whether the CDA wants to move from the center-right to social liberalism gradually. Amid widespread excitement about the strong performance of D66, however, it is less clear whether a bet on new voters in the “liberal center” could also entail the loss of support in the “electoral center” (between liberals and the far right). After all, the single-biggest election winner has not been pro-European D66 leader Sigrid Kaag, but Thierry Baudet’s Eurosceptic Forum for Democracy (FvD) which gained six additional seats. Meanwhile, the three seats lost by Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party (PVV) were made up by a group that broke away from Baudet’s party.
Overall, the extreme right has, therefore, been strengthened, while the losses for socially liberal parties such as the Green Left suggest tactical voter migrations to the new strong woman leading the liberal center, Sigrid Kaag. Against this backdrop, Rutte’s departure – whether it materializes now or in the coming years – will be a crucial moment for Dutch politics. Rutte came to power in 2010 in an awkward arrangement with the CDA and Wilders’ far-right PVV. For all his much-debated weaknesses, Rutte has, however, been the embodiment of tending to the “electoral center” ever since: governing with social liberals and social democrats as of 2012, but maintaining the center-right brand of his own party.
In the short term, Rutte might be deserted by his long-standing coalition partners or be replaced by his own VVD (although the alternatives are scarce). But even if he survives once more to serve what would appear to be his final term: when the country’s longest-serving PM does leave eventually, one consequence could be a new version of the “pillarization” that had long been typical of Dutch politics – this time as polarization between a liberal and a far-right camp. But Rutte’s traditional home-ground of the “electoral center” could be left dangerously open for either side to expand their reach.