The Netherlands


Executive Summary

Uneasy four-party
The years 2020-2021 were the last of the Rutte III government that came to power in March 2017. This was an uneasy four-party coalition between center-right parties (the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the largely ideology-free Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA)) and center-left parties (pragmatist social liberals Democrats 66 (D66) and the left-leaning Christian fundamentalist Christian Union (CU) with their near-immovable principles on health ethics). It had a flimsy majority in parliament (76/150 in the Second Chamber, 38/75 in First Chamber), which it lost after new elections for the First Chamber, or Senate, in 2020.
Economic successes,
social compromises
Its policy history shows a Janus face. On the one hand, macro- and micro-economic policy success stories due to the neoliberal embrace of industry and business. On the other, an accumulation of nondecisions and half-baked compromises on a raft of urgent social and sustainability problems, like poverty and precarious temporary jobs for too many workers; a housing shortage in terms of availability, access to financing and unsustainable quality; dealing with manifestations of institutional racism; growing inequalities and decreasing quality in education; a lack of smooth compensation for earthquake damage due to decades-long gas exploitation in the province of Groningen; personnel shortages in the public sector (teaching, nursing) and the construction sector; and a skills shortage for private projects in climate change.
Mounting political anger…
…deflected by pandemic crisis
Then came the nitrogen crisis, called the “biggest problem” for his cabinet by the prime minister himself. Angry farmers on processions of tractors blocked roads and government buildings and occupied squares in the capital. Political anger, fanned by right-wing populist parties, was everywhere. Analysts saw events as a direct confrontation between “Twitter and the polder.” The cabinet’s fall seemed imminent. But beginning in 2020, all of a sudden, there was the coronavirus pandemic, which proved to be a political gamechanger. The prime minister transformed himself into a successful crisis manager, and his personal popularity and government support soared. Yet this too ebbed away after the fall of 2020, evolving into increased criticism and contestation and a flurry of sometimes violent demonstrations or riots against a night curfew and reintroduced, gradually stricter lockdown measures during the fall and winter of 2021.
Administrative scandal destroys trust
Simultaneously, the final blow for the cabinet was in the making. A parliamentary commission investigating childcare benefits as implemented by the tax services, published a report entitled “Unprecedented Injustice,” showing that since 2013 tens of thousands of citizens and families had been illegally accused of fraud in requesting childcare benefits, with many forced to pay full repayments that caused the poorer families to fall into deep poverty for years – frequently with disruptive effects (stress-related illness, divorce, loss of child custody). All of this was seen as the result of overzealous fraud-chasing legislation by parliament, systematic but merciless implementation by the tax authorities, and until 2019, a complete lack of judicial review and protection at all levels. Many citizens, political observers and civil servants experienced this policy disaster as the most radical breach of political trust between citizens and the government since World War II. It also damaged trust between the coalition partners; and between them and all other political parties.
Doubts put aside
during pandemic
The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 put the government in an entirely different position, due to the necessary mobilization in times of crisis. Confidence in public institutions was transferred to the government, and doubts were put aside, at least at the beginning of the crisis.
Cabinet resigns;
new government
with same parties
In January 2021, the Rutte III cabinet collectively resigned, only to continue as a caretaker government to prepare the March 2021 elections and govern (the pandemic continued) until a new cabinet was formed. Curiously, the electorate blamed the civil servants more than the minister(s) for the childcare benefits disaster, which allowed Rutte/VVD be the winner of the elections by capitalizing on its reputation of coronavirus leadership. Members of parliament were less forgiving, and almost managed to torpedo Rutte’s political career, but finally settled on the longest ever cabinet formation process, 290 days (completing on January 10, 2022), which brought the same four political parties back into a new cabinet with slightly changed power relationships – particularly with D66 stronger than before. The coalition agreement is a shopping list of good intentions, using previously rejected policy instruments to tackle social and environmental policy problems that have been put off with huge amounts of money, financed at very considerable risk. These are given a twist of green industrial policy; and further embedded in promises to restore trust and repair rule-of-law damage by implementing policies realistically and with a “human face.”
Montesquieu Instituut, 2021. ‘Niet zo stoffig, toch?’ Een terugblik op het kabinet Rutte III, Den Haag

NRC, 19 October 2021. Raad van Europa: ‘De Nederlandse bestuurscultuur werkt, maar kan beter’.

NOS, 29 January 2021. Peilingwijzer: kiezer rekent Rutte niet af op toeslagenaffaire en val kabinet.

NRC next, Ahaouray et al., 27 February 2021, Coronakabinet Rutte III: van crisis naar crisis

NRC, Van den Brink, 3 December 2021. ‘Wat normaal is bepaal ik zelf’ werkt niet meer

NOS Nieuws, 10 December 2021. ‘Probleem van regeerakkoord is niet geld, maar beschikbare mensen’
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