Elections result in
The Dutch parliamentary elections in March 2017 returned a complex parliamentary composition. Consequently, the formation of a new cabinet took a record 203 days to finalize, with negotiations only concluded in November 2017. The new Rutte III cabinet consists of four political parties, with the smallest-possible parliamentary majority (76 out of 150 parliamentary seats). The four coalition partners are the center-right, conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), with 33 seats and six ministers; the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), with 19 seats and four ministers; the social-liberal Democrats 66 (D66), with 19 seats and four ministers; and the center-left Christian Union (CU), with five seats and two ministers – demonstrating the bargaining power of small swing-parties.
Restructuring of ministries and portfolios
In addition, there was some notable reshuffling of policy domains and ministerial departments. For example, the former Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation was separated into the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, and the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy (with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy having assumed some of the tasks of the former Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment). Meanwhile, the scandal-plagued Ministry of Security and Justice was re-prioritized the Ministry of Justice and Security; and town and country planning and development (“ruimtelijke ordening en ontwikkeling,” which includes housing and regional development) was taken from the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, and incorporated in the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations.
Governing effectiveness limited
The governing effectiveness of the Rutte III cabinet has so far been limited. From 36 legislative initiatives announced in the Government Agreement one year ago, just five have been realized – two of which involved the simple termination of existing laws (concerning non-binding referendums and fiscal discounts for home-owners). In-keeping with recent tradition, a significant proportion of legislative initiatives (e.g., concerning agriculture, climate change, health care and pension reforms) were first outsourced to societal consultative procedures (i.e., platforms or roundtables) in order to generate sufficient political acceptability (“draagvlak”) before being advanced to parliamentary debate and approval.
For some, these societal consultative procedures testify to the above-average quality of democracy in the Netherlands. For others, they demonstrate the sluggishness and veto power of societal interest groups, such as business associations, in the Dutch political system. The stability of the system appears to be decreasing. Since the 2007/8 financial meltdown, continuing economic and global political uncertainties linked to strict austerity policies have produced a solid economic recovery. However, this has been achieved at the cost of producing an inward-looking, volatile and “angry” electorate. The Rutte III cabinet will be able to continue to implement an agenda of neoliberal legislative reforms somewhat softened by social measures. Providing grounds for persist concerns, the political parties and government bureaucracy have shown an increasing disregard for rule-of-law requirements, legislative and administrative details, and the management of an independent judicial infrastructure.
Economic policies successful
Policy performance is average, but satisfactory. Economic policies have been successful over the last two years, especially in the budgetary and accounting spheres. Recently, unemployment rates have strongly diminished, although high youth unemployment remains a particular concern. In 2015 and 2016, the government announced tax cuts intended to increase consumption spending, but net wage increases have been negligible due to policies that increased the tax burden on households and underestimated inflation rates. The Dutch continue to do well in most areas of social sustainability. Though the crisis in education has manifested in teacher strikes, with teachers demanding higher wages (to attract better quality teachers and alleviate the present shortage of qualified teachers), smaller classrooms and less work pressure.
More families falling
Social-inclusion policies have failed to prevent more families from falling into poverty. An excessively soft approach to anti-discrimination over recent years appears to have been an important driver in the establishment of DENK, a political party that appeals to Dutch citizens of second- and third-generation Turkish and Moroccan descent. DENK currently holds three parliamentary seats and 13 seats across local councils, and is especially strong in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Persistent anxieties among voters concerning immigration issues have also strengthened anti-immigration parties, which now appeal to 15% of the electorate.
Hybrid health care approach losing support
In the realm of health care policy, excessive overall cost increases have been prevented, but prices for a large number of medicines have spiked. The hybrid public-private health care system, given the amount of political turmoil following the sudden bankruptcy of two hospitals, appears to be losing legitimacy not only among citizens, but also among left-of-center political parties.
In the domain of integration, the refugee influx (although much smaller than expected) and continued above-average unemployment among immigrant young people remain key public concerns. Overall, almost all institutions related to public safety and security, and especially the judicial branches, face substantial challenges and are under increasing stress.
Climate change back on the political agenda
The Netherlands, a densely populated country, also scores low with regard to environmental sustainability. After the Paris Agreement, climate change policy is back on the political agenda. However, societal consultations in the “climate roundtable” appear to have stalled, largely due to resistance from business, and the self-proclaimed “greenest government ever” is yet to deliver on the strong climate policy initiatives it promised.
The government apparatus lacks sufficient executive capacity and accountability. There are clear and increasing implementation problems, indicating that the “lean” government approach of recent years has become overburdened by intractable problems and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Monitoring and coordination efforts are substandard with regard to interministerial and agency monitoring. There are increasing problems with the country’s public ICT systems, and large-scale rail and road infrastructure. Regarding water management, a traditionally strong area of Dutch governance, administrative reforms have been implemented smoothly. The devolution of central government functions with concomitant budget cuts may threaten the long-term decentralization of welfare policies to local governments.
leads to problems
leads to problems
In the area of public safety and security, a contrary trend toward rapid centralization has led to problems in policing and, as became abundantly clear in 2017/8, the judiciary (e.g., in the court system generally, and the management of judges and access to the judiciary more specifically). In the realm of executive accountability, weak intra-party democracy and a lack of citizen policy knowledge are causes for concern. At the local level, experimentations with inclusive participatory and deliberative policymaking are increasingly common.
but challenges rising
but challenges rising
Overall, Dutch politics and policies remain sustainable. However, challenges are accumulating. For example, the government should seek to untangle policy deadlocks over attempts to address socioeconomic inequalities, address climate change deficits, involve citizens more in the early stages of policymaking , enhance local government and citizen participation in policy implementation, set goals and priorities in the areas of environmental and energy policy, and tackle the looming policing and judicial system crises.