On Tuesday evening, 6 February, Pieter Omtzigt, leader of the New Social Contract party, pulled the plug on the talks on forming a new government coalition. He left his negotiating partners Geer Wilders (Party for Freedom - PVV), Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy - VVD) and Caroline van der Plas (FarmerCitizenMovement - BBB) seemingly in great confusion. This puts the Netherlands back two steps in the Echternach procession that the formation of a government in the Netherlands usually is. With that, all hopes that a new cabinet would be in place fairly soon this time have been dashed.
In The Dutch political landscape, a number of parties always have to form a coalition, whether they like it or not. After all, the country has to be governed. But the road to it is often long and winding. Last time, the coalition remained almost identical and yet it took almost a year before a new government was presented to King Willem-Alexander.
Wilders or Omtzigt?
After the last election, international attention was mainly focused on Geert Wilders' monster victory. Would the Netherlands get a right-wing populist prime minister for the first time? But in the Netherlands, just as much attention went to the huge win for New Social Contract, the party of Pieter Omtzigt. He had been a member of parliament for the Christian Democrats for decades and had previously been forced to split from the party. He is popular for his tireless fight for fair treatment of people affected by gas extraction in the north of the Netherlands or the so-called benefits scandal. For a while, he and his NSC looked set to become the largest group in the Lower House. To his reassurance, that did not happen. He preferred to start smaller and build a resilient group and party first.
VVD puts Omtzigt in a tight spot
The formation has revolved around four parties that seem condemned to each other in recent months. Even before the first conversation between the four party leaders, Dilan Yeşilgöz (VVD) reported to the waiting press that her party would support a government with Wilders as prime minister only from within parliament, but her faction would not enter such a cabinet. With that statement, she suddenly put Omtzigt at a huge disadvantage, as he had wanted to claim that position outside the cabinet. Actually, Omtzigt does not want to be in a cabinet with Wilders at all. Now he was stuck. That discomfort and dissatisfaction laid the foundation for the difficult talks in the weeks and months that followed. The rule of law was discussed for a long time because Omtzigt wanted to be sure that Wilders would distance himself from some of his extremist election promises. Wilders soon did so, after which Omtzigt was still stuck.
Early on in the formation, the groups' financial specialists also joined in. A sign that there were problems here. After Rutte's cabinets, the Netherlands is in pretty good shape on many fronts, but many problems have been pushed forward and must now be addressed. The winners had also promised this to their voters. But the money to do so is lacking. For every plan and promise, cuts must first be made elsewhere. This is not a favourable start for a cabinet that wants to do things differently and really tackle problems.
Still a chance for Frans Timmermans?
Omtzigt pulled the plug on the negotiations, saying the parties had only received the very negative figures very late and that he refuses to promise his voters things he knows will not be financially viable. The other parties reacted with surprise and indignation. And in the polls, support is falling for Omtzigt, who is pulling the plug after two months of wavering co-negotiations. But Omtzigt's 'kamikaze action' has caused the game to start all over again. He wants to continue talking, but no longer about a cabinet with PVV, VVD, BBB and his NSC. He wants offer support from parliament or he wants a 'business cabinet' with non-party ministers.
Over the next few days, it will become clear how the game will proceed. With or without Omtzigt? Still with the right-wing parties or will Frans Timmermans' second largest party Groen Links / Partij van de Arbeid now get a chance to join in after all? Or will there be an intermediate round with Timmermans after which the right-wing parties conclude that they would rather do it together then cooperate with Timmermans?
Meanwhile, Rutte is still prime minister
Meanwhile, Mark Rutte's caretaker cabinet is still in place. Rutte travels the world and seems to be on a campaign to become NATO's top boss. In recent weeks, several outgoing ministers left the cabinet because another job came along. By reshuffling portfolios and appointing replacement ministers, Rutte is plugging the gaps until a new government is in place. Many long-overdue problems remain unresolved. Tricky dossiers ministers and state secretaries are happy to leave for their successors.
For lobbyists, it is a difficult time. The caretaker government does little new. It is completely unclear what coalition will emerge and what priorities it will set. And meanwhile, a largely revamped Lower House is settling in. Here there is more emphasis on information transfer than concrete lobbying for files. And to make it even more complex, almost every decision has to be taken by three different groups: the caretaker cabinet that no longer has a majority, the new Lower House where the right-wing parties have a clear majority, and the Upper House (Senate) where relations are very different again.
As Pieter Omtzigt said after his 'kamikaze action': "This round is over, but in the Netherlands, formations rarely go right the first time." And that is exactly what his voters had been counting on.