THE HAGUE — The Dutch on Wednesday will vote to choose a new parliament in a knife-edge election with three major groupings vying to propose the next prime minister.
After 13 years as leader of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte is leaving The Hague after his fourth cabinet resigned last summer over a migration row.
Dilan Yeşilgöz, Rutte’s successor as head of the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), is leading the field — and a win would make her the first woman to be Dutch prime minister. But she is closely followed in the polls by centrist Pieter Omtzigt, who’s riding a wave of popularity after starting a party just three months ago.
Here’s what you need to know:
Who’s in the running?
Even though it’s been only two years since the last Dutch election, many of the contenders are new, including the two front-runners.
Yeşilgöz became the VVD’s new leader after Rutte’s July announcement that he was leaving Dutch politics. Although a daughter of Kurdish-Turkish refugees, she has adopted a hard line on immigration, vowing to introduce a two-tier asylum system.
Omtzigt has emerged with his fledgling New Social Contract (NSC) party as the election favorite in the polls, but has so far been unclear about whether he wants to be prime minister. His criticism of poor administration and gross government fumbles, such as the 2021 child benefits scandal, has earned him a messianic status that his opponents have found it difficult to challenge.
Frans Timmermans left his job as EU climate commissioner to lead the joint campaign of the Labor and Green parties. The only left-wing candidate riding high in the polls, Timmermans is calling for a new top rate of income tax and a 65 percent reduction in Dutch greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 — above the 55 percent EU target.
Geert Wilders is the longest-serving MP with 25 years under his belt, but his anti-Islam, anti-EU party has never been in government. He has signaled a willingness to tone down the anti-Islam rhetoric to be part of the next coalition; his party is currently fourth in the polls, behind the Green-Labor alliance.
Caroline van der Plas became a media darling in March when her right-wing populist BBB Farmer-Citizen Movement stormed to victory in provincial elections and became the biggest party in the upper house of the Dutch parliament. That momentum has faded, and the party is currently polling in fifth place.
A total of 26 parties are running in the election, but only 17 are expected to win a seat.
What to watch for
In the Netherlands, in the end, it’s always a numbers game.
None of the big parties is polling over 20 percent; a new coalition is therefore likely to consist of at least three, and maybe even more parties. That also means that parties are already talking about possible formations.
Unlike her predecessor, VVD head Yeşilgöz has not ruled out working with Wilders, which could result in a coalition made up of four center and right-wing parties, including the BBB and NSC. But Omtzigt has stressed that he is not open to working with Wilders, because “as a party you can only form a government that sticks to classic fundamental rights.” Wilders has long called for a ban on mosques, on the Koran and on Islamic schools.
That leaves the possibility of a minority government, in which the VVD, NSC or BBB would get the backing of Wilder’s party. However, Yeşilgöz has said she has little interest in leading a minority cabinet if her party wins the largest share of votes.
A center-right government would be a big disappointment to Timmermans. The Green Deal chief had flirted with a potential coalition including the NSC, even going as far as questioning the country’s 2030 deadline to halve nitrogen emissions — a key point in the alliance’s election program.
Speculation aside, the polls can still change greatly. A significant share of voters decide in the last few days what party to vote for, meaning a final debate or an unexpected event can still stir things up.
How does it all work?
The parliament contains 150 MPs who are elected every four years, or earlier if the government collapses (which happens quite often).
Voting in the Netherlands is based on proportional representation, which means that all votes cast for a candidate are counted as votes for the candidate’s party. Unlike the U.K. and Germany, the Netherlands is not divided into constituencies, with voters choosing who will represent them in their specific electoral district. Instead there is a single national constituency, with seats allocated in proportion to the total national vote.
There is no fixed electoral threshold for representation, as there is in Italy for example, where parties need to obtain at least 3 percent of the vote to gain a seat in parliament. Instead, the total number of valid votes cast in the election is divided by 150, to produce a quota of votes that is required to secure a single seat. The number of seats each party gets depends on how many quotas it wins. Parties will sometimes transfer their excess votes (i.e. the leftovers that are insufficient to add up to another quota) to another party to allow it to win an extra seat.
MPs are chosen according to their placement on their party’s list of candidates. However, if a politician who ran lower down the list receives a lot of “preference” ballots that voters are allowed to cast to indicate their favored candidate, they can move up the list to take a seat in parliament by pushing out a less “preferred” candidate.
When will we know the results?
On election night, and probably not late. Pollster Ipsos will release the first result predictions, which tend to be pretty accurate, at 9 p.m. as the polling stations close. These are based on exit polls, which in the 2021 election were a mere fraction of a percentage point off the final results of all parties but one.
Around midnight the country’s largest news agency publishes its initial projection based on the reported results from select municipalities that reflect the country’s overall voting behavior.
What happens next?
The day after the election, the 150 newly elected MPs debate the results and select an informateur — a senior statesman who looks into possible government coalitions.
Once a potential coalition has been identified, the informateur appoints a formateur, usually the leader of the largest party, who is tasked with working out a coalition agreement.
This can take months, and in fact lasted a record 299 days before Rutte formed his fourth and last cabinet in 2021.