Coalition Government Shaky as Dutch Voters Head to Polls

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the free-market VVD party. (AP Photo/Patrick Post)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – In the wake of a shooting on a tram in the Dutch town of Utrecht on Monday, politicians have resumed campaigning for provincial and water board elections set for Wednesday.

Dutch voters go to the polls Wednesday to elect members of the Senate and it’s all but certain that the current coalition government will lose its majority in the upper house.

Nearly all of the major political parties suspended campaign activities following a shooting on a tram in Utrecht that left three dead and five wounded. Initially thought to be a terror attack, police are now investigating the motive.

After a meeting Tuesday morning, party leaders have agreed to a “sober” approach to the last 24 hours of campaigning.

Unlike in the United States, the power of the Dutch Senate is not equal to the House, called Tweede Kamer or second chamber. Rather, the Senate approves or rejects laws already passed by the House on technical or legal issues. But losing a majority in the Senate will bring challenges for the current government and make an already delicate negotiation process even more difficult.

The governing coalition is currently led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the right-leaning, pro-business VVD party, which holds the largest number of seats in the House at 33. The VVD party is joined by the socially liberal D66 as well as two Christian parties, the CDA and the CU. Together they hold a one seat majority in the chamber. A single member defecting would cause the government to fall and Rutte has had to navigate tricky waters to keep four somewhat unaligned parties together.

The Senate, formally called the Eerste Kamer or first chamber, is not directly elected in the Netherlands but instead is chosen by the Provinciale Staten or provincial councils. This process is known in Dutch as a getrapte verkiezingen or kicked elections.

The provincial councils have their own responsibilities, described sometimes as “issues too small for the national government but too large for the city governments,” and include regional housing issues and development of public transport.

The number of members of each council varies by population and the population of a province also determines the proportion of representation in the Senate. The current coalition holds 38 seats in the 75-seat chamber.

Wednesday’s election centers around several issues, most notably climate change and the role the government should play in addressing it. Earlier this year, the government was forced to admit it had miscalculated predictions about the higher cost of energy prices following tax hikes and households have seen their energy bills nearly double what the government had predicted. Dutch students have also taken to the streets in protest of what movement leaders refer to the government’s inaction on climate, spurred on by student protests in Sweden and Belgium.

The opposition parties have tried to focus the election on Rutte himself, with the Socialist Party leader Lilianne Marijnissen referring to the vote as the “Rutte referendum.” The party has said it will not help the coalition government pass legislation in the Senate, a sentiment seconded by the anti-immigration party PVV.

Rutte also faces criticism from the right. Thierry Baudet, the leader of the a right-leaning, anti-immigration party FvD, called the government’s plans to tackle climate change “bizarre, absurd and impossible” during the first televised debate of the election cycle earlier this month.

Rutte himself has called for voters to see society as a “fragile vase” which can be broken without consensus and compromise. He pointed to Brexit as an example of what might happen in the Netherlands.

“I hardly ever get everything I want. Usually I make compromises and water down my demands, because I always feel I have a responsibility to keep the vase intact,” he wrote in an ad he took out in the national newspaper AD.

Polling indicates big wins for the opposition parties on Wednesday. The Green Left party Groenlinks is predicted to gain five seats while the FvD is looking to be the big winner, going from zero seats to nine. The FvD was the only party who continued campaign activities after the shooting Monday.

The three largest parties in the government’s coalition are predicted to lose seats. The VVD will likely lose one while the CDA and the D66 are likely to lose five each. Only the CU is predicted to maintain its hold of three seats.

In a change from previous elections, the Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba will vote, for the first time, for members of a new body called the Electoral College for the Senate in the Caribbean Netherlands. The vote comes after a 2017 amendment to the Dutch constitution which called for the islands to have representation in the Dutch government. The islands are administrative entities of the Netherlands and will now have a say in the election of the Senate.

The provincial elections aren’t the only ones being held Wednesday. Dutch voters will also go to the polls to elect the Waterschap or water board, the oldest democratic body in the country. Unlike the Senate, the 21 water boards are directly elected. Divided by region, the water boards manage the dike and water systems in the country. While only Dutch citizens can vote in the provincial elections, all residents of the country can vote for the water boards.

Preliminary election results are expected Thursday.

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