Beginner's guide to Dutch elections

AFP , Sunday 12 Mar 2017

28 parties are competing for the 150 seats in the Dutch lower house of parliament. A total of 76 seats are needed for a majority.

Dutch Campaign posters are seen in front of a windmill in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, March 1 2017 (
Dutch Campaign posters are seen in front of a windmill in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, March 1 2017 (Photo: REUTERS)

The small lowlands country of The Netherlands holds general elections on Wednesday, the first in a series of national polls which could reshape Europe's political landscape.

Away from the tourist delights of the tulips, windmills and clogs, here is a beginner's guide to the Dutch elections:

Amid the rise of populist and far-right parties, the Dutch will be the first to cast ballots ahead of presidential votes planned in France in April and May, and legislative polls in Germany in September.

After the surprise Brexit vote and Donald Trump's win in the US presidential election, far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders is hoping for his biggest polls win to date, which could see him emerge with the largest party in parliament.

The vote has essentially come down to a neck-and-neck race between Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) and outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his Liberals (VVD).

But there are 28 parties -- a post World War II record -- competing for the 150 seats in the Dutch lower house of parliament. A total of 76 seats are needed for a majority.

Thanks to a complex system of proportional representation, even small parties can get seats, enabling them to play an important role in shaping the make-up and viability of the next government.

While Wilders has been topping the polls, smaller parties like the Green ecologists GroenLinks have also been wooing voters away from some of the country's long-established, traditional parties.

Europe's worst refugee crisis since the 1940s and a slew of attacks by Islamic jihadists have forced their way high up the Dutch campaign agenda -- fuelling support for Wilders's anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform.

Wilders has a one-page party manifesto which vows to close the borders to Muslim immigrants, close mosques and ban the sale of Korans.

In an overt bid to win over some of Wilders's supporters, some of the other parties are increasingly insisting on bolstering what they call "Dutch values."

Rutte told citizens with immigrant backgrounds to "act normally" and adapt to Dutch norms or "leave" the country.

The biggest debates so far have however focused more heavily on traditional concerns -- health care, pensions, and work conditions.

Just days before the vote too, The Netherlands became embroiled in a bitter diplomatic row with Turkey, which forced itself onto the elections agenda.

The Dutch lower house, or Tweede Kamer as it is called, says on its website that "no party has ever received more than 50 percent of the votes."

"All governments since World War II have been coalition governments, supported by two or more parties to form a majority."

Once the official results are announced on March 21 by the elections commission, the new Dutch parliament will be installed on March 23.

A point person, known as an "informateur", investigates which parties could form a coalition, and presides over negotiations between the party leaders to draw up a programme of policies.

These discussions can take weeks or even months. Dutch media has reported it takes on average three months for a new government to take office.
Once a programme has been set out, a person known as a "formateur" begins drawing up the possible new cabinet. The reward for this arduous task is often the top job -- becoming prime minister.

Even though Wilders has been leading the polls for months, he has dropped back to second place behind Rutte.

Most party leaders have vowed not to work with him. So even if the PVV were to emerge as the largest party, it would likely be excluded from government.

Analysts say Rutte's VVD could join up with the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the progressive D66 seeking to reach the magic 76 needed for a majority.
But here GroenLinks or even some of the smaller parties may find themselves with the weighty role of kingmaker.

Parliamentary seats are attributed according to a complicated formula based on the number of votes cast divided by the 150 available parliamentary seats, which determines that year's electoral quota.

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