Today the Dutch Rutte-Verhagen cabinet faces a difficult meeting. Last Friday – 21 April – the negotiations on austerity measures came to an abrupt end when the Wilders party walked out. After 7 weeks of talks the cabinet is left ‘empty handed’, according to Prime Minister Rutte. There were bitter comments over the weekend from the leaders of the political groups supporting the cabinet. The way the Wilders party pulled the plug at the very last moment had come as a complete surprise to all those involved. The resulting indignation minimizes the chances of a reconciliation.
So what’s to be done? There are several options, but all of them come with serious drawbacks. The Rutte-Verhage cabinet is a so-called ‘minority’ cabinet: it does not have a majority of the votes in the – politically most important – Lower House/House of Commons (Tweede Kamer) of the Dutch Parliament. Up till now the majority was only secured by a sort of side-letter agreement with the Wilders party representatives. From a constitutional point of view, the minority cabinet still stands and it would – theoretically – be possible to consider trading in the Wilders party support for the support of another political group in Parliament. This is exactly what the Rutte-Verhage cabinet has done in the last one and a half years on issues in which the Christian Democrats and Liberals (the remaining part the cabinet) on the one hand and the Wilders party on the other hand did not see eye to eye. For example, the cabinet ‘shopped’ successfully for majorities on the issue of sending out police trainers on an international mission to Afghanistan and on the Dutch position in the European solution to the financial crisis. Trading in one supporting party for another party on this occasion is – from a constitutional and democratic point of view – controversial however. Although one could technically argue that the supporting parties represented within the cabinet (Christian Democrats and Liberals) are not changing, and neither is their mandate, finding another supporting partner on a different ticket, would of course result in a political change of direction. Although this has happened in the past, at present it is felt that it runs counter to constitutional convention if a cabinet changes its political majority basis in Parliament. You simply cannot change partners within a marriage that has not yet been dissolved. The whole debate of changing partners is hypothetical. The opposition partners in Parliament have made it clear that they are not willing to support the agenda of the cabinet. Most of the political groups, including Prime Minister Rutte, are rallying for general elections.
General elections, though, come with their own set of problems. It takes at least 83 days to organize general elections. Depending on the exact moment of the decision, the first possible date will be mid July. Holding a general election in the middle of the holiday season is, however, generally considered unwise. So it is more likely that the government, which is invested with the power to trigger general elections by a decision to dissolve the Lower House, will opt for the first week of September or even later. And that is too late.
At this very moment the Netherlands is heading for a deficit on the national budget of 4.5%, one and a half percent higher than the European maximum which is set at 3%. Under the new financial agreements in the Eurozone the cabinet needs to present its budget plans for 2013 by the end of April 2012 for review by Eurocommissioner Olli Rehn. If the deficit maximum is surpassed – and without new austerity measures it will be – sanctions running up to 1.2 billion euro will automatically be imposed. Ironically, it was on the instigation of the Dutch cabinet that the EU at long last decided in 2011 to have automatic sanctions. And now the plot really thickens. How can the present cabinet prevent this automatic sanction? Again, the Dutch constitutional margins call the play.
If a Dutch cabinet succumbs to a crisis that cannot be fixed, it will normally hand in its resignation. The Queen, head of the government, will usually conditionally accept the resignation and ask the cabinet, or the remainder of it, to do what is necessary until the moment of the general election and the resulting formation of a new cabinet. A cabinet ‘under resignation’ (called ‘demissionair’) will only ‘mind the shop’. It cannot pursue new or controversial policies or decisions anymore. This of course is undesirable at this moment, because if the present cabinet were to opt for the ‘under resignation’ option, it is dead in the water and cannot do anything to stop the advancing deficit of 4.5% in 2012, let alone resolve the financial and economic crisis. On the other hand, just staying in the saddle and right out negotiate very difficult austerity measures amounting to some 14 billion euro in the middle of the election campaign season will prove tough going as well. Opposition groups have already signaled that they will not automatically jump on the ongoing agenda of the Rutte cabinet. The question is: what’s in it for the opposition parties, and what will the electoral effects be for groups that are considering to jump over their shadow and help out the cabinet to solve pressing national problems. It’s a classic prisoner’s dilemma.
A sort of third option is also under consideration: the cabinet remains politically active (on its mission) as regards the pressing budget and austerity measures for 2013 and – more or less – drops the rest of its mission. This semi-active status might just work as it did in the past. In 1917 the Cort van der Linden cabinet (1914-1918) - as a minority cabinet * - managed to bring about one of the biggest political trade-offs in Dutch political history (universal suffrage and equal treatment of public and private education). The political landscape was fragmented as it is now and the debate had been in a deadlock for more than thirty years at that time. On the basis of this parallel, Rutte might pull it off. Like Cort van der Linden he is also a liberal. And like Cort van der Linden, Rutte studied at Leiden University too…
* In fact it was what the Dutch call a ‘extra-parliamentary’ cabinet, which means that the majority of its ministers did not come from the Lower House of Parliament (Cort van der Linden himself, for instance, was not elected in 1917 but was a Member of the Council of State. As such, a cabinet like this pursues a sort of an independent political agenda which is not the outcome of an agreement between political groups within Parliament.