Monday afternoon – 23 April 2012 – the Dutch Prime Minister handed in the resignation of the Rutte-Verhagen cabinet after it faced a crisis last Friday when the Wilders Party withdrew its support. Under Dutch constitutional law, the Queen – as the formal head of government – decides on the appointment and resignation of individual ministers or – as the case may be – of the government. In the case of an insurmountable cabinet crisis or a conflict between Parliament and the government, she accepts the resignation conditionally; a cabinet can only be dismissed if a new team of ministers, enjoying the support of Parliament, has presented itself. The present cabinet crisis, it is felt, cannot be overcome without a new general election - the fifth time since 2002. In the Dutch system, general elections for the House of Commons (Tweede Kamer) can only be triggered by a government decision to dissolve the House. Under the so-called ‘1992 convention’ (an unwritten constitutional principle stemming from 1922) the dissolution only takes effect on the eve of general elections. Conditional resignation and dissolution while still in term safeguard the continuity of the Dutch political system.
The big question at this moment is: at what time should a general election be held? Although the political groups agreed over the weekend that they should be held as soon as possible, last Monday they failed to see eye to eye in setting the date. Some parties (a small majority) argued that it should be set for 27 June in order to prevent the current crisis getting in the way of voters’ views on urgent reforms of the labour and housing market, on austerity measures and so on. Other parties argued in favour of a much later date, for instance after the holidays in the first week of September, to offer all parties an equal and fair chance to prepare for the election. The Dutch Election Law (Kieswet) provides a flexible framework for setting the date for general elections. It stipulates that there is a period for the registration of parties, then the registration of candidates and after that a fixed period of some 40 days for campaigning. The margins set for registration are more or less flexible. Stripping the time allowed for registration to the bare minimum (leaving virtually no time for party registration under a distinct name and only a very short time for candidate registration) would make the 27 June mark feasible under the Election Law. It would, of course, be to the detriment of any party aspiring to take part in the general election for the first time. For this very reason, MEP Hero Brinkman, a dissident of the Wilders Party, protested against the idea of holding an election on 27 June. It would make it virtually impossible for him to enter the general election because he would need a substantive amount of signatures in all the Dutch constituencies (including the ones in the Dutch Caribbean) to be duly registered. The arguments in favour of a very swift general election are flawed in various respects as well. First of all, a quick election in June seem to be motivated merely by quick electoral gain. The parties doing well in the polls are – understandably – in favour. But the desire for a quick win may stand in the way of sensibly settling the budget for 2013. The Netherlands is heading for a 4.5% deficit in 2013, one and a half percent above the agreed EU maximum. This may trigger an automatic 1.2 billion euro sanction (instigated by the Netherlands in 2011). Rushing into an election will make the political groups less amenable to reach a compromise budget. In the heat of the campaigning, political groups will be less likely to trade off points of interest. And then there was the last, killer argument: the semi-final of the European Football Championship which is scheduled for the evening of 27 June. Theoretically, there is a good chance of the Dutch football team playing in it. The country could therefore be preoccupied by something other than the election.
Parliament debated the issue on Tuesday 24 April, but ultimately the decision is not one for Parliament to make. Under Dutch constitutional law, it is the prerogative of the government to dissolve Parliament and thereby to decide on the date to be set. Prime Minister Rutte - in the Tuesday debate – hinted at a date in early autumn: 12 September. This aligns best with the general gist of the Election Law, the advice of the Election Council and, for all intents and purposes, with common sense.