With anti-Europe sentiment running high, bailout fatigue widespread and austerity resentment reaching a fever pitch, the Dutch election of 12 September was widely seen as a bellwether ballot. For a while, the euro-sceptic Socialist Party seemed destined for a landslide win, with polls showing the socialists taking 39 seats in the 150-seat lower house - a 24-seat gain - leaving the conservative VVD of prime minister Mark Rutte in the dust.
In addition, the Dutch pension reforms were on the line: both the socialists and the anti-European Freedom Party of controversial politician Geert Wilders - which was expected to win some 18 seats - combine euro-scepticism with opposition to pension reforms, including raising the pensions age, and benefit cuts.
But Dutch voters defied the polls, abandoning smaller parties in favour of the conservatives and Labour, setting up the two staunch political opponents to become governing allies.
The VVD won the elections with 41 seats - gaining 11 seats in parliament - while the Labour Party gained nine seats for a total of 39.
The Socialist Party ended up with just 15 seats, as did the Freedom Party, while the Christian Democrats (CDA) lost eight seats to end up with 13. D66 gained two seats and will now hold 12 seats in parliament. The Green Left party had to give up seven of its original 10 seats.
After exploratory talks, Rutte and PvdA’s Diederik Samsom declared their willingness to try and form a “stable cabinet”. The two parties will not have an easy task trying to find common ground, considering the chasm that exists between their conservative and centre-left views.
Both parties are pro-Europe but otherwise differ on most every issue ranging from fiscal discipline to healthcare financing. With regard to pensions, the views of VVD and Labour are no less divergent. Labour supports the original ‘pension agreement’ reached last year, which provides for an increase in pensionable age to 66 by 2020 and 67 by 2025. VVD prefers a much faster increase to 67 by 2018. VVD is known for questioning mandatory participation, one of the foundations of the Dutch compulsory pensions system, while Labour has stressed the importance of maintaining what it has called “compulsory solidarity” as one of the key strengths of the Dutch system.
To form any kind of viable government, it seems VVD and PvdA will have to reconcile their views.
Just how much of a challenge this might be may be seen from the negotiations that preceded the Dutch pensions agreement, which pitted VVD’s minister Henk Kamp against the unions, traditionally Labour’s electoral base. Eventually and after much wrangling, the pensions agreement did get signed - which goes to show that even uneasy bedfellows can come to an understanding. It is to be hoped that this is where the comparison ends. After all, the pension deal was short-lived.