Saturday, February 03, 2007

Cabinet formation

It took over ten weeks, but it appears that the two biggest parties of the last parliamentarian elections, and a smaller fringe party, are about to close the deal on a new cabinet.

There was a lot of name-calling, mud slinging and irritated live television debates during the campaigns. The Labour Party (PvdA) leader Wouter Bos explicitly said that he would never sit in the same cabinet as the incumbent Christian Democrats (CDA) leader and prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende.

But politics is about pragmatism and reality, and given that the PdvA (33 seats) and CDA (41 seats) both got the highest number of votes, they decided to sit down together with the Christian Union (CD, 6 seats) in order to form a safe majority. A combo of two centre-right Christian parties and a centre-left social-democratic party.

Dutch politics is really all about compromise and consensus, and because none of the parties stand to gain a majority of the votes, it’s always inevitably a coalition of parties that go on to form the cabinet government. It’s a delicate process, bringing together at times parties that do not agree and even conflict on a number of issues. You do run the danger of the ‘tail wagging the dog’, whereby the smaller coalition partner causes the downfall of the entire cabinet over some controversial issue (like last time when the coalition partner Democrats-66 broke the formation over the Ayaan Hirsi Ali affair). In the current coalition, there are fears that the small Christian Union will be ‘troublesome’ on moral issues like the same-sex marriage and euthanasia. But supposedly coalitions governments represent the popular will better and more directly than majoritarianism. Hence the Netherlands is famed for its ‘polder model’.

So for the past few weeks they leaders of the parties have been sitting in secret meeting rooms, in an attempt to strike a ‘governing coalition agreement’ [regeerakkoord]. Everything was done in secret, and only the parties involved and mediator [informateur], Herman Wijfels who is responsible for getting the politicians around the table, know what is happening. It’s done in utter secrecy, even the location of the meetings are different every single week to avoid the press chasing after the party leaders for information (though the very table they sit around to discuss at is apparently always the same one). Even the 150 newly-elected parliamentarians have no idea of what kind of discussions and compromises taking place. So basically the future of this country is decided by the ‘wheeling and dealing’ of these four men.

To date, some points from the draft ‘governing coalition agreement’ have been agreed upon:

- General amnesty for asylum seekers who were in the Netherlands before 2001

- State pension plan (AOW) every pensioner is entitled to receive (around €700 per month): an irksome bone of contention when PvdA leader suggested during the election campaign that rich(er) old people should have to finance their own state pension. Compromise seems to be that those who stop working before 65, and have a top-up pension of over €15000 will have to finance their own pensions from 2011; while those who work until 65 do not have to; those who continue working after 65 even get a tax benefit

- Child care: while the CU and PvdA want free child care from the state, the compromise has been to make parents pay part of the costs, and that there will be more money invested in the crèche system.

- Some €800 million will be put aside for the environment, probably because of the recent sudden media attention (and climate changes) that suggest that global warming is taking place: a new ministership position will be installed.

- Mortgage tax refund: the PvdA wants to remove this because it believes rich(er) people who can afford to buy (a) house(s) should not enjoy tax benefits; but the CDA believes this will stunt the economy and hurt business; so current tax refund will remain.

- Economic growth will be capped at around 2% per year, whereby by 2011 there will be a big government surplus.

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