The Netherlands is going to the polls, but how do Dutch elections work?

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 17th March 2021

Dutch voters have started going to the polls to vote in the general election to elect the 150 members of the House of Representatives, with incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte seeking a fourth term in office as leader of the coalition government.

Elections in the Netherlands usually take place every four years, in March or May depending on whether sub-national elections are also scheduled, with the most recent lower chamber election having taken place on 15 March 2017, but they can occur more frequently if the government collapses.

This year’s elections come following the decision of Rutte’s government to resign en masse in January this year over a shocking child welfare fraud scandal, which had seen thousands of families (particularly from ethnic minority communities) being wrongly accused of childcare fraud and being forced to pay money back. However, the elections were already due to take place in March – leading some to claim the government’s resignation was merely ‘symbolic’ – and the government has stayed on in a caretaker capacity to tackle the pandemic.

When can people vote?

Unlike in the UK, elections in the Netherlands usually take place on Wednesdays. This day is chosen so as to enhance voter participation – with Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays being excluded on religious grounds, and Mondays ruled out as preparatory work would then have to take place at the weekend – and to place the least burden on primary schools, where many polling stations are located.

This year, however, voting will take place over three days – from 15 until 17 March, with the ‘official’ election day remaining 17 March – so as to contain the risk of spreading the virus. Voting on 15 and 16 March will be available in a limited number of polling stations per municipality and is primarily intended for voters in risk categories and the most vulnerable.

What measures have been introduced because of Covid-19?

As in many other countries, including the UK, where elections have taken place during the pandemic, extra measures have been put in place to ensure the safety of voters and polling station staff. These include:

  • Polling stations have been set up so that voters and staff can socially distance and that there is sufficient ventilation.
  • Each polling station has an extra staff member who checks compliance with maximum numbers of people in the polling station at one time and with social distancing rules.
  • Voters must wear a face mask, keep 1.5m from others, and disinfect their hands upon entry.
  • Regular disinfection of pencils, voting booths and tables; in some municipalities all voters are given their own red pencil which they can take home.

In Amsterdam, a drive-through polling station has been set up for the first time.

In addition to voting at the polling station, people may vote by proxy or by post – voters aged 70 or over have been sent a poll card which they can either take to the polling station or use to vote by post.

What electoral system is used?

Elections to the House of Representatives take place using the Party List form of proportional representation with open lists. Party List PR is the most widely used form of PR in Europe, with voters electing a group of MPs, rather than a single person, and MPs being elected roughly in proportion to how many people voted for each party.

In the open list system used in the Netherlands, each party presents a list of candidates on the ballot and citizens can choose which candidate to vote for. The order of the lists is determined by the size of the party delegation in the House of Representatives (if a party is not represented in parliament, the order is determined by lot); within each party list, the order of the candidates is determined by the parties themselves, with the party leader usually topping the list and the last person on the list (the ‘lijstduwer’ or ‘list pusher’) often being a well-known non-political personality.

All votes cast for a candidate are counted as votes for the candidate’s party. Unlike the UK, the Netherlands is not divided up into constituencies, with voters choosing who will represent them in their specific electoral district. Rather, there is a single national constituency, with seats allocated in proportion to the total national vote.

There is no fixed electoral threshold for obtaining representation, as in Italy for example where parties need to obtain at least three percent of the vote – to gain one seat in the Dutch House of Representatives, the only threshold a party needs to achieve is the number of valid votes cast divided by 150 which is the number of seats in the chamber (i.e. the electoral quota; in the 2017 election, this was 70,107 votes, a de facto threshold of 0.7 percent).

When each party receives the seats to which it is entitled, it is often the case that not all seats have been allocated – the remaining seats are assigned to parties using the d’Hondt method, which has been seen to provide an advantage to larger parties.

After the total number of seats for each party has been determined, candidates within each party are allocated seats – the candidate at the top of a party’s list will be declared elected first, and this procedure moves down each party’s list until all that party’s seats have been filled. Candidates obtaining a number of votes exceeding 25 percent of the electoral quota are almost definitely guaranteed a seat.

Who can people vote for?

Given the open list system and almost non-existent electoral threshold, the Dutch party system is extremely fragmented – with a whopping 37 parties, each with its own candidates list, taking part in this year’s election and up to 15 could be entering parliament.

In addition to the ‘traditional’ parties – the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the Christian Democrats (CDA), the Party for Freedom (PVV), the Greens (GroenLinks), Democrats 66 (D66), the Labour Party (PvdA), the Socialist Party – this year’s election is being contested by the Pirate Party, 50PLUS (a party advocating for pensioners’ interests), the Party for the Animals (an animal rights and welfare party), BIJ1 (a left-wing party focusing on fighting racism and discrimination), and the Farmer-Citizen Movement.

Despite being a much fairer electoral system when compared with First Past the Post, with parliaments that closely reflect voters’ opinion, and enhancing voter choice compared with closed list versions, the Dutch form of Party List PR leads to excessive fragmentation of the party system – in the absence of an electoral threshold – and to weak constituency links, given the single national constituency. By contrast, the Single Transferable Vote would enhance voter choice and guarantee a strong link between MPs and voters, while also distributing seats in parliament in a way that is fair and reflects how people voted.

When the polls close

The counting of votes will begin after polls close at 9pm on 17 March, when the first exit poll is due, though official results will be announced on 26 March. Once these are known, parliament will appoint an ‘informateur’ to explore possible coalition options and help draw up the coalition agreement. Following this, the ‘formateur’ – the person who is likely to become prime minister – will complete the formal coalition discussions.

Despite having presided over the scandal which led to the cabinet resigning, Mark Rutte is expected to lead the country in his fourth cabinet following this year’s election, with his party, the VVD, being the largest party on 23 percent of the vote (according to the latest polls), an increase of two percentage points on its 2017 result.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on turnout and, consequently, party support is hard to ascertain at this time, though hopefully the extra measures and voting days will ensure that everyone who wants to can participate.

Photo by Kata Pal from Pexels

Do you think electoral systems matter? Join the ERS today

Support our work from just £2 a month

Read more posts...