I’ve been hoping for some time that FiveThirtyEight.com would have a look at Wednesday’s Dutch elections. Although I really enjoy reading Peter Paul Koch’s analyses over at Quirksmode, I wondered what the the internet’s go-to guys on poll interpretation would do with the numbers. There’s so much to discuss, both in terms of content and methodology (particularly since the Netherlands has no electoral districts).
Well, 538 tackled the story today. Unfortunately, it covered almost none of the ground I was hoping for. Indeed, the article by Dan Berman starts to go wrong in the title: Is a Stable Government in the Netherlands Coming? There are several reasons that made me wince.
The headline is particularly annoying because it fits into a pervasive narrative that is only ostensibly about the Netherlands (and, indeed, Europe). Our “socialist” system is doomed, notwithstanding the global financial crisis. We’re on the verge of either mandating the hijab or crushing the Muslim community (I think it’s the latter, this week). Our decision to tolerate and monitor soft drugs and prostitution rather than push them underground makes Amsterdam a “cesspool of corruption and crime”. And now our government is unstable, probably because of all of the above factors. Alas that we are not like America, which has no problems with its economy, its treatment of immigrants, drugs, sex, or politics!
I rant. I know this. But I also know that plenty of people will read the headline and connect it to the narrative I’ve sketched above. None of that farrago reflects the reality of Dutch life; it’s all about affirming a particular view of American culture. And the provocative headline fits in very nicely, however much the body of the article is actually relevant to the situation at hand.
The kindest thing I can say about it is that it was written with a tin ear.
In reality, it just means that the country wants to choose a new direction, a new set of solutions to its current challenges. The mechanism for doing so in the Netherlands is different than in the US. One aspect of that difference is that one doesn’t have to wait for a year divisible by four to throw the bastards out. That’s not in- or unstability. It’s the approved process.
The three-party coalitions (scroll down) that are even possible if the polls are correct are not very solid. Apart from the forbidden coalition (for historical reasons, the three central parties may not form a government), the choices require the right wing (VVD) to find common ground with the left (PvdA/Labour, and possibly the Socialists as well), or else to rely on Wilders and the PVV. Even the best of these options includes some deep divisions between participating parties. I wouldn’t put money on any of them lasting to full term. And a four-party coalition is even less stable.
The smart money here says that the next government will be slow to form and quick to run into trouble.
The article itself isn’t bad in the assembly of facts it lays out, though its few links bias toward non-Dutch and non-expert sources such as the Guardian and Wikipedia. (There are specific factual niggles: it’s not clear from the text that Fortuyn was assassinated before an election. Balkenende’s portrayed as switching coalition partners “at will”, but there was an election between his second and third administrations, which means that it wasn’t his will that formed Balkenende III.) But it reminds me of a waltz played in 4/4 time: the notes are right, but they don’t mean what they should.
The place this really becomes a problem is in the conclusion and prediction of what will happen next. It very much oversimplifies the mechanics of forming a coalition. There’s no acknowledgement that incompatible platforms (or a simple refusal to work with each other) can doom a mathematically possible coalition. Nor is there any mention of the existence of a forbidden coalition, or the requirement that the new government include at least one party that increased its seats in the election. The only divergence from the assumption that the simplest coalition to hit the winning number gets the prize is a mention that Wilders may be too unreliable to sit in government.
That’s a pity, because coalition-forming is a fascinating part of Dutch politics. The intricacies and complexities of the process for forming a government here would make a wonderful article on 538.com.
Instead, I refer you once again to PPK, who does have a complex and nuanced prediction of how the Netherlands will deal with forming a coalition if the election goes as the polls says it will.