0222/Politics & politicians

2017/03/18 – And after the results are known…

The cabinet of the Netherlands is the executive body of the Dutch government. It consists of ministers and junior ministers (staats-secretaris). The cabinet requires support from both chambers of the Dutch parliament to pass laws. Thus to form a stable government sufficient, and most preferably majority support in both chambers is required. Due to several factors (the multi-party system and the nationwide party-list system of proportional representation) no political party edith(in the modern sense) has ever had a majority in parliament since 1900. Indeed, since the adoption of the current proportional representation system in 1918, no party has even come close to the number of seats needed for a majority in its own right. To gain sufficient support in both chambers it is therefore necessary to reach an agreement of multiple parties to form a stable government. The negotiations leading to this agreement are the cabinet formation period in the Netherlands. Cabinet formation is engaged in, in two situations. After general elections the house of representatives is renewed. The changing size of party representations in this most important of the two chambers, will require a new cabinet to be constituted. Even if the same parties continue, the agreement has to be renegotiated to fit election promises and shift in powers. Another reason for cabinet formation can be the fall of a cabinet, i.e. those cases where the agreement between parties breaks down. In the  latter case (in principle) a new cabinet can be formed without general elections, although in practice the house of representatives is almost always disbanded and early general elections are called. Forming a cabinet can be a time-consuming process. The monarch has a formal role in appointing the newly created cabinet and in accepting the resignation of a fallen cabinet. Traditionally the monarch played an important advisory role in cabinet formation process, although this role comes from tradition and convention only. First, the monarch has private individual meetings with the Presidents of the Senate and House of Representatives and the vice-president of the Dutch Council of State. Next, the monarch meets the chairs of each parliamentary party in the House of Representatives, the political leaders of all parties. The talks concern how to interpret the election results, which parties should form the new cabinet and who should be appointed (in)formateur (Mrs Edith Schippers, Labour, minister of Health in the present cabinet). Because this advice is a matter of public record, the monarch cannot easily take a direction which is contrary to the advice of a majority in parliament. On the other hand, the substance of talks behind the closed doors of the palace remains undisclosed.

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Information phase

On basis of this advice, the monarch then appoints an informateur who explores the options for a new cabinet. The informateur often is a relative outsider and a veteran politician who has retired from active politics: a member of the Senate, Council of State or a minister of state. He generally has a background in the largest party in the House of Representatives. It is also possible to appoint multiple informateurs, with backgrounds in other prospective partners. The informateur is given a specific task by the monarch, often to “seek a coalition of parties with coalition agreement and a majority in parliament.” The informateur has meetings with individual chairs of parliamentary parties, and chairs sessions of negotiations between them. During these negotiations the parties barter, abandoning some policy goals to achieve others. From 2012 onward the right to appoint a informateur has been transferred to the House of Representatives.

Formation phase

If the informateur is unsuccessful, he tenders his resignation and the process starts again, with new consultations and the appointment of a new informateur. If he is successful, he returns to the monarch, who then appoints a formateur. Conventionally he is the leader of the largest party in the prospective coalition and thus also the prospective prime minister. The formateur leads negotiations between parties willing to cooperate to form a cabinet. He leads the talks about all the issues the informateur has not resolved. Often these include the coalition agreement, the distribution of government portfolios and the personal nominations to the cabinet. If the formateur is successful, the monarch formally invites him to form a government, then appoints all ministers and state secretaries individually by Royal Decree (Koninklijk Besluit).

Each minister declares an oath of loyalty to  the Constitution in private. After this the entire Council of Ministers and the monarch are photographed on the stairs of Huis ten Bosch palace. The newly minted ministers all tender their resignations from the House of Representatives, as cabinet ministers aren’t allowed to be members of Parliament. The new cabinet then proposes its plans to parliament, and is confirmed in office.

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Demissionary cabinet

After the dissolution of parliament and before the appointment of a new cabinet, the incumbent cabinet stays on as a demissionary cabinet, limiting itself to urgent and pressing matters and traditionally not taking any controversial decisions. If the cabinet fell because one of the parties removed its support, it is possible for the ministers and state secretaries representing that party to leave the cabinet without the cabinet becoming demissionary: the other parties then continue to form a new cabinet, which is called a rump cabinet, often a minority government. It is also possible for the monarch to ask the ministers to remain demissionary in office until a new parliament has been elected.

Importance of the formation

The formation is often considered as important as the elections themselves – or even more important. This is because the coalition agreement lays down most of the policies for the future cabinet.

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