Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Tuesday, 11 May 2010 13:23 UK

UK coalition: 'Why the rush?' asks Dutch journalist

By Gert-Jan van Teeffelen
London correspondent for De Volkskrant

From a Dutch perspective, the coalition horse-trading going on in London now is completely normal. But the feverish nature of the negotiations, and the impatience of the media, is not.

Queen Beatrix
The Dutch queen invites a political leader to try to form a government

On 9 June we will have elections in the Netherlands - but we won't have a government until August or September. Not until August at the earliest, that's 100% certain - not even the slightest possibility.

The way our system works (we have a form of proportional representation), an election result is like a jigsaw. Usually one of the two largest parties has to look for support among the smaller parties.

In the UK a party's manifesto is its manifesto for government. In the Netherlands manifestoes exist to be melted during post-election negotiations, and fused together.

The process takes time. To do it in a week would be completely impossible in Holland. It cannot be done in days - or rather it can, but then Dutch people would strongly suspect that the job had not been done properly, and that the deal had not been well thought-out.

It's understandable that the British newspapers are eager for a resolution, but it's not correct that the UK is without leadership.

There is a caretaker government. The chancellor of the exchequer can continue to take part in discussions of the global economic crisis. Day-to-day decisions will continue to be made.

Purple coalition

It's absolutely normal, from a Dutch perspective, for parties to drive a hard bargain to get as many of their policies as possible into the programme of the new coalition government.

Jan Peter Balkenende
Dutch coalitions usually last for years... though one in 2002 fell after 87 days

What is less normal is to have a party, like the Liberal Democrats in this case, in a position of so much power that it can make the difference between stable government and chaos. That is because, in the Dutch political system, there are always several coalition possibilities.

There is also less likelihood of a party holding simultaneous negotiations with the two biggest parties - so less scope for allegations of double-crossing.

In the Netherlands, the Queen, with the help of a trusted adviser, asks a party leader to try to form a government - usually the leader of the biggest party in parliament. If he fails, the leader of the next biggest party would normally be approached.

We've also had a purple coalition, between Labour, Conservative Liberals (VVD) and Liberal Democrats - parties from the left, right and centre - which ran the country very successfully from 1994 -2002.

Canada shows that even when a country has a first-past-the-post system, there is no guarantee that this will result in a majority government

It was able to take difficult decisions, such as legalising assisted suicide and privatising state-owned companies, because it's easier to introduce controversial or painful policies when parties from both right and left do it together.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's call during the campaign for the main parties to sit down together to resolve the big issues facing the country was a very Dutch idea (though under the Dutch "polder model" of government, the unions would be involved too). Mr Clegg is half Dutch, of course, which may explain it.


In the UK, with a first-past-the-post system, a purple coalition would be hard to achieve. If you had the two main parties in coalition, there would be no credible opposition.

Dutch hotel
The Dutch system looks messy, but it works

This could be one of the benefits of moving to a system of proportional representation.

I was looking yesterday at the results of the 1974 general election in the UK: the Liberal Party won six million votes, and got 14 seats in parliament, Labour and the Conservatives won twice as many votes, and got 20 times as many seats, about 300 each.

If this happened in a Dutch election there would be riots!

The system used in the Netherlands, in Germany and most of the Nordic countries may look messy from a British perspective.

But if you look at the end result, and ask if the countries are stable and prosperous, the answer has to be yes.

Print Sponsor

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

But now comes the difficult part - making it work
Why has Eton College produced 18 British PMs?
Frantic talks on who will form the next government


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2017 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific