Scandal, Struggle, and Deceit: How Dutch Government Formation Turned into a Political Disaster

By Tal Ben Yakir and Luuk Kuiper

Collage by Anna Sazonov

In December 2020 the VVD resigned due to a national scandal, but nevertheless, the party won the Dutch election on March 17. While many speculated that forming a government would be hard for party leader Mark Rutte, no one had quite foreseen the slew of scandals and interrogations which has taken place during the past two months. From silencing critical members of parliament to the leaking of state secrets, in this article we explain to you exactly what has thrown Dutch politics into such a desperate state of chaos.

Position Omtzigt, Function Elsewhere

Kasja Ollongren outside of parliament, Binnenhof, Den Haag

What is now known as the ‘Omtzigt-affaire’ started on March 25 when formation scout Kajsa Ollongren (D66) ran out of the parliament building after hearing she had tested positive for COVID-19. In her arms, she carried documents drafted after interviews with parties concerning the formation of a government. All documents were neatly tucked away in a folder — except one that was facing text outwards on the top of the stack. As she ran towards her car, press photographers captured the scene. By zooming in on some of these pictures, photographers were able to read some of the notes from the document. Most were uninteresting, but there was one note that would halt the formation of a new government and shock the political spectrum. This note read: position Omtzigt, function elsewhere. 

For those who have not been following Dutch politics closely this last year, Pieter Omtzigt (CDA) is a very popular and critical member of parliament, who received over 300.000 preferential votes in this year’s election. He is also largely responsible for unearthing the discriminatory ‘allowance-affair’ (toeslagenaffaire) that unjustly indebted many lower-income families and brought down the last government a few months before the election. We will cover the allowance-affaire more thoroughly in the second part of this overview. For now, it is important to know that Omtzigt repeatedly hammered on the government, a government his own party was a part of, for their gross mishandling of that situation in order to force them to release more information about what went wrong.

‘Position Omtzigt, function elsewhere’ was almost universally received as the powers at hand trying to promote a critical member of parliament up to a position where he would be less focussed on monitoring the government for mistakes, effectively silencing him. Even those who did not go as far as to make this accusation publicly found it highly inappropriate that specific members of parties were being discussed in the early stages of formation — a stage usually reserved for general exploration of what each party would most like to contribute to a government. 

Consequently, chaos ensued. Ollongren and Annemarie Jorritsma (VVD) resigned their positions as formation scouts and were replaced by Tamara van Ark (VVD) and Wouter Koolmees (D66) within the hour. All the involved party leaders released statements to the effect that they had not mentioned Omtzigt in any of their talks with the scouts, and an emergency debate was scheduled for April 1. 

The April 1 debate on the failure of the formation process was nothing short of a marathon. Including recesses, the debate spanned over 13 hours. On the morning of the debate, all the notes of the ex-scouts and their talks with party leaders were released to the second chamber. The most notable entry in these documents was that Mark Rutte (VVD) had in fact talked with the scouts about Omtzigt’s position in relation to making him a minister. A fact that Rutte had denied in full after the initial scandal. In the marathon debate, Rutte firmly held on to the defense that he simply misremembered and had not intentionally lied to the press. 

After a thorough grilling of all the opposition parties and even critical encounters with Rutte’s forming coalition parties, two motions were voted on: A motion of disapproval (‘afkeuring’), which has no real consequences but serves to show denunciation towards the government’s practices, and a motion of no-confidence (‘wantrouwen’), that can force members or a cabinet as a whole to resign. The first was unilaterally supported by every party except Rutte’s own VVD; 115 votes against 34. The latter, more significant, motion was rejected by a margin of three votes. The entire opposition voted in favour, but Rutte’s previous coalition partners (D66, CDA, and CU) voted against; 72 votes against 77. So, after a long day, Rutte had scrapped by and went home around 3AM, still in charge of the largest party in the Netherlands and bound to be prime minister for the fourth time in a row.   

Another notable outcome of the April 1 debate was that the two new formation scouts Van Ark and Koolmees resigned their position to make way for an old school formation powerhouse: Herman Tjeenk Willink (PvdA). Willink is a respected political figure who has been part of Dutch politics since 1987 and has been chairman of the first chamber (the senate) for six years. Willink was also involved in six formations in his political career, the most recent being the 2017 Rutte-III formation. He was brought in to find a way to continue the formation process in the volatile Dutch political climate. Willink stated that he would exclusively focus on the substance of the important issues at hand to try and move away from the character-bound troubles that got him the position of scout in the first place.  

As parliament moved into Eastern recess just two weeks after the general election, the entirety of Dutch politics had been shaken to its core. After four formation scouts, a marathon debate, and a general deterioration of trust in government the formation process had to be almost entirely restarted, all the while the country was still under the grasp of the corona pandemic. 

Another Scandal: Leaked Minutes from the Council of Ministers Assembly

Just as the Omtzigt-scandal seemed to subside and Willink was rebuilding some of the trust in The Hague, a new scandal rang through the country. On April 21 2021, the Dutch news platform RTL Nieuws published an article about the aforementioned allowance-affair. The article was based on leaked minutes from various Council of Ministers Assemblies held in 2019. These minutes— classified as top state secrets— unearthed various shocking developments and trends: that the cabinet had been aware of the harmful consequences of the allowance affair for quite some time; that they purposely kept information from parliament despite repeated requests for this information; and that party leaders had attempted to “talk some sense” into difficult and critical party members.

It was as if a bomb had exploded in Dutch politics. Every headline and talkshow discussed the leaked minutes, the corruption that permeates The Hague and the crimes of those in power, who (allegedly) have deliberately thwarted the democratic process in order to save their own face. 

In an attempt to do some damage control and win back trust, Mark Rutte officially published the minutes from all allowance-affair-related Council of Ministers Assemblies from 2019— an incredibly rare, almost unprecedented decision. The idea was that providing the public with full access to the minutes would temper some of the wilder speculations about what had been said in the Assemblies. However, the publication, which happened on April 26, did little to stem the tide of critique. Some heralded the minutes as proof that the sitting ministers and cabinet members had violated democratic conduct and broken the law in doing so. Others chided the media and members of parliament alike for engaging in a sensationalised game of “whodunnit” instead of focussing on pressing tasks and addressing current crises. 

In all of the tumult, it can be quite difficult to discern what actually happened. In essence, the ordeal concerns the allowance affair and how it was handled. This means that the story begins back in 2005, when a new law that allowed parents to request an allowance for their children’s daycare went into effect. The daycare law was quite complex, and parents had to submit information on all their sources of income and expenditures to qualify for the allowance. 

The law led to the blossoming of a new business branch: that of the guest-parent bureaus. These bureaus allowed parents to write down family members or friends as official caretakers for their children, thus being able to receive an allowance from the government to pay for these caretakers— even if the caretaking was unpaid. However, some of these bureaus neglected to tell parents that they still had to pay a small contribution from their own account to the daycare. Some bureaus were confused themselves by the complicated law, but others committed intentional fraud, even syphoning money away from parent’s accounts and into their own pockets.

These cases of fraud led members of parliament to request stricter rules regarding the allowance. Harsher regulation was put into place, along with a new article in the law: any and all mistakes would be considered the parents’ fault. Missing income information and failure to pay the own contribution would be penalized with the reclamation of the entire sum of daycare allowance received. In other words, small mistakes could cost vulnerable parents tens of thousands of euros. Perhaps most importantly, the law was not fashioned with a “harshness clause”. This clause — one that most laws do contain—  states that in cases where a law has incredibly harsh, unintended consequences, judges or authorities can decide to deviate from the prescribed procedure in order to mitigate unintended results.  

In 2013,  Dutch news agencies RTL Nieuws and KRO Brandpunt broadcasted a documentary that detailed a new scandal: the “Bulgarian Fraud”. Bulgarian people had registered as Dutch citizens and requested daycare allowance. The documentary showed a village full of Bulgarian people waving around their Dutch debit cards. Since these investigations can take a while, by the time the Dutch tax office intervened, an estimated four million euros had been lost to this fraud. 

The documentary led to a wave of indignity and regulations were made even stricter. A new policy was put in practice: the tax office began checking parents who had a non-Dutch ethnicity or a migration background more sharply than others. This policy was kept a secret for many years and has only fairly recently been admitted to.

During all these years, some authorities did try to compensate parents who had made earnest mistakes and were forced to pay a heavy price. But due to the lack of a harshness clause in the allowance law, those authorities had little room to maneuver around or mitigate the adverse effects. A few authorities and members of parliament — one of which was Pieter Omtzigt — attempted to moderate the law itself, but the fear of another fraud scandal was too great for reform to be passed. 

In 2017, a report was published by one of the five High Councils of State, criticizing the tax office for failing to rectify its own mistakes and for causing disproportionate harm to parents. From this point onward, developments started speeding up. Omtzigt tried to garner attention for the issue in parliament debates. In May of 2019, two journalists exposed the tax office for falsely accusing parents with a second nationality of fraud. Members of parliament grew increasingly angry with the government’s secrecy regarding the topic and requested an extensive account of the facts. The government, despite being obliged to honour such a request, decided to withhold part of this information.

In June 2019 there was another Council of Ministers Assembly where ministers blew off steam about the more critical members of parliament. They spoke of talking sense into these “difficult” members of parliament. This is one of the minutes which would later spark such outrage.

On the December 17 2020 a conclusive report was published following extensive interrogation of the ministers responsible. The report, loosely translated as “Unfathomable Injustice,” condemns the fraud regulation of the allowance law. This report eventually led to the government stepping down on January 15 2021, a largely symbolic act since most of the ministers involved would run again for party leader a mere two months later. 

Why are People Angry?

Firstly, people are mad because the government broke the constitution when deciding to knowingly withhold information from parliament. People are indignant about the manner in which the Council of Ministers spoke about the “difficult” members of parliament such as Omtzigt. Members of parliament are meant to be critical of the government and are supposed to function as a control barrier. To “talk some sense” into them is seen by many as a gross abuse of power, and a disregard for the dualist democratic system (i.e. the separation of power). Furthermore, Rutte, as well as party leaders from the two other biggest parties, continually lied about what had been said in the Council of Ministers Assemblies. 

The leaked minutes showed how crooked the political culture in The Hague has become. Rather than responsible ministers trying to solve a problem, they showed politicians concerned with saving face. This line of thinking was named the ‘Rutte doctrine’, a term even used inside political circles. Instead of a dualist system with the government on one side and a parliament keeping them in check on the other, they portrayed a culture of silencing criticism. Now, many people wonder if those leaders can still be trusted.

The road ahead

Willink delivered the final report on his formation scouting on April 30th to the chairwoman of the Second Chamber, Vera Bergkamp (D66). His report focuses on three main aspects; how to get out of the current political “impasse”; the rebuilding of political dualism and trust in government; a concise coalition agreement. 

According to Willink, the breach of trust as a result of the Omtzigt- and allowance-affair runs deep and multiple parties describe that this trust is impossible to regain. His input on this impasse is that among other things “a common approach to major problems” could be fruitful in helping to restore mutual trust between parties. The major problem he refers to here is, of course, dealing with the Coronavirus crisis.  

However, working together to solve important crises is not the only way to restore confidence. Willink notes that it is imperative that a clearer division between cabinet and parliament be created, as these are currently too “cross-linked”. He presents a slew of proposals to separate power more properly to restore confidence from citizens. He notes specifically that these changes will require a new style of premiership, and he has spoken to Rutte about this. The VVD replied that “[T]his change is going to be exciting, but that’s no reason not to do it.”

His last topic of interest is the shortening of the coalition agreement. In the last years, these have become so specific that even dedications as ‘small’ as one million euros were set in stone from the very beginning. This led to the opposition having barely any room to debate on these issues. A common justification for policy became the simple sentence, “It’s in the coalition agreement”, instead of real substantial arguments. That is why Willink concludes that a short coalition agreement is essential, and to secure this he recommends not starting with which parties want to work together, but rather with the substance of the agreement. He proposes to hold parliament debates about which issues should get solved first and how: “Based on these debates, it can become clear which parties want to contribute to the solutions to the identified problems and possibly want to form a coalition.” 

Although Willink has made it clear that he does not want to discuss which parties could govern together, we can give you that overview. Currently, only PVV, SP, and BIJ1 have stated explicitly that they will not work with Rutte’s VVD. PvdD, DENK, and BBB have said working with Rutte is unlikely. This leaves ten other parties who are not explicitly against the idea of working with Rutte. Besides this new tension towards Rutte, there are older grievances towards the PVV and FvD. VVD, D66, CDA, SP, PvdA, GroenLinks, Volt, DENK, and BIJ1 have all stated that they will not work together with these two parties.

There are more than enough options still on the table for a coalition to be formed. Currently, we can do nothing except wait to see what happens. There will be a debate about Willink’s findings on the 12th of May, which will give us some more insight into where everyone stands. However, when a coalition and coincidently a government will be formed is rather unclear and will probably stay unclear for the foreseeable future. 

Author: Luuk Kuiper

Physics student at Amsterdam University College

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