Evaluation committee: Cabinet formation proceeded in an orderly fashion

Speaker Khadija Arib receives the first copy of the report on the investigation by the Bovend’Eert Committee

In general, the cabinet-formation process of 2017 proceeded in an orderly fashion, despite is protracted duration. This provides evidence that the procedure as amended in 2012, which is directed by the House of Representatives, can also be applied under difficult circumstances. This was the most prominent conclusion of the Bovend’Eert Committee, which evaluated the cabinet-formation process of 2017, commissioned by the Presidium. The committee, which spoke with most of those involved in the formation of 2017 last summer and autumn, presented the report on 6 December and presented it to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Khadija Arib.

Fragmented political landscape

Since 2012, the House of Representatives has played a directive role in the cabinet formation. The procedure is laid down in Article 139a of the Rules of Procedure for the House of Representatives. Prior to 2012 the directive role rested with the King. The cabinet formation in the autumn of 2012 proceeded with relatively few problems, as the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA) were able to reach an agreement quickly. In contrast, the elections for the House of Representatives of 15 March 2017 resulted in a fragmented political landscape. Due in part to the previously adopted blockades aimed at the Party for Freedom (PVV), which was the second-largest party, at least four parties were needed in order to obtain a majority coalition.

On two occasions, the formation was in danger of reaching an impasse, when attempts to form a cabinet consisting of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), Democrats 66 (D66) and GreenLeft (GroenLinks) failed. The House of Representatives nevertheless retained the initiative. In plenary session, a series of formateurs were appointed, each based on a motion.

Explorer and informateur Schippers

The cabinet formation of 2017 followed the precedent of 2012 in several respects. The day after the elections, an explorer (Edith Schippers) was appointed in a consultation amongst the party leaders, upon the proposal of the largest parliamentary group. In the days that followed, Schippers conducted conversations with the chairs of all parliamentary groups. She used these conversations as the base for writing her final report. In the debate on the elections and the formation, the newly installed House of Representatives appointed Schippers as the informateur, who was charged with investigating an initial coalition option. After two formations according to this procedure, it appears to have become a set custom

King kept regularly informed

In contrast to 2012, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the successive informateurs regularly informed the King about the progress of the formation. This was an obvious practice, given the King’s position as the head of state and his constitutional role in the government.

Record formation period

According to most of those involved, the extremely long duration of the formation (a record 225 days) could not have been easily avoided, given the complicated political situation. The evaluation committee therefore saw no reason to shift to an elected formateur, as proposed by the Government Committee for the Parliamentary System in its interim report. This would not resolve the issue underlying the extended duration of the formation of 2017: the complicated party-political situation.

Greater transparency concerning the designation of a subsequent informateur

The generally positive evaluation notwithstanding, several procedural concerns remain. For example, the evaluation committee is of the opinion that greater transparency is needed in the designation of a subsequent informateur. During the formation of 2017, the parliamentary groups that had promoted the candidacy of Schippers (second assignment, 17 May) and Tjeenk Willink remained unclear.

Many of those who were interviewed expressed understanding for the low level of transparency during the formation, although impatience increased during the phase informateur Zalm. The vast majority regarded confidentiality as a necessary condition for the success of the coalition negotiations. The committee does not consider it worthwhile to require the informateurs and the negotiating parties to be more open or transparent.

Transparency following the formation

One point that received particular attention during the evaluation study was the issue of the ‘formation dossier’: the formation documents that are published after the end of the formation procedure. This dossier consists of letters and memorandums from and to the informateurs. The formation dossier was a point for discussion due to the elimination of the dividend tax that was announced in the coalition agreement. Oppositional parliamentary groups expected to find underlying documentation in the formation dossier. As most of the documents that had been addressed during the cabinet formation had not been requested from the departments through the informateur, however, they had not been included in the formation dossier. In the future, it would be advisable to apply a test of transparency to each document. This would increase transparency following the formation.

Reaction and further action

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Khadija Arib, received the first copy of the report. In her capacity as Speaker, she served as process supervisor during the formation. She endorsed one of the committee’s most important conclusions: “The most important observation is that what had been predicted both before and after the formation of 2012 – that complicated election results would cause the House of Representatives to become mired in procedural wrangling – did not come true. Even with 13 parliamentary groups in the House, we were able to form a cabinet, as is expected of us. Perhaps more accurately, it is our responsibility, given that we have amended the Rules of Procedure.”

Appreciation of precision and completeness

Arib greatly appreciates the work that the committee has performed, with a high level of precision and completeness. “This report lays a solid foundation for a subsequent cabinet formation.” The report will be discussed in the Presidium in the near future.

Investigating committee

The members of the investigating committee were as follows:

  • Prof. Paul Bovend’Eert, Professor of Constitutional Law at Radboud University (RU) – Chair
  • Dr Alexander van Kessel, Researcher at the Centre for Parliamentary History (RU) – member
  • Dr Peter Bootsma, political scientist and publicist – member

Read the report on the investigation

The report by the Bovend’Eert Committee is available for download here (PDF, 1 MB - in Dutch)