How does a Dutch cabinet compare to neighbouring cabinets?

by Daniël P Melters

On September 12th, 2012, the Dutch went to the polls for the 29th time since the end of the Second World War to vote for who will represent them in parliament. On April 23rd, 2012 the first Rutte cabinet fell after the Catshuis Negotiations went nowhere (austerity measure negotiations with the “gedoog” (which translates to ‘active tolerance’) Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders and the Rutte cabinet). Today (Nov 5th, 2012), 169 days after the fall and 54 days after the elections, Rutte’s second cabinet was sworn into office by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

How does a Dutch cabinet compare to neighbouring cabinets?
Rutte II with Queen Beatrix present themselves to the media – from NRC Handelsblad: http://www.nrc.nl/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/bordes.klein_.jpg

On average a Dutch cabinet is in power for 2 years and 5 months (standard deviation of 553 days and a median of 2 years and 2 months) since the end of World War 2 (including demissionary cabinet). The average demissionair time of a cabinet is 96 days (with a standard deviation of 75 days and a median of 69 days). In other words, after 29 elections in the last 67 years, the Netherlands didn’t have a ruling government for 2,788 days or over 7.5 years.

How does the average time of a Dutch cabinet in office compare to the time in office by cabinets from its neighbouring countries? To make any meaningful comparison, I had to limit myself to countries with similar types of governments. The obvious candidates were Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium. All four countries are monarchies, just like the Netherlands, and in all four countries the Prime Minister is the political head-of-state. I also added the United Kingdom, despite it less well defined role of the Prime Minister, as well as Germany even though it is a republic. In Germany the head-of-state is the president, but the political head-of-state is the Prime Minister. All seven countries are in close geopolitical proximity and share considerable historical, cultural, and economical ties. Where things differ a bit are that both Belgium and Germany are federations, in contrast to the other five.
Countries like France or Finland would not have been good candidates for a comparison, as these countries are, just like Germany, republics, but the presidents in these countries are not only the head-of-state, they are also the political head-of-state.
I obtained the times in office per cabinet per country from the respective lists on Wikipedia (follow links per country above). Below are some basic statistical findings.

How does a Dutch cabinet compare to neighbouring cabinets?
Table 1: The mean, standard deviation (StDev) and median per country are given only considering cabinets since WWII. In addition, the total number of Prime Minister (PMs) and cabinets are given, as well the total number of elections, percentage of cabinets that served their full 4 year term, total number of incumbent PMs and the ratio of number of incumbents over the number of cabinets. In bold the highest value is given per parameter.
Overall, little difference was observed between cabinets time in office between the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, or Denmark (Table 1). Cabinets in the two larger countries Germany and the UK stayed in office longer, but the standard deviation was similar to aforementioned countries. The standard deviation was rather large, but when you look at the relative time in office graph of Figure 2, it is not surprising. What was more striking is that the median time in office was larger than the mean for the average cabinet in Germany and the UK. The big outlier was Belgium, whose cabinets last substantially shorter than that of any other country in this small subset. In part maybe the complex political system explains this, which was exemplified in their last election where it took them 541 days to form a new government.
Without exception, an incumbent Prime Minister has about a 50-50 shot at becoming the next Prime Minister, irrespective of his/her performance in the term leading up the election. Although these are high numbers, they are not as high as the incumbency rate for members of the House of Representative or the Senate in the US.
These are average or absolute numbers, but what is the data spread of the average time in office? To answer this question, I normalized the time in office to a full 4 year term (=1.0). Of course, some of the data will be skewed depending on how quick a new cabinet is formed after an election (the last Belgian formation is a case in point). In Figure 1 you can see the spread of time in office per country. Countries like Sweden, Germany, UK, and even the Netherlands stand out for their relatively large bar for full term (1.0) cabinets. In the latter case, this graph is deceiving, as only 24% of the cabinets in the Netherlands go full term, a number similar to Norway (27%). Again, Belgium stands out on the other end of the spectrum and Denmark has a rather even spread of time in office per cabinet (which also explains the lowest StDev number of the seven selected countries).
How does a Dutch cabinet compare to neighbouring cabinets?
Figure 1: Histogram of how long a cabinet is in power. Full term would 4 years in power and thus a perfect score of 1.0. If a cabinet fell early for what ever reason, the relative fraction was calculated. Germany had most full term cabinets (10), whereas Denmark had the least full term cabinets (1). On the other hand, Belgium had the most very short term cabinets (19 cabinets that served 0.1 or 0.2 of full term), whereas the United Kingdom had the fewest (1).

When we look over time and plot each cabinet’s time in office (Figure 2), we can see how erratic time in office per cabinet is. Especially in the Netherlands, it seems that a cabinet’s performs in either all or nothing. This quick and dirty analysis does not include continuing Prime Ministers, in which Sweden would stand out with Tage Erlander ruled for over 23 years (from 1946 to 1969). On the other end of the spectrum, Denmark suffered the loss of two Prime Ministers in succession (Hans Hedtoft and Hans Christian Hansen). Similarly, the Netherlands suffered some political/social unrest following the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn (2002) and Theo van Gogh (2004), whereas Sweden had to deal with the still unsolved murder/assassination of Olof Palme. The precise effects (long or short term) of such events are difficult to calculate.

How does a Dutch cabinet compare to neighbouring cabinets?
Figure 2: For each country a histogram plot was made to display the relative time in office of each cabinet since WWII.

In conclusion, a cabinet in the Netherlands performs as a function of time in office roughly similar to its neighbouring cabinets. If anything does stand out, is that a cabinet in the Netherlands will either stay in office full term or will fall within the first two years in office. This means that Rutte II has a 25% change of serving for 4 years, yet no Dutch citizen should be surprised to go back to the voting booth within the next 48 months. With the social outcry following the presentation of the plans of Rutte II, this might be more likely than not.

Update 2012/11/08:
It only took 4 days since their inauguration for Rutte II to show their first cracks. After the debate in Parliament where they defended their proposed 4-year plans or cabinet-plans, a session of urgent consultation (spoedoverleg) was ordered to discuss the general opposition to their plans, including opposition from their respective party-members.

Sources: follow the hyperlinks as provided.

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