General election result challenges relations between social partners

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In the Dutch general election held in May 2002, the ruling coalition of social democratic and liberal parties suffered a major defeat at the hands of the christian democratic CDA and the populist LPF, which are now forming a centre-right coalition government. The result has implications for relationships between the social partners. The likely new coalition has a sympathetic audience among employers' associations, while trade unions fear that cooperation between the social partners will be swept aside.

In the general election held on 9 May 2002, the parties in the ruling 'purple' coalition - the social democratic Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA), the liberal Party for Freedom and Democracy (Vereniging voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD) and the social liberal Democraten 66 (D66) - suffered a major defeat, having been in power for eight years and two terms. The number of seats held by the three parties in the second chamber of parliament was virtually halved. The main winners were the Christian Democratic Appeal (Christen Democratisch Appèl, CDA), which increased its seats from 29 to 43 seats (out of 150), and the newly-founded populist List Pim Fortuyn (Lijst Pim Fortuyn, LPF), which made its debut by winning 26 seats. These two parties are now forming a centre-right coalition government, which they have invited the VVD to join.

The new government must face the effects of a deteriorating economic situation, which has wiped out previous public budget surpluses and replaced them with shortfalls, placing cutbacks high on the agenda. Consequently, the social partners are being forced to reconsider their mutual relationships.

The chair of the VNO-NCW employers' confederation, Jacques Schraven, has stated that he has greater affinity with the likely new government than with the'purple' coalition, believing that the programmes of the parties due to form the government have more in common with the business community's priorities. The troublesome issues of WAO disability benefits insurance (NL0204101N) and healthcare waiting lists must be tackled, but the new government must also work to establish a strong economic base. In his opinion, the 'purple' coalition had an exaggerated propensity for rules and regulations that resulted in tangles of 'red tape' for businesses to negotiate. The previous parliament's perceived 'micro-management', particularly in the areas of employment and care leave provisions (NL0202108F), greatly irritated the employers' associations. Additional aggravation stemmed from the fact that the trade union movement supported the government's decisions regarding these topics. As far as Mr Schraven is concerned, the recent care leave legislation (NL9903128F) should be abolished.

Lodewijk de Waal, the chair of the Dutch Trade Union Federation (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV), has expressed his fears that employers (and their associations) will 'toe the line' of the forthcoming coalition government and in so doing jeopardise cooperation with the union movement and the confidence built up over the years. His counterpart at the Christian Trade Union Federation (Christelijk Nationaal Vakverbond, CNV), Doekle Terpstra, takes a more positive view, stating that political polarisation is not necessarily a bad thing. He considers the election results as a vote against the 'closed government culture', of which the social partners are also a part. Mr Terpstra urges the social partners to improve the formulation of their standpoints and communicate more openly and effectively with the public. At the same time, he has raised the question of whether advisory bodies such as the Social and Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, SER), which includes representatives from trade unions and employers' organisations, should drastically reduce the number of items on their advisory agenda. He would like to see their advice limited to labour and income topics.

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