Suddenly the coalition MPs had disappeared


When the meeting of the House of Representatives opens on Wednesday around eleven in the morning, 96 MPs have been registered, 40 of whom are from the coalition. When at ten o’clock in the evening the number of MPs is counted again, 62 are left, of which only nine are from the coalition. The count is necessary because PVV leader Geert Wilders recently requested a roll-call vote on a motion. With this motion he wants to increase the salaries of the healthcare staff. Before recess, the House has already voted on that plan three times, and it was rejected three times.

Now the vote will not even take place. 62 MPs, that is too little to make the quorum of 76. “Undemocratic”, says PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher, calls the abrupt absence of MPs from the coalition parties. “Parliamentary sabotage”, Wilders tweets directly.

Counting heads

Heads are counted in parliamentary fractions at the beginning of the week. Who is available to be in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, during the inserted corona debate? Who is in the Netherlands and could possibly rush to The Hague for a vote? And who is too far away to be recalled on Wednesday? In other words: if there is a vote on Wednesday evening on motions, what are the expected voting ratios?

Also read about the corona debate in the House of Representatives: De Jonge’s ‘chaotic’ policy under fire

These voting ratios have been of great importance since the coalition lost its majority in the Lower House in October when Wybren van Haga was expelled from the VVD faction. If the votes are tied – and there is therefore no majority or minority in favor of a proposal – there is no decision. This was the case before the recess with the proposal to increase health care salaries. But this only has to happen and suddenly the opposition has a majority. Like Wednesday night.

On Wednesday the rumor has been circulating in the House from the beginning of the afternoon that it could end in a roll call vote. In the opposition it is said that the coalition could have a problem in that case: in the morning 16 MPs from the opposition registered more than from the coalition.

MPs on standby

Within the coalition – VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie – absent MPs are therefore called and called in the afternoon: keep your standby to come to The Hague later today. They take into account ‘collegial agreements’ between the political groups: that there is only a vote when everyone who can be there is there. This is not stated in the rules of procedure, but was informally agreed during the lockdown.

From the beginning of the evening, the head counting becomes more serious, as rumors of a roll call vote increase. Wilders informs the left-wing opposition that it is considering such a vote. GroenLinks, SP and PvdA keep all MPs present in The Hague.

In the coalition, the idea then prevails that roll-call votes will only be about urgent motions. On Monday, schools in the north of the Netherlands will reopen: what if a group wants a roll-call vote to block it?

In the course of the evening, more and more MPs from the coalition leave for home. The votes, which start at 9:50 pm, will be attended by a limited number of MPs, as has been the custom since the outbreak of the corona crisis. Some of the MPs from coalition factions still present will go home around that time. MPs who are at home are told that they no longer have to be on standby. After all, there are no urgent motions, so there will be no roll-call vote.

Informal appointment

Wilders sees that the number of MPs in the coalition is limited. And that his group, together with the left-wing opposition, may well get a majority. For the first time, a motion about higher health care salaries could be successful. He gets up, walks to the microphone and asks for the roll-call vote that the coalition thought would not come.

At 9.58 pm, President of the Chamber Khadija Arib suspended the meeting for 15 minutes, so that the quorum can be examined. Vice-group chairmen Madeleine van Toorenburg (CDA) and Sophie Hermans (VVD) immediately walk to Arib for consultation. They remind her of the agreement made earlier this year in the presidium of the House of Representatives because of the corona crisis: a roll-call vote must be requested in advance, so that political groups have time to gather all their members.

Wilders, who sits close to the chair of the chairman, overhears that conversation and says that he has nothing to do with informal agreements with the presidium. As a Member of Parliament, he has the right to request a roll-call vote at any time. Arib agrees. There is a debate, so you can expect votes.

Because many party members of VVD and CDA have already gone home earlier that day, Van Toorenburg and Hermans formally report their fractions to the messenger, who keeps the attendance lists behind Arib. But among those who are deregistered are also MPs who are still in the building.

When the meeting is reopened at a quarter past ten, the number of MPs formally present will have fallen to 62 – below the quorum. A deliberate but “ugly” step, D66 leader Rob Jetten admitted on Thursday.

This reconstruction is based on background discussions with nine stakeholders, including MPs from coalition and opposition.

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