Party profile — CDA

The Dutch nine-to-twelve-party system is sometimes hard to understand for foreigners; especially when the small parties come into play. Therefore I’m going to run a mini-series that treats all eleven parties that stand a decent chance of getting seats in the upcoming elections. We’ll go from largest to smallest.

Today we’ll start with the largest Dutch party, the CDA.

History and position

Full name
Christen-democratisch Appèl
Translation
Christian-Democratic Appeal
Party leader
Jan Peter Balkenende, since 2001
Denomination
Christian
Block
Right
Economics
Centre (-right)
Current seats
41
Polls
about 25-30
My estimate
about 30-35

The CDA considers itself the prime Dutch governmental party. “We rule this country,” as one of its leaders once explained to a baffled US senator.

The problem is, its position in politics warrants that arrogance. It is usually the largest party, it stands in the exact centre of Dutch politics, and it has ruled this country since times immemorial.

The CDA was created by a merger of catholic KVP and protestant ARP and CHU, who had been locked in eternal alliance since the 1880s and had a permanent majority from 1918 to 1967. These three parties, and especially the first, had lost disastrous amounts of voters in the late sixties and early seventies, and if they were to continue in the position of power, they had to unify.

This strategy succeeded. After the left-wing Den Uyl government (1973-1977) the CDA returned to the centre of power under Van Agt (1977-1982) and Lubbers (1982-1994). The 1994 elections were disastrous, though. The CDA spent eight years in opposition — and did a thoroughly lousy job, since after close to a century in government it had become a bit of a one-trick pony.

In 2002 the CDA came back to the centre of power because it was neither part of the by now thoroughly discredited Purple coalition nor Pim Fortuyn. Thus it became the safe haven for cautious centrist voters, which it has remained ever since.

Electoral position

The CDA derives its strength from simultaneously being an economic centre-right party (a tad to the right of the centre, but moderate in everything) as well as a generic christian values party (moderately, of course).

As an economic centre-right party the CDA’s main enemies are the main parties on left and right, PvdA and VVD. A group of voters worth maybe as much as 10 to 15 seats genuinely feels at home with either CDA or VVD. Retaining these voters by making clear that when all’s said and done the CDA still is a right-wing party is always a prime objective of CDA strategy.

There are similar voters on the left, but they are worth only maybe 2 to 5 seats or so. Thus, although the CDA always makes appreciative noises about social justice, protecting the weak, and so on, in the end its bread is buttered on the right, and the party knows as much.

Centrist D66 may be a competitor because economically it’s closest to the CDA, and economic voters may consider it a viable alternative. Still, the CDA in the end is a christian party, and D66 is the most aggressively secular party in Dutch politics.

That brings us to coalition partner CU, which is also a CDA competitor. Not because the CU can compare to the VVD in sheer numbers, but because the CU is the single party that can reach the christian value voters. Nobody knows exactly how dangerous the CU will be, because this situation is a new development in Dutch politics. Its unpredictability is what makes the CDA-CU struggle so dangerous.

It is worth pointing out that CDA and CU have matched each other exactly in the 2003 and 2006 elections. In the first the CDA won one seat and the CU lost one, in the last the CDA lost three seats which the CU won.

Still, the CU might be a one-day wonder that loses half of its seats to the CDA in the next elections. But one can’t be sure. It might also steal a few more seats from the CDA.

Potential coalitions

The CDA never ever excludes any party from government coalitions beforehand. Ever. That is usually a strength; thus it can do whatever it pleases after the elections and its voters can’t complain. (Besides, the voters know full well they’ll get whatever coalition the CDA leadership deems necessary.)

Although politically the CDA belongs to the right block and is even the largest party in that block, it is also the leftmost right-wing party, and is always willing to discuss a coalition with the PvdA.

Still, that’s not very likely this time around. The CDA has just led an unsuccesful centre-left government, so a switch to centre-right is only to be expected. The VVD is pantingly eager, as always. Still, there’s a problem and that problem is named Wilders.

“Vote CDA, and get Wilders for free.” The PvdA has already started tying the CDA to the anti-Islamic radical. Besides, a recent poll showed that a broad minority of 44% of CDA voters is negative about a right-wing coalition, which will have to include Wilders’s PVV.

Thus, the mushy-mouthedness that is usually the CDA’s main strength could become a serious liability. On the other hand, if the CDA excludes Wilders beforehand and Wilders does become largest or second-largest party, that would be a problem, too.

From the CDA’s perspective, a CDA+VVD+D66 coalition would be best. Still, that was already tried in the Balkenende II government, which fell before its time. If this coalition is to be repeated, it would be better to appoint another person party leader and prime minister.

The succession

Balkenende has never convinced as a leader, and it seems that message is finally hitting home within CDA circles. A leadership switch just before the elections would be even worse than retaining Balkenende, so the CDA moved with speed to re-confirm him as its leader. Still, it seems Balkenende’s Best-Before date has been reached and speculations about his succession are heating up.

Since the CDA is a merger party, the balance between catholics and protestants has always been very important. However, there can be only one party leader. Therefore the CDA has alternate catholic and protestant leaders. Since Balkenende is a protestant, the next leader will have to be a catholic.

Catholics

But who? The first-ranking catholic and heir presumptive is foreign minister Verhagen, but he has been damaged severely by the government crisis. Basically the PvdA has made him, and not Balkenende, the guilty party. It is likely that this mud will stick; the PvdA has succesfully conjured up the archetypical image of the unreliable catholic politician; and this image stands squarely in the centre of the moodboard of Dutch politics.

Thus the PvdA has very cleverly damaged not only Balkenende, but also his successor. Whatever the CDA does, it will have to re-fight part of the succession struggle. And that takes some time, and hints of the fight might even leak to the outside world.

The chances of second-ranking catholic, traffic and waterstate minister Eurlings, have increased. In fact, a recent poll showed that voters preferred him as prime minister above Balkenende and Verhagen both. He is modestly remaining in the background for now, which is probably a good idea, certainly taking his age (37) into account.

Protestants

In theory the CDA could decide to nominate another protestant, and that makes sense when it comes to competing with protestant CU. A catholic party leader might cause protestants to take a second look at the CU, while a protestant one lessens this risk.

The situation on the protestant side is less clear than on the catholic side. Catholics love their hierarchies, while protestants are more egalitarian. Social affairs minister Donner clearly has the greatest share of gravitas and authority on the protestant side (and in the CDA as a whole), but frankly I’ve never pictured him as party leader. Senior advisor, all-round wise man, and leader of a headache department is his natural position in the political ecosystem.

Health minister Klink is occasionally mentioned, but that speculation is fairly new, and it’s not clear how seriously we should consider him. And Jack de Vries, who is not a minister but only a lowly secretary of state of defence in addition to having been campaign chief of the succesful 2006 elections, appears in the news an awful lot lately. Does that mean anything? Probably not, but it’s still good to keep an eye on these developments.

The protestants will allow a catholic to succeed Balkenende. But if that catholic were to fail quickly and spectacularly — well, such is politics.

Should he stay or should he go?

All this supposes that Balkenende will in fact resign as party leader after the elections. Whether this happens is uncertain, but he’ll have a tough time holding on to his position. His only hope is that the CDA once again becomes the largest party in the country and he can form a new government. Chances for both are fair, but no more than that.

If the PvdA becomes the largest party, Balkenende is toast. In fact, part of the reason he’s been retained as party leader is to serve as ritual sacrifice if things go wrong.

<— First poll — Bos wins, Balkenende loses | Elections: 9 June —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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Comments (closed)

1 Posted by Eric on 23 February 2010 | Permalink

You refer to CDA as a center-right party, but I suspect that may mean something different in the Netherlands than it does here in the US. What are some of the most significant policy ideas that they promote, economically and socially?

2 Posted by ppk on 23 February 2010 | Permalink

Broadly speaking, in Dutch terms the US Democrats would be a centre-right party, while the Republicans are extreme right.

In general CDA and VVD resemble the Democrats, with the left wing of the Democrats stretching out a bit into the left wing of Dutch politics, and with Bernie Sanders even ending up on the right wing of the PvdA.

It's not easy comparing US and Dutch politics, mostly because the US does not have serious political socialism. Maybe I'll write another article about this, but it will treat the points I mentioned above in more detail, and not add any new information.

3 Posted by Bryan on 24 February 2010 | Permalink

PBK, count me as the 13th Anglophone extremely interested in Dutch politics. Your introduction posts and articles are very insightful.

Totally agree, it is very difficult to compare Dutch political parties with the 2 American political parties. To add my two cents to the comparison discussion, if the Dutch came to America most CDA and VVD would vote Republican. Most PvdA, SP and D66 would vote Democratic.

As for the smaller parties, CU, SGP, PVV and ToN would mostly vote Republican. GL and PvdD would vote Democratic.

4 Posted by Joost on 24 February 2010 | Permalink

Excellent series! Hope you can keep up :)

I'd also remind the US visitors that politics in the Netherlands (as in most of W Europe) is a lot less explicitly religious than in the US - especially since the rise in power of the religious right in the US since the 80s; there's rarely any public mention of God from anywhere but the explicitly Christian parties, and even in the CDA (by far the largest of them) there seems to be only a relatively mild emphasis on religion and its "moral guidance" etc, at least in public.

Religious issues do turn up, but most of those debates are centered on Muslim/immigration issues, especially since the rise of Fortuyn but even more currently with Wilders.

Of course, that doesn't mean that religiously sensitive issues - like same-sex marriage - aren't debated, but they're usually not cast as explicitly religious.

As for left-right divisions: I'd cast the CDA as the right wing of the Democrats and the VVD as the centre-left wing of the Republicans, with the PVV as the right (but not extreme right) wing of the Reps. Though in the US, the Republicans seem to be moving further and further to the right at the moment.