Balkenende continues to go down

Things are not good for prime minister and CDA party leader Balkenende. Although he still has the official support of the party, rumblings are starting among the rank and file. Besides, a serious successor has made his way to the top.

A while ago I reported that a CDA backbencher expressed her doubts about Balkenende, doubts that were mirrored by the provincial party barons. It’s time for an update.

Meanwhile, local CDA councillors, too, are expressing doubts about their party leader.
(Source: Volkskrant | Trouw)

Little has changed, and that means that Balkenende will lead the CDA into the elections. It’s too late now to switch party leaders, since the CDA’s opponents (all other parties) would be absolutely merciless in their attacks on the vacillating, untrustworthy christian-democrats.

Still, the fact that there’s open discussion about Balkenende’s position is a serious problem, too, and the party leadership is trying to keep all noses pointed in the same direction, as we say in Dutch. It only has intermittent success.

Schreijer-Pirik, the backbencher who dissed Balkenende two weeks ago, has meanwhile declared that sh’s supporting him anyway, no doubt reacting to serious pressure from the CDA bosses. She won’t be returning to parliament in any case, but the party might help her find a nice, comfortable seat on some council, preferably an agricultural one, where she can continue to help her farmer voters.
(Source: Nederlands Dagblad)

Besides, provincial party leaders called upon the rank and file to be careful in their press contacts. The ranks should remain closed, and any criticism should be discussed within the party first.
(Source: Trouw)

Then lurid stories from the CDA fraction in parliament started to come out into the open. It turns out that the fractions has serious doubts about Balkenende’s leadership qualities, and that it has sent parliamentary leader Van Geel to the party leadership to express these doubts. As far as anyone knows party leadership has never actually done anything about it.
(Source: Trouw)

Balkenende himself denied that there’s any criticism at all; at least, he didn’t encounter any during a closed party meeting in the northern town of Assen. He defended his decision to only become prime minister (in other words, not minister under a PM from another party, nor opposition leader in parliament) by saying that he worded his ambition to make the CDA the largest party in the country. Yaddah yaddah.
(Source: Volkskrant)

CDA party chairman Van Heeswijk meanwhile stated that he doesn’t see anything bad in criticism, since it makes the CDA a stronger party. Besides, it’s a democratic party that allows anyone his or her say.
(Source: Trouw)

In other words, most of the party leadership supports Balkenende no matter what, and they’re slowly getting the rank and file in line. Still, the problems have leaked out, and no doubt Balkenende will be mercilessly attacked on this point during the debates in the month before the 9 June elections.

The best solution to the problem seems to be calling for “Balkenende 2.0.” When politicians use outdated Internet terminology, you know that they don’t have any bright ideas any more.
(Source: Trouw)

A new crown prince

Another aspect is the succession. Suppose Balkenende resigns, now or after an drumming at the polls, who will succeed him? Crown prince Eurlings left politics a while ago, and since then it has been completely unclear who’s the first in line of succession to the party leadership. Not that Balkenende minds; a strong crown prince can be a hindrance to a leader in the autumn of his power, and without a clear alternative it’s less likely that the party will depose him.

However, in the last two weeks or so a clear successor has surfaced: Gerd Leers (catholic), former mayor of the southern city of Maastricht. Leers resigned a month ago because of a minor financial scandal. It turned out he owned a holiday home in Bulgaria, and that when there were financial problems he had written to interested parties on paper with a Maastricht city header. Thereafter the main parties in the Maastricht council, especially the PvdA, forced him to resign.

Leers remains very popular in Maastricht, though, and in the local elections the PvdA was beaten soundly. Pundits assume that its treatment of Leers had something to do with that.

In any case, Leers is not a typical CDA politician. He was a convincing big-city mayor who succesfully handled big-city problems such as drugs, Since Maastricht is very close to both the Belgian and the German border, plenty of non-Dutch come into town to purchase their weed. This gives order problems, and Leers has always treated them as such, instead of insisting on the abolition of the soft drugs toleration policy, as national CDA leaders did.

Anway, this is a serious challenge to Balkenende, and it has been treated as such. Leers initially announced he wanted to return to politics, and everybody assumed that meant becoming CDA party leader or at the very least taking a prominent place on the CDA party list in the elections. However, quickly after he announced he wouldn’t be a candidate for parliament.
(Source: Algemeen Dagblad)

This could be a problem. If the CDA enters the opposition and Balkenende resigns, Leers is not eligible for parliament since he is not on the party list. (He can always become a minister, or even prime minister, of course. That doesn’t require membership of parliament.)

Still, despite these procedural problems, I kind of think he would be able to work with PvdA party leader Cohen, who also was mayor of a big city (Amsterdam) until recently, and also objected to the soft-drugs policies of national government. Not that these policies are the only thing that matters, but both have a big-city outlook that could mesh well if they’re able to get along personally. (I have no data that they can, but no data that they can’t, either. So let’s assume they can.)

Of course, the CDA is a countryside party. More than any other party it gets its votes from the villages and small towns. Thus Leers may not represent the average CDA member very well with his big-city perspective.

On the other hand, there’s just no other name floated around for Balkenende’s succession. The CDA has to choose between several unpalatable options.

<— New Peil.nl poll | Small fry, 30 March —>

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 Bryan on 30 March 2010 | Permalink

The personalities of candidates and their ability to lead are certainly factors in US politics, but once again these are most significant in “primary elections” where the party faithful vote and make the assessment as to the individuals who will best advance the “platform” or more accurately the parts of the platform ( in dutch, manifesto) the voter wants pursued. Once the primary election is over, rating personality gets replaced with just wanting your party to “win “, since that is the only hope for platform policies to be enacted. So even if there are no primaries in Holland, at some point even the CDA faithful will have to focus on winning and not who might be the designated leader. On the platform/manifesto front, the biggest difference I have read about thus far, is whether mortgage interest should remain tax deductible? In America, everyone would side with CDA /VVD and against the left parties who are opposed to the deduction. Also, that would be a major issue at election time.

2 Posted by ppk on 31 March 2010 | Permalink

The tax deductability of interest *will* become a major electoral issue. It's just that a recent poll showed that about 60% of Dutch favours changing something (i.e. capping the deductible interest or abolishing the system altogether).

And yes, eventually the CDA is going to concentrate on winning. Problem is, part of a winning strategy is a good party leader who can attract voters whose first choice would not be CDA.

It's the combination of a good platform and a good person that makes a party really big, and right now the PvdA has the better cards here.

3 Posted by Bryan on 31 March 2010 | Permalink

Surprised to hear 60% of Dutch want to scrap or reduce interest deductibility. Google, “advantages of home ownership” and you find study after study in the US in support of incentives to encourage it. i.e. According to data from the Federal Reserve Board, a homeowner’s net worth is 46 times that of a renter’s -- It is the cornerstone of a healthy community and the basis for positive community involvement--According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, owners do not move as frequently as renters providing more neighborhood stability. In turn, involvement in community quality-of-life issues helps prevent crime, improve childhood education and support neighborhood upkeep. I know Holland has more public housing and regulations which might explain this result, but CDA/VVD will have alot of literature in support of their postions.

4 Posted by Bryan on 31 March 2010 | Permalink

One view from 4,000 miles away as to winning strategy for CDA: Let Cohen and Wilders debate it out. Possible result, Wilders is exposed as being too narrow minded and will never be able to govern. Cohen is exposed as being too cosmopolitan, something like “everyone’s values are no better than the next persons”, add a cup of tea, and Balkenende perhaps as unreliable and uninspiring as he sometimes appears becomes your last best choice. Any incumbent national leader, in any country, after 8 years is going to have detractors. Add to the mix he had to lead whatever Roman numeral cabinets, because the voters have been spread across the political map for the last decade and in some countries you have chaos. To the credit of the Dutch, you avoided: 1) the credit crunch, 2) incurring debt, future generations will have to pay-off, 3) double digit unemployment, and 4) tried to address immigration. How Cohen is going to do better than that, is a mystery to this foreigner. However, if the Dutch with Cohen as PM feel they can accomplish the same things and today you like Cohen better, Balkenende is finished.

5 Posted by ppk on 1 April 2010 | Permalink

I generally agree with your CDA strategy. Point is: the CDA itself can do fairly little to influence the outcome. It only works if Cohen disqualifies himself in the eyes of the centre-right voters. And he's canny enough to understand the danger.

As to incumbency: that's exactly Balkenende's problem. After eight long years people are just sick of him, especially since he's proven not to be a leader and his moral/ethical stories are becoming old hat. From that perspective, the CDA should have switched leaders.

Cohen is virtually unknown outside the country, but reasonably well known (and well liked) within.

And the question is indeed whether Cohen will be judged as "governmental" as Balkenende. Right now the answer seems to be Yes, and Balkenende appears to be headed for the ash heap of history.