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 running 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 continue with the CU.
In 1944 a theological dispute within the Gereformeerde Kerk led to the split-off of the Gereformeerde Kerken (vrijgemaakt) (“Reformed Churches (self-liberated),” I guess). The new church founded its own party, the GPV, and although it took until 1963 to enter parliament, from then on the GPV was permanently represented with one or two seats. It was a witness party through and through; the point of its existence was bearing witness to the vrijgemaakt gereformeerde faith of its members.
(I frequently refuse to translate protestant terminology because it’s either very hard, or makes for very unclear English, or both.)
The problem with the GPV was that only vrijgemaakten could become members. Even though other protestants sympathised with it and voted for it, they could not participate.
In 1975 a group of right-wing protestants who could not stomach the merger of their protestant parties ARP and CHU with the catholic KVP into the CDA, split off. They immediately attracted a group of non-vrijgemaakte GPV sympathizers, and after careful deliberation decided to participate in the 1977 elections as the RPF. The worst possible outcome ensued: the GPV lost enough voters to the RPF to lose its second seat, but not enough to give the RPF a seat.
From the outset it was clear that GPV and RPF resembled each other very much. Outsiders could understand the differences between GPV and RPF on the one hand and even more orthodox SGP on the other, but it was totally unclear why GPV and RPF didn’t merge. And in the end, the only obstacle to a merger was the vrijgemaakte exclusivity of the GPV.
In contrast, the RPF started to reach out beyond the traditional reformed protestant to evangelicals, who did not vote. Its largest success came in 1994, when it won two seats from the CDA, which was in grave trouble back then.
Talks ensued, into which the SGP was also drawn. The three small protestant parties started a significant cooperation, and in the end it became clear that GPV and RPF were heading for a merger, from which the SGP excluded itself because it refused to moderate its standpoints, which we’ll discuss in the SGP entry.
In the end, the GPV gave up its exclusivity and admitted that a new merger party could not only encompass all kinds of reformed, but also evangelicals, and possibly (maybe!) even catholics.
Thus the CU was formed. Unfortunately it first entered the elections in 2002, when the Fortuyn revolt drew centrists and christians back to the CDA, and the CU lost one seat; a score that was repeated in 2003. It was only in 2006 that it finally grew beyond the combined scores of GPV and RPF.
GPV and RPF had never played a role in coalition forming, but in 2003 a CDA+VVD+CU+SGP coalition was briefly considered. In the end the VVD refused to cooperate with the SGP (but not the CU!), and D66 was swapped in for the christian parties.
Still, the CU had become coalition-worthy, and in 2006 this paid off. For the first time in Dutch history, a small protestant party was invited into a government coalition. Even better, despite CDA and PvdA going down in the polls, the CU has shown a slight but consistent growth of one to two seats.
Historically, RPF and GPV have been pure witness parties. However, from the start the CU has behaved more governmental; a gamble that paid off in 2006. The witnesses have been called to serve in the wider world. It remains to be seen whether that’ll change the party’s nature. Conservatives within the party are doubtlessly arguing so already, but it will be interesting to see how this debate plays out.
The CU is based on the orthodox protestant world, and still finds most of its voters among these groups. In addition, it has invested heavily in contact with the evangelicals, both white churches that grew around concepts imported from the US, and black churches mainly filled with people from the former colonies. Evangelicals traditionally do not vote, but the CU is time and again trying to get them out to the polls. Maybe it’ll succeed in these elections; one never knows.
Unlike its predecessors, the CU positions itself slightly to the left of the CDA in economic affairs. It believes that God’s Word requires them to protect the poor, and that demand is being taken seriously. Politically, it’s angling for the remaining “radicals” in the CDA; the old ARP’s left wing that set the tone in the seventies and early eighties but disappeared under Lubbers.
Another obvious electoral growth market are orthodox catholics. This, however, is a tricky proposition. The RPF was expressly founded by protestants who did not want to share a party with catholics, and although the older generation is dying out, not every orthodox protestant will embrace the papists with gladness in his heart.
In the 2006 campaign one of the bishops remarked that the CU might be the most christian party in the country, and although he was reprimanded and hurriedly stated that he hadn’t meant that catholics should actually vote for it, the CU made some inroads in the southern provinces.
Among protestants and especially catholics, the CU’s largest competitor is the CDA. The CU’s advantage is that it can keep its christianity much purer than a CDA that is time and again forced to compromise with the secular parties. No doubt the CDA leadership will not have minded a coalition with the CU; let the pure of heart also make dirty hands, and they will lose some of their electoral appeal.
Still, as I said, the CU has consistently shown a slight gain in the polls, and with the CDA in disarray it could rise even beyond the predicted 7 seats. However, should people rally to the safe, centrist CDA, the CU will be one of the first parties to notice.
There is a tiny overlap with the SGP, too, but in absolute numbers it is so slight that we can safely ignore it.
Coalition-wise, the CU has now been accepted by the mainstream parties as a partner one can do business with. Still, the party is hampered because of its opposition to D66 and all that this most secular party of the country stands for. And nearly every coalition that could use some christian reinforcement also contains D66.
The single thing the CU should not do is enter a coalition with the CDA in opposition; that would destroy its christian credibility. Thus we’ll see the CU reinforcing only CDA-led coalitions.
Still, there aren’t that many coalitions the CU could reinforce right now. It doesn’t really want to cooperate with Wilders, so right-wing is out. Any centrist combination involves D66, and so would a left-wing coalition. That doesn’t leave a lot of possibilities.
In summary, the CU will likely move to the opposition. That’s not necessarily bad. The CU has proven beyond doubt it is coalition-worthy, and from the opposition it will have a much easier time attacking the CDA for its wholesale sell-out of christian values — especially when the christian-democrats line up with D66, as seems likely.
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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.