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 D66.
D66 is by far the most curious party in the Dutch political system. It is somewhat comparable to the British Liberal-Democrats in platform and style, but then dropped into a German/Scandinavian type of system. Although D66 argues for a district system and the LibDems for proportional representation, the goal of both is to radically change their political system.
Their positions are quite different, though. Where the LibDems are the third party in a two-party system and never govern, D66 is the fourth party in a three-party system (right now it’s eighth, but that’s temporary), and is fully government-worthy. It has participated in many coalitions and even invented the Purple coalition with PvdA and VVD, and without eternal ruler CDA.
Founded in 1966 as a reaction to the denominationally segregated power politics of the day, D66 was a party for left-leaning but not quite socialist intellectuals. It positions itself as a social-liberal party, and the vast majority of Dutch voters has a few occasions when it feels pretty social-liberal. D66 is definitely on their list of vote-worthy parties. The problem is, it’s almost never number one on that list.
This is the mechanism behind the gigantic ups and downs of D66, which entered parliament in 1967 with 7 seats (a revolution for those days), grew a bit, shrank some, rose sharply, dropped deeply, grew slowly in the eighties until reaching its peak of 24 seats in 1994. After that it shrank and shrank and shrank until its present 3 seats. It’s slated to grow four- or fivefold in the coming elections, though.
Historically the party is part of the left. It was only in 2003 that it entered a coalition without the PvdA, and although this might conceivably represent a genuine shift from rightmost-of-the-left to a true centre party, this is not yet proven. The PvdA is, for the time being, still D66’s biggest competitor.
D66 is also the most aggressively secular of all Dutch parties; it regards orthodox CU and SGP as its polar opposites, and that feeling is returned. It was D66 that brought about the Purple coalition after its 1994 victory, and since that coalition did not include ethically conservative CDA, it made a few liberal changes with regard to gay marriage, euthanasia, and related subjects. The christians haven’t forgotten.
Because it is a centre party, D66 can win voters from PvdA, CDA, and VVD. Because it is also party of the left, D66 can also win voters from the smaller left-wing parties.
Historically D66 has been the prime destination for moderate PvdA voters who were disappointed by their party’s compromises with the CDA. It also attracts moderate VVD voters because it is the only other truly liberal party in the country.
As to CDA voters, that’s more complex. Economically there is very little difference between CDA and D66, but on the point of christian values the difference could not be larger. Thus D66 can and will attract economic CDA voters, but no value voters.
Originally the Democrats were slated to win seats from all three large parties in the 2011 elections, but the outcome of the government crisis has changed that outlook. D66 will not win too many seats from the PvdA, which has acquired the aura of standing up to the CDA and is going to offer left-wing voters the chance to elect the prime minister.
Right now D66 stands to win a lot by tying CDA and VVD to Wilders. Right-wing voters, especially liberals, who can’t stand Wilders will be drawn to D66 automatically, especially since party leader Pechtold had distinguished himself in opposing Wilders.
In fact, in the past three year the rule was that when Pechtold and Wilders shouted at each other, they both grew in the polls. That mechanism caused a lot of Pechtold-Wilders shoot-outs, but it also gave Pechtold a clear profile, something that Wilders already had. So Wilders might have made a tactical blunder here. On the other hand, there aren’t many voters who hesitate between Pechtold and Wilders.
As a result, the growth of D66 could now be due mainly to right-wing voters who despise Wilders. That, in turn, might conceivably push D66 a bit more to the right. On the other hand, these right-wing voters might push the combined left-wing parties over the 76-seat border.
If all goes really well, D66 may find itself in the position that’s usually reserved for the CDA: the party that will take a final decision to go left or right. It was in a similar position in 1994, and created Purple. Right now with the crisis and all there is no place for such creativity, but D66 will certainly negotiate to the hilt.
Still, in order for this scenario to become reality both a broad left-wing government and a a centre-right CDA+VVD+D66 one will have to be mathematically possible. If that happens D66 sits in the centre of power and might (might!) even outsmart and out-negotiate the CDA.
If, as is likely, a broad left-wing government is mathematically impossible, D66’s value will shrink a bit, but it will still be wooed by CDA and VVD, both of which will prefer D66 to Wilders. But is this coalition in D66’s interests?
It’s hard to see where the Democrats’ true interest lies. Historically it has refused to form a government without its main competitor the PvdA. Being in government while the PvdA was safe in the opposition is a recipe for electoral slaughter (see also 1982 and 2006).
Still, that assumes that its voters are basically left-wing, and as I said before D66 just might become more dependent on right-wing voters this cycle.
Another option would be a renewal of Purple with the PvdA and the VVD. D66 will love that, but the problem will be getting PvdA and VVD to agree on the solution of the economic crisis, a very tough nut to crack.
All in all D66 has many coalition options (even more than the CDA), but I find it very hard to say which coalition it would prefer. And that strengthens its position in the negotiations: if you’re not forced to opt for a certain coalition you’re less vulnerable and can negotiate more toughly.
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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.