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 SP.
The rise of the SP is a generic reaction to the increasing centrism of the PvdA that became apparent from 1994 onward. Genuine left-wing voters became annoyed, then disappointed, then outright angry with a PvdA that tried to please its right-wing coalition partners more than its voters by enthousiastically embracing fundamentalist free-marketism, and they defected to other parties in increasing numbers. The SP was ideologically (and organisationally) best placed to capture them.
Started as a marxist fringe group in the seventies, the SP had success in the southern town of Oss under local leader Jan Marijnissen. Eventually Marijnissen became national party leader, and after participating in three elections without success conquered two seats in 1994. That increased in the subsequent elections, and in 2006 the SP suddenly made an enormous jump to 25.
The rise of the SP was almost entirely due to protest voters. It started in the nineties with old-fashioned socialists who found the PvdA drifting too much into liberal waters, and especially in 2006 this group was reinforced by more-or-less generic protest voters who in the end decided to support a truly socialist party instead of Wilders.
Still, with this victory under its belt the SP did badly. It was invited to take part in coalition negotiations with the CDA, but pretty soon it became clear that this was just a ritual dance for both parties; neither had any interest in allowing the negotiations to succeed, and both preferred the PvdA in government.
Then charismatic party leader Marijnissen resigned in 2008 for reasons of health. His successor Kant did not convince in the opposition. In fact, despite the SP being the largest opposition party, it has remained too invisible in the past three years, and the question is whether she can reach the full spectrum of potential SP voters.
After the SP defeat in the 2010 local elections Kant stepped down to be replaced by virtual unknown Emile Roemer. He has three months to make himself nationally known and win back 2006 SP voters who’ve drifted to the other left-wing parties or to Wilders.
Still, the SP is currently torn between an electorally interesting position as a protest party and a position as a moderate party with which one can do business, which is conductive to succesful coalition negotiations. How the SP will solve this straddle remains to be seen. I expect the moderate part to be somewhat more emphasized by Roemer, where Kant mainly hammered on the protest part.
In the end, the 2006 victory was too large. The SP was not ready yet to be the third party; it would have been better served by a more moderate victory. The next elections will correct the problem for the SP.
The SP clearly positions itself on the (extreme) left of the political spectrum, and as such is a safe haven for anyone who feels that the PvdA has veered too much to the centre. Thus it competes with the PvdA and to a lesser degree with GL and D66 — so much is clear.
In the 2006 elections the SP became the second party in the two southern provinces, behind the CDA but ahead of the PvdA. It has always been strong in the south, but it will be interesting to see whether it can retain this second place. The election of southerner Roemer as party leader may certainly help here.
The really interesting part of this equation is that the SP also competes with the PVV. Many (though not all) protest voters were left-leaning originally, but felt abandoned by a PvdA that squashed all criticism of immigration in the eighties and nineties. For these left leaners, the SP is an interesting alternative because it’s still genuinely left-wing and has been mildly anti-immigration since the eigthies, when it was not yet fashionable. Also, some protest voters don’t really care for Wilders’s anti-Islam rhetoric.
The great unknown in this calculation is new party leader Roemer. In the short term he will certainly win some seats back in the polls: new leaders are always allowed a period of grace in which they are rather popular. But that period will end before the elections.
Summarising, I think the SP will lose some seats to the PvdA and GL this time, not because the PvdA has truly returned to its left-wing position but because Bos’s gamble with the government crisis is working out really well, and he can cast the elections as a race between himself and Balkenende. Certainly many non-protest SP voters are sensitive to these arguments.
Still, the real question is whether the SP can keep its grip on the protest voters, or whether they’ll cross over to Wilders. My current guesstimate is that they will mostly stay with the SP, which means the party will lose some seats to Wilders, but not a whole lot of them.
Coalition-wise the position of the SP is unclear. In theory it has most to gain from a broad left-wing coalition. Kant more-or-less demanded it from the PvdA, while Roemer more diplomatically stated he wants to cooperate with any progressive party, which in the end amounts to pretty much the same. However, the left probably won’t get a majority in parliament.
Will the SP want to join a CDA+PvdA coalition? Negotiations failed in 2006, but back then the party was taken by surprise by its huge growth, and it was strategically more appealing to push the PvdA into government while the SP remained safe in the opposition. In 2010 it will definitely be more prepared for this complicated puzzle. Besides, the SP does not want to remain an eternal opposition party.
If the PvdA doesn’t enter the coalition, the only true possibility for the SP is a coalition with the CDA, but it’s totally unclear whether either SP or CDA feels like it. Even if they do, such a coalition would be an invitation to the PvdA, situated right between SP and CDA, to wage opposition “from the centre.” Besides, such a coalition would need another medium-large party. D66? GL? Too few seats. D66+GL? Might still not be enough.
An interesting little factoid about Roemer is that on a local level he was part of a coalition with the VVD. Now this solution is certainly not the most obvious one, and local politics are less polarised than national politics, but it’s still a thing to keep in mind.
Right now I’m unable to solve the coalition puzzle for the SP. It seems it’s headed for another spell in opposition — unless it’s willing to govern together with the CDA.
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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.