The local elections and their consequences

On Wednesday Dutch voted for their local councils, and the result is interesting. SP leader Kant resigns, Wilders’s PVV the largest party in one city, PvdA and CDA lose, D66 wins.

Before we continue, one housekeeping note: I will be away for the weekend, and there will be no updates to this blog. Publication will resume on Monday.

Local election results

In the 2006 local elections the PvdA won hugely, far more than expected, while the CDA lost somewhat and the VVD heavily. VVD party leader Van Aartsen resigned as a result of this, which led to the internal struggle between Rutte and Verdonk.

Because of the 2006 results, everybody expected the PvdA to lose some seats. They just wouldn’t be able to keep to the same level even in a good year; and to date this years isn’t very good for the PvdA. Still, they managed to contain their losses and remain the largest party in quite a few cities, among which Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Den Haag. We’ll get back to the latter two in a bit.

Thus the PvdA lost heavily but not quite as badly as people had thought, the VVD won a bit, but not enough to make good on their 2006 losses. The CDA also lost slightly, and in fact that may be the most important trend in the local elections. The CDA used to be very large, especially in small towns and the countryside, but this position is gradually eroding.

The local parties without any ties to national politics also won; this, too, is a general trend that we’ve seen in the past few local elections. Many of these local voters will vote CDA in the national elections, by the way.

D66 was the biggest winner, but the Democrats couldn’t really have done any worse than in 2006. Them becoming the largest party in two large cities, Haarlem and Leiden, was unexpected. Still, I’m wondering if the Democrats have peaked too soon.

GL didn’t win all that many seats, but most of the ones they did win were quite strategic. For instance, they became the largest party in Utrecht, which was unexpected. More in general the GreenLefts have strengthened their position because they won slightly while eternal ally PvdA lost.

Measured in media attention, Geert Wilders’s PVV was also a big winner. Wilders had decided to participate only in two cities: Den Haag, the seat of government, and Almere, a new city in the polder that has long been known for the relative strength of the extreme right.

Wilders took this decision for organisational reasons; there was no way he could have gathered enough good local candidates to participate in even 50 of the about 400 council elections. He wisely decided to concentrate his forces on battlefields of his own picking.

In Almere the PVV became the largest party; in Den Haag it became second after the PvdA, who had sent national heavyweight Jeltje van Nieuwenhoven to head the local party in these times of trouble. According to Dutch custom the PVV can now take the coalition initiative in Almere, but the PvdA in Den Haag.

ToN, the vehicle for Rita Verdonk, participated in many council elections and won quite a few seats. The problem is that ToN candidates will turn out to be unreliable because they have hardly been vetted. I expect ToN council members to become the laughingstock of the country in short order. It’s exactly to avoid such a scenario that Wilders decided to run in only two races.

Locally, three sets of negotiations are worth watching: Almere, Den Haag, and Rotterdam.

Races to watch - Almere

In Almere the PVV has to take the initiative. Second-largest PvdA has immediately excluded the PVV, which means that the PVV will have to talk to third-largest VVD. In itself, this is perfectly possible. Of the national parties, the VVD is the only one that has never excluded the PVV, and although negotiations will become tough, some sort of agreement is likely.

The point is that PVV+VVD is not enough. The two parties will have to find not one but two other parties in order to obtain a majority, most likely CDA and local Leefbaar Almere (of which I know nothing, by the way). Not only will the negotiations with the other two parties be quite complicated, but a four-party government is inherently less stable than a three- or a two-party one.

Besides, there’s a lot at stake for Wilders here. This is the very first time that his party has to show it cannot only wage opposition and shout a lot about immigration and Islam, but also take government responsibility. If the Almere negotiations were to fail, Wilders will pay a price in the national elections. The other parties know that, and will negotiate hard. Besides, all other parties have an alternative, while Wilders hasn’t. He’ll have to do a lot of concessions here.

The problem is that these concessions will come from exactly his main talking points. Wilders wanted to prohibit Islamic headdresses in public buildings, but all other parties have deemed that unacceptable. Thus it’s likely that Wilders has to drop this demand. The problem is that such demands are extremely important for his angry, frightened voters and that him caving in here might have serious consequences.

Wilders is in a very tough spot in Almere, and his success or failure here may have huge consequences for the June national elections.

Races to watch - Den Haag

In themselves, the coalition negotiations in Den Haag are not very interesting. The PvdA will take the initiative and form either a left-wing or a centre-left government without the PVV.

Still, the Den Haag negotiations may potentially offset any negative publicity from the Almere negotiations. Here Wilders is safe in the opposition and can rant against the left block to his heart’s content. If Almere fails, the PVV can use Den Haag as a balance.

Races to watch - Rotterdam

In Rotterdam the race went between the PvdA and local party Leefbaar Rotterdam. LR is the last remaining shard of Pim Fortuyn’s political empire; he founded the party, was its first leader, and led it to the historical 2002 victory, when the PvdA was banished from the halls of power and a LR-led coalition took over.

Even more suprisingly, LR has not folded after the Fortuyn revolution dimmed. In the 2006 elections it lost from the PvdA, but easily remained the second party in Rotterdam, and went into the opposition. This is all as it’s supposed to be — Leefbaar Rotterdam has shown to be a normal Dutch party.

In the 2010 elections, the PvdA lost while LR remained stable. In fact, both parties won 14 of the 45 seats in the Rotterdam council, and the difference between them was only 600 or so votes in the advantage of the PvdA. Custom is very clear on this point: as the largest party, the PvdA may take the initiative in coalition negotiations.

Still, exactly because it was such a close race we might see problems here. LR has requested a recount, which, all things considered, seems to be a good idea. It’s very important to determine the exact relative strengths of the two competitors.

The problem in Rotterdam is potential polarisation. The LR voters will become disappointed, and nationally they have an obvious supporter in Wilders (who in fact advised his Rotterdam voters to go for Leefbaar Rotterdam).

The debate

Six national party leaders held a debate on election night. Wilders was absent; he’d chosen to celebrate in Almere. Although that’s probably not a huge problem this once, Wilders shouldn’t make a habit of this.

That left Balkenende (CDA), Bos (PvdA), Pechtold (D66), Rutte (VVD), Halsema (GL), and Kant (SP). This was the very first time Balkenende and Bos met each other personally since the fall of government, and it was clear that they weren’t too pleased with each other.

It’s clear that Balkenende and Bos want to re-cast the elections as a prime-minister race between the two of them. Thus, both of them will be able to steal votes from other parties in their block. The PvdA will suck D66, GL, and the SP dry; the CDA will do the same to the VVD.

This mechanism is nothing new; in fact, these elections would become the third race between Balkenende and Bos. Balkenende won in both 2003 and 2006, but he’s in a lousy position now and might conceivably lose.

Obviously, the smaller parties aren’t too happy with this. VVD leader Rutte launched a new attack: “choose between Bos and Balkenende, and you’ll get them both.” GL leader Halsema repeated this attack later.

After the last prime-minister race CDA and PvdA cooperated in government; the government that fell two weeks ago. So what’s the point in choosing between them? That might be a promising attack line for the smaller parties.

Balkenende had announced that he’s only interested in becoming prime minister. That is, he excluded becoming a minister under prime minister Bos (or Wilders), and he also excluded leading the CDA in opposition. It was Halsema, especially, who attacked him on that, and what’s usually a CDA strength may become a weakness in this campaign. Balkenende just isn’t that convincing any more, and everybody wonders whether people will go vote just to retain him as prime minister. Balkenende may have made a tactical error here.

Nobody but Kant said anything about preferred coalitions after the elections. That’s probably wise; nobody yet knows how new parliament will look and which strange combinations might become necessary.

Still, when pressed by the other parties Balkenende stated that, although the CDA never ever excludes any party from coalition negotiations, he saw significant problems in negotiating with Wilders. This is the closest the CDA has come to excluding the PVV, and it leaves the VVD as the single large party that hasn’t excluded Wilders in any way.

The debate was also about the potential problems in creating a coalition. Various party leaders were attacked because they either excluded people (Wilders) or refused to state their own preference (Bos and Pechtold). This is nothing particularly new, but with Wilders playing spoiler on the right the coalition question is quite important.

Besides, it allowed Halsema to deplore the potential ungovernability of the country in the role of wise woman above the parties. This is a relatively new role for her, but she brought it off well and she has clearly grown in this debate. I might have to revise my GL forecast upward.

Only SP leader Kant called for a left-wing block and attacked Bos on being unclear about this, and called on Pechtold to make a choice between left and right. Of course Pechtold won’t; if the CDA goes down, D66 will partly inherit its position as the centre party, and that position is the most valuable in Dutch politics.

More in general, Kant did badly in this debate. She was far too ferocious and humorless, and at one point Pechtold even asked her to calm down, and made it sound as if he talked to a child.

Consequences

Yesterday Kant drew the ultimate conclusion from her bad performance and stepped down as SP party leader. Emile Roemer, a virtual unknown, was elected her successor by the parliamentary fraction. Whether he will also become party leader in the elections will be decided by the party congress, but the likely answer is Yes.

Kant’s stepping down is good for the SP, no doubt about that. Still, many had hoped that charismatic former party leader Marijnissen would return to the political arena. That would have moved about five seats from PVV to SP overnight. Marijnissen decided not to; for reasons of health as well as for the good of the party. It’s not good if a party is dependent entirely on its leader, and the time has come to hand over leadership to a younger generation.

Whether Roemer is the right choice remains to be seen. He can’t be as bad as Kant, though.

Simultaneously, the leadership struggle in the CDA is also rising again. A recent poll showed that 25% of CDA voters had enough of Balkenende, and his performance in the recent spate of debates was decidedly lacklustre. He repeats his old mantras time and again, but it seems their Best-Before date has been reached.

It is rumoured that the CDA leaders will convene on Monday to discuss the party leadership. More in general, this would be the best time to switch leaders. The local elections have come and gone, and a new CDA leader still has three months in order to draw the party from the morass. If the switch is postponed, however, a new CDA leader would have a much tougher job. So I expect a decision to be taken quickly. If Balkenende is still CDA leader a week from now he’ll remain in that position until after the elections.

<— Party profile — D66 | Wilders in UK —>

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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