How to discuss coalition preferences

D66 leader Pechtold gives a brilliant example of how to discuss your coalition preferences without actually discussing your coalition preferences. This is the bit the Brits should practice before switching to a new electoral system.

In an interview Pechtold proposed that parties would state their coalition preferences before the elections. Thus voters would know what they’d get when they vote for a party.

Stating your preferences

Pechtold’s idea is not new. Back in the early seventies, PvdA, D66, and PPR formed a coalition before the elections, and presented themselves as the alternative to the rule of the tired old christian parties. They copied the UK concept of a shadow government, and cooperated closely in their opposition to a coalition of the three christian parties and the VVD, later reinforced by DS70 (don’t ask).

The christian parties KVP (catholic), ARP and CHU (protestant) did the same and formed a christian-democratic alliance, but to them it was not so much free choice, but a question of hang together or hang separately. They were hemorrhaging seats back then, and eventually responded to the crisis of losing one third their voters by merging into the CDA.

In 1972 the progressive coalition became larger than the three christian one, which led to the curious Den Uyl minority government. This was the first election that was more or less won by a previously announced coalition — although the progressives didn’t get an outright majority and needed cooperation from the KVP and ARP left wings.

The progressive coalition fell into disuse because the other left-wing parties became afraid of the PvdA, which sucked the rest of the left dry in the 1977 elections. A merger was discussed but the small parties demurred when the PvdA became too large.

The only time a previously announced coalition won the elections outright was 1986. CDA and VVD clearly stated they wanted to continue their coalition, and the voters rewarded them by keeping them stable at 81 seats, although the CDA:VVD ratio changed from 5:4 to 6:3.

Nowadays the idea is floated sometimes on the left. Just before the 2006 elections, party leaders Bos (PvdA), Marijnissen (SP) and Halsema (GL) famously had a cup of coffee together, which led to whispers about a progressive block.

Two months back SP leader Roemer proposed a progressive coalition, although it was unclear whether he also intended D66 to participate.

In both cases the PvdA responded by a deafening silence. That’s logical. If the PvdA wants to be the largest party by a comfortable margin it must treat the other left-wing parties as prey, and not as allies.

And now Pechtold raises coalition preferences again, and calls upon everybody in general to state them. What he did not do was state his own coalition preferences — at least, not right out in the open.

That’s logical. D66 wants to keep its hands free. Despite dropping from 18 to 12 seats in the polls the party might still occupy the sweet spot in the centre of Dutch coalition politics after the elections, and one thing it should not do is bind its own hands in advance.

Incidentally, the same applies to all other Dutch parties, which is the most important reason coalition preferences are never discussed before the elections. Not openly, at least.

Pechtold’s message

Still, Pechtold dropped some pretty clear hints. He stated that, although he disagreed with them, GL and the VVD have clear election programmes. On the other hand, he said, he still didn’t know what PvdA and CDA wanted.

Translation: D66 is quite willing to talk to GL and VVD, and expects negotiations to be constructive (a holy grail of coalition politics). Contrarily, PvdA and CDA are vague, and you will have no way of knowing what kind of coalition they’ll concoct. Vote D66 and you will know — kind of ... if you can read between the lines.

His attack on PvdA and CDA is a straightforward attack on D66’s two main electoral competitors — PvdA because its the biggest reservoir of potential D66-voters, CDA because it’s down and confused, and might be easy prey.

Still, Pechtold’s praise of GL and the VVD is the meat of the matter. Is Pechtold proposing a liberal front? D66 and VVD are both liberal, and although GL’s roots are unabashedly socialist, party leader Halsema is steering it in the direction of left-wing liberalism. (Incidentally, D66 already occupies that slot in the Dutch political system. It remains unclear how GL proposes to deal with that fact.)

Of course this liberal front (which probably won’t materialise) will not win a majority in parliament. For that they need ... wait for it ... PvdA or CDA!

I tend to see Pechtold’s remarks as a pretty broad hint that he prefers a renewed Purple coalition. PvdA+VVD+D66 now wins a majority in both polls, and even in my dampened average.

In itself this is no surprise: D66 has always been the most outspoken proponent of a coaltion without the christian-democrats, and in 1994 they actually carried the prize home and broke 76 years of christian-democratic hegemony. (As sympathisers of the Purple concept do not tire of noting, the CDA and its predecessors have been in power for slightly longer than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.)

Still, in the polls the three parties get only 76 (or 77) seats, so reinforcement might be in order. GL is the most obvious candidate. The Green-Lefts are pantingly eager for government participation, and it could be that the cards fall right for them this year, just as they did for orthodox-protestant CU in 2006. And Pechtold, at least, is perfectly willing to consider them.

Thus Pechtold stated his coalition preference without actually stating a coalition preference. Deft.

Pechtold sends one further subtle message: D66 can cooperate with both the left (GL) and the right (VVD). It is a true centre party, and will end up in government. Your vote will not be wasted.

This is again a sly barb at the CDA, which traditionally takes the centre position in Dutch politics but is currently indisposed. They may heal before the elections — christian-democrats are a hardy lot when it comes to staying in power. Still, it can’t hurt to try to lure away some centrist voters.

Awaiting response

Anyway, in a few words Pechtold has sent a quite complex message to voters willing to listen. The message is not entirely clear (my analysis could be wrong), and it might be forgotten pretty quickly, but it’s lubricant in the tender engine of coalition forming. Besides, it might actually start discussion, if the other parties are willing to reply.

GL will make similar noises pretty soon: Purple-Green is their dream coalition and they’re quite willing to work with the Democrats.

The PvdA will probably remain silent, disdaining the small parties in order to focus on the big battle with the VVD (or the CDA after all?) during which both sides hope to suck the other parties in their own block dry.

What really matters here is the VVD’s reply — if any. It’s vitally necessary for a reborn Purple coalition, and I’m not yet sure if it’s in their interest. In general they prefer the CDA, but a right-wing coalition is impossible without Wilders. Or, possibly, with a lot of luck, D66.

And the CDA? Currently it does not matter — unless the VVD decides otherwise. An unusual and uncomfortable position for the all-powerful christian-democrats to be in.

<— New polls | Thoughts on the UK coalition —>

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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