The 23 May debate

Sunday I watched the first debate in this election cycle, and here’s my report. It was slated as a “prime minister debate,” and as a result only four party leaders participated: Cohen (PvdA), Balkenende (CDA), Rutte (VVD), and Wilders (PVV).

As Dutch debates go this one was fairly well formatted: five topics (immigration, the economy, deductability of mortgage interests, health care, and leadership) were treated in a fairly uniform way. The only odd feature was that each of the four candidates had the right to challenge one other candidate for a one-on-one debate once.

Also, the immigration topic came first, which was a good idea. It allows Wilders to shout a bit about his favourite theme, and then subside into incoherence about the economy, of which he knows nothing. (Neither does Cohen, by the way.)

I wasn’t very impressed with Cohen’s performance. A poll taken just after the debate puts Cohen in second place after Rutte, but before Balkenende and Wilders. I wonder if that’s because Cohen was the only candidate from the left, and some viewers agreed with his substance more than with his form.

Wilders

Wilders was in good form, but he failed to say anything new. Usually he has at least one new word joke ready (usually against the PvdA), but on Sunday he didn’t. Still, the only thing he needs to do is repeat his standpoints; his voters don’t expect anything new from him.

Wilders dominated the immigration theme, obviously, and clearly had the better of Cohen, who tried, and failed, to oppose Wilders. During a one-on-one between the two Wilders walked away leaving Cohen in mid-sentence. Arrogant, that. Still, it shows what he (and his voters) think of the PvdA.

A nasty question for Wilders was about the pension age. One of the possibilities being discussed in the press is a CDA+VVD minority government, which Wilders would support from parliament. The question was whether Wilders would still be willing to do so if the minority government decided to increase the pension age, Wilders’s sole break-point.

Wilders hedged and turned, and in the end answered he’d try to keep the pension age the same “with arguments.” This was not an answer to the question, but I translate it as a Yes.

Economy-wise Wilders has no clue what he’s talking about. He has to defend his crazy mish-mash of left-wing and right-wing talking points. He wants to economise without actually economising, it seems. No increase of the pension age, more police officers and health care workers, but where is the money supposed to come from? Wilders says that immigration costs € 7 billion per year, but even if that’s true and immigration is stopped, it won’t help much.

But his voters don’t want him for his economic knowledge.

Cohen attacked Wilders vehemently on his immigration stance. Rutte and Balkenende were much milder; the latter said he agreed with Wilders’s analysis of the problem, but not with his solutions. It’s clear that CDA and VVD want to keep the option of a coalition with the PVV open.

In any case Wilders and Cohen formally excluded each other once more during this debate. No surprises there.

Cohen

I found Cohen pretty weak, although the poll shows that not everybody agrees with me. The problem was that Wilders gets under his skin, and that Wilders knows this full well and places barb after barb with malicious pleasure.

Cohen seems out of his depth in debates; he’s always had an executive job and isn’t used to somebody disagreeing with him. No doubt he’ll be a good prime minister, but he’s not really a debater.

(A friend I watched with pointed out that the opposite holds true for Balkenende: he’s a fair debater, having been through a lot of it in his career, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a good prime minister.)

Cohen made mistakes. He challenged Wilders for a one-on-one just after Wilders had challenged him. Again they threw meaningless numbers at each other, and I wasn’t too impressed. Still, Cohen had his strongest line of the entire debate here when he said he didn’t trust Wilders to maintain the rule of law.

Cohen didn’t have a good reply when Balkenende and Rutte attacked him because the PvdA has changed its programme several times in the last few weeks after calculations had proven them wrong.

He also faltered when he was asked for the exact income above which people would have to pay extra for health care. Not good.

Rutte

Rutte was strong, well prepared, and very clear in his presentation, although Cohen once told him this wasn’t a student debating club. He was clearest on the economy: he wants to reduce the deficit as quickly as possible. The other three agreed that the economic situation was grave, but were vaguer about exactly what they wanted to do.

An interesting moment came with the tax deductability of mortgage interests. Recently the CDA has declared this is a breakpoint: full deductability will remain in place. Balkenende reiterated that during the debate, adding that this was the very first time the CDA every formulated a breakpoint. He more-or-less invited Rutte to also declare himself.

Rutte replied that he didn’t need to make something a breakpoint; the voters knew the VVD kept its word when it said it wouldn’t touch full deductability. This was a strong moment, as far as I’m concerned.

Rutte was also the only one who didn’t state categorically he wanted to become prime minister. Balkenende, Cohen, and Wilders made that very clear, but Rutte said that he’d become prime minister in “normal circumstances.” When pressed to describe other circumstances, Rutte replied that he could imagine he’d lead the VVD from parliament in case a complicated four-party coalition became necessary (or, he didn’t add, with Wilders). But if a “normal” government could be formed, he’d happily lead it.

Again, Rutte showed agility, openness, and conviction.

What he didn’t show was any marked interest in Purple. He reiterated that he saw little chance to come to an agreement with the PvdA, and made clear openings to the CDA. Point is, even if it in fact is his favourite coalution Rutte can’t afford to enthousiastically embrace Purple. First the CDA has to go down, drawn apart by the growing polarisation between PvdA and VVD. This classic tactic worked back in the early seventies, when the CDA’s predecessors lost about a third of their voters.

Besides, in all CDA+VVD coalitions CDA has always been the dominant partner. Older VVD members will surely remember how CDA leader and prime minister Lubbers dumped them back in 1989 and went with the PvdA instead. What better revenge than a new VVD+CDA government with the VVD as the clearly dominant partner?

So on the coalition front Rutte gave a clear message, too.

Balkenende

All things considered Balkenende didn’t do that badly. Although he was attacked by both Cohen and Rutte for being too centrist, he defended himself competently, if uninspiredly.

Meanwhile Rutte and Cohen aimed their arrows at each other, and more or less ignored Balkenende. This is consistent with their current strategy of casting the elections as a race between PvdA and VVD, but it does give Balkenende the opportunity to play the statesman. He doesn’t quite seem to have succeeded this time, but he’ll have other opportunities.

Rutte and Balkenende argued a bit about coalitions. We’ve already seen how Rutte casts the CDA as willing to work with the PvdA, but Balkenende replied by pointing out his second government, which was with VVD and D66. This immediately made Cohen react that this government, like the others, did not serve for the full four years.

Later on, when asked what was his most serious error as a leader, Balkenende got his own back by replying “trusting the PvdA.”

Balkenende still has lots of problems, of which the most pernicious is that he isn’t seen as a leader and statesman. (CU leader Rouvoet already said that as prime minister Balkenende was led more by party interests than the national interest). Although he hasn’t notably improved his position in this debate, at least he didn’t make any mistakes and the CDA will likely not suffer from his performance.

<— The Senate | Polls and coalition update —>

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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