The 26 May debate

Yesterday the leaders of the eight largest parties debated on the economy. It was a tightly-led debate with a distinctly less weird format than usual, and it allowed all eight participants to shine a few times — or fail to do so, but that was their own fault.

The eight party leaders

From left to right: Rutte (VVD), Roemer (SP), Balkenende (CDA), Cohen (PvdA), Pechtold (D66), Wilders (PVV), Halsema (GL), Rouvoet (CU). Note the colour coding in Roemer’s and Cohen’s ties and Halsema’s dress.

In general the right followed a different strategy than the left. Balkenende, Rutte, and Wilders were clearly aiming at winning away each other’s voters, and attacked each other, with Rutte being quite efficient against Balkenende. Each sought to persuade the right-wing voters that he was more right-wing than the other two.

Cohen, Pechtold, Halsema, and Roemer, on the other hand, tended to spare each other and aimed their arrows at the right, especially Rutte. Their aim was to emerge as champion of the left against the onslaught of the right-wing hordes, and thus attract voters from the three others. Initially Cohen was cast for this role, but his weak performance leaves him vulnerable, something the other three seek to profit from.

As to Rouvoet, he attacked the CDA, which is the only party the CU shares voters with, but I’m not sure he succeeded and Balkenende ignored him.

(Sources: Trouw | Volkskrant)

A post-debate poll, which asked who won the debate, gave the following result:

  1. Rutte (VVD) 23%
  2. Halsema (GL) 13%
  3. Roemer (SP) 12%
  4. Balkenende (CDA) and Cohen (PvdA) 11% each
  5. Pechtold (D66) and Wilders (PVV) 10% each
  6. Rouvoet (CU) 4%
  7. Don’t know 6%

We’ll go through them in this order.


All in all Rutte is thought to have won the debate, again. Being the frontrunner he was attacked by all others. He effortlessly defended himself, kept to his standpoints and presented them efficiently, and in the end none of the attacks really succeeded. Meanwhile he got in a good attack or two against his closest competitor Balkenende.

What remains to be seen is whether the CDA will drop again, or at the very least stay stable, in the polls. The latest batch tend to show that the VVD’s upswing has ended, and that the CDA might start one instead. This is dangerous, especially where the CDA is concerned. It remains the safe haven for frightened centrist voters, and has a curious attraction when these voters are actually in the polling station, as opposed to participating in a poll.

If the VVD retains an 8-to-12-seat gap between itself and the CDA, Rutte will have done very well indeed.


Halsema surprisingly came second in the polls. Personally I do not understand this, because she singularly failed to impress me. In the end GL retains aspects of a witness party that I find distasteful but apparently resonate with its electorate. The party is supposed to claim moral superiority, and Halsema did so again last night. I was considering voting for GL, but have now decided not to.

But the polls are not to be denied, and Halsema seems to have made a good impression. And admittedly, she did manage to get GL in the spotlights, attack Rutte a bit, and even make a joke at the expense of Wilders: she congratulated him with this creativity in bringing up immigration even in an economic debate.

She was asked whether she’d prefer a VVD+CDA+GL or a PvdA+VVD+D66 coalition, and she succsefully managed not to answer the question while appearing to answer it. Since GL is quite high on the list of coalition-worthy parties, the question is pertinent: what will GL do when confronted with a choice between power in a centre-right government and a more progressive government without GL?

Combine her decent showing with her second place in the poll, and this debate may net GL one or two seats extra.


This was new SP leader Roemer’s first national debate, and he acquitted himself splendidly. His excellent performance, which combined a clear presentation of the SP’s main points with humour, surprised everybody.

When asked if he didn’t think the SP’s current 9 seats in the polls was a bit disappointing compared with the 25 seats in parliament, he replied “I’ve had this splendid job for eight weeks now, and nobody can accuse me of having peaked too soon.” Later he compared Rutte to a “reverse Robin Hood, robbing the poor to give to the rich,” which just might be the most efficient attack Rutte received until now.

Roemer also called Rutte’s and Balkenende’s nonsense when they got into a debate on the mortgage interest tax deductability. (Incidentally, this is an instance where Dutch is the more efficient language; “hypotheekrenteaftrek” or “the H word” is better than the cumbersome English here.)

Balkenende has declared that any change to the current situation is a breakpoint for the CDA, and again invited Rutte to declare the same. Rutte again refused, just as he did last Sunday.

At that point Roemer got into the fray, declaring that it was clear CDA and VVD were already engaged, and drew laughs. Again an efficient attack.

All in all Roemer’s superior performance may have netted the SP a seat or three, and has clearly put it on the map as the left-wing alternative to the PvdA. And Roemer showed just enough protest party characteristics to maybe, just maybe, draw back some originally left-wing Wilders voters.


Balkenende was his old self: mushy, centrist, undecided, and vague. (I should add that I don’t like him much, but that part of the electorate loves a vague centrist; see also the CDA’s continuous success in Dutch politics.)

Balkenende’s problem is that he has been prime minister for the past eight years, and that few people are truly happy with the way the country has been ruled in that time. This was the main attack line for Rutte, and to a lesser extent the left-wing leaders. Balkenende did not really mount a convincing defense.

Pechtold (D66) attacked him on his housing policies, and added that he didn’t see any room for negotiation with Balkenende, but maybe another CDA leader would offer a compromise. Not good for Balkenende.

He also hedged and demurred when he was asked whether he’d be willing to serve in another capacity than prime minister. He was quite vague, and replied that he’d filled out the internal CDA form that states that he’s willing to sit out the entire parliamentary period, but that otherwise his position was something between him and the CDA leadership.

When the interviewer, who is a woman, pressed him to make a clearer statement, Balkenende replied “You’re looking so sweet.” This remark is currently causing him problems; some women (and also men) feel that this was a borderline sexist remark, and Balkenende is already known for his interest in the female side of the world. It remains to be seen whether this minor scandal dies down soon or continues to haunt Balkenende.

(Source: Parool)

In any case, he was slightly weaker than last Sunday. The problem here is that I just cannot place myself in the shoes of a CDA voters, so I can’t tell whether his performance hurt him or helped him position himself as a moderate centrist leader. So I don’t dare to predict how the CDA will do in the next polls. Might go down a bit more, might go up a bit. And if the latter happens, the CDA just might end up the largest party of the country after all.


Cohen was slightly less weak than last Sunday, but that’s about it. He started the debate badly, but in the last quarter or so he rallied and attacked Rutte somewhat coherently.

Again, Cohen could not mention the income at which people would have to pay more for their health insurance. However, later on, when Halsema couldn’t remember the money that was going to be raised by increasing the top income tax, Cohen supplied the figure and added “It’s very important we know these figures by heart,” which drew a laugh.

All in all this self-depreciation helped him end the debate slightly stronger than he started it. Still, he again disappointed and I don’t doubt this is going to cost the PvdA some seats, seats that will end up with the other left-wing parties.


Speaking about self-depreciation, Wilders did that, too.

Wait a minute. Froth-mouthed Wilders? Self-depreciating?

Yup, it’s true. I wouldn’t have believed it if somebody told me, but I saw it with my very own eyes. Wilders made some slight jokes at his own expense.

He brought up the immigration theme twice, even though the debate was about the economy. He was efficiently killed by the moderator both times, and the audience responded by laughter. Clever Wilders, bringing up his very own theme!

When he tried for the third time, he started by saying he’d expect some laughter, and made his point to the general hilarity of the audience.

Later, when he was asked whether he could imagine that many people didn’t want him for prime minister, he replied theatrically that he didn’t understand that at all. Laughter again.

Thus Wilders worked around the fact that he doesn’t know anything about the economy. Besides, he again defended his crazy mix of left-wing and right-wing ideas without any hint of discomfort. Say what you want, the man is a pro.

But will his performance help him? In any case he didn’t make serious mistakes, and he managed to sneak immigration in. Besides, the PVV is leveling out in the polls, it seems that his drop has ended. Whether this debate will help him climb upward again is uncertain.

Any upward climb should go at the expense of VVD first, maybe CDA, and the SP as possible third victim. But Rutte and Roemer did quite well and probably aren’t very vulnerable to Wilders right now. The CDA is a different matter, but in general it doesn’t communicate directly with the PVV, but only through the VVD. So on balance I’d say that Wilders has confirmed his stabilisation, but hasn’t made noticeable inroads among potential voters who currently support another party.


Pechtold had a moderately good debate. He didn’t shine, but made his points, and quite frankly he impressed me with his ideas, though less with his presentation. So I might not be entirely objective when it comes to Pechtold; I’m currently thinking of switching my vote to him again.

When asked about the prime-ministership he replied that it has happened before that a smaller party delivers the prime minister (which is true, but only before 1972). He also reiterated that he himself would stay in parliament no matter what and would lead the party from there. Again, this is something I like.

What Pechtold did very clearly was call for reform in the housing market, both when it comes to restricting the mortgage deduction and increasing the rents. This was the point on which he attacked VVD and especially CDA, who reject any hint of housing reform. He also said that he would not participate in a government that rejected reform.

This was a clear message to the CDA: don’t count on D66. Simultaneously, he made it clear that he thought Rutte would be amenable to discussion on this topic. All this should be seen in the light of his preference for Purple-Green (PvdA+VVD+D66+GL), a preference he explicitly repeated later in the debate.

Will his performance win him some seats? Possibly, but mostly because the PvdA is sliding down and its voters have to go somewhere. What I’d really like to know is if he convinced any right-wing voters. Frankly I don’t think so. When asked whether he preferred Cohen or Rutte as prime minister, he demurred a bit but eventually said that his heart beat on the left, and therefore he preferred Cohen. A clear message, but not one to delight the hearts and minds of right-wing voters.


Rouvoet was clearly the weakest of the eight, coming over as a technocratic administrator. This might have been deliberate: he wanted to show the CU, too, is a coalition-worthy party. The penultimate election debate is not the proper forum for that, though. The after-debate on election night is more like it.

Still, Rouvoet has the narrowest potential electorate of all eight, and his arguments may have resonated with voters who hesitate between CDA and CU. It sure didn’t look that way, though.


With all that said, what are the net results for the eight parties?

<— Cohen apologises for errors and changes | Undecideds in the polls —>

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.


Comments (closed)

1 Posted by Bryan on 27 May 2010 | Permalink

Thanks for your impressions of the debates in English, very informative.

Question: if VVD wins most seats; GL does well; and “Yes we Cohen” becomes “No he couldn’t” is there a chance for a Centre-right coalition of:


It would be new and different. CU likes it in the Cabinet; and GL would like to be the new D66.

2 Posted by Raphael on 28 May 2010 | Permalink

Thanks for writing that up! Kind of weird that they're mostly standing as tight as communters in a crammed bus, with, for instance, Wilders flanked by his two worst enemies, and noone starting a fight.

3 Posted by ppk on 28 May 2010 | Permalink

@bryan: Yes, this coalition appeared on my radar about a week ago and I added it to the polls page. I don't think it's a very likely one, but it's certainly a possibility.

@raphael: The photo was taken pre- or post-debate. During the debate one party leader occupied one of the boxes that you see in the foreground, and they had some more personal space.

4 Posted by Bryan on 28 May 2010 | Permalink

Thanks for the reminder about the Poll page, it’s great.

In America the last two weeks is all about rallying voter turnout in the 12 to 15 swing states that will decide the election. Motivating your base and hoping the limited number of undecided voters at this point who will bother to vote, get caught up in the enthusiasm of your party and want to help with victory. Also, most states have a form of early voting that can start a month before the election.

So in America it’s not too early to vote, or in this case to pick your favorite coalition. Based in large measure on the excellent information posted on this blog I hope a new coalition will emerge over the next couple of months:

Centre-Green-Christian( not just Protestant -CDA needs every Catholic voter it can get.)

For this to happen (hypothetically) I would change from voting CDA to VVD as this coalition can only be pulled off if Rutte or Balkenende are PM. The polls can’t be that far off, so Balkenende is finished.

5 Posted by Bryan on 28 May 2010 | Permalink

Also, why “Centre-Green-Christian (VVD+CDA+GL+CU)” can happen is:

Interchange environment with church and the GL and CU have more in common than most parties. Also, GL by co-opting D66’s original reform idea of abolishing Senate may even accomplish political reform.

Rutte will have an easy time working with the CDA, not only because it is the CDA (a fair criticism consistently leveled by this blog), but even more so, due to the power vacuum post--Balkenende. The CU is even easier, small leadership ranks with the taste of Cabinet leadership.

Finally, (and this is almost too easy) Rutte gets to promise clean air and water paid for by tax reducing incentives to strong businesses and the cost savings of no First Chamber to GL. No fair wage distribution agenda, but real change no other “second tier” party has ever been able to accomplish in modern times.

6 Posted by Richard Gadsden on 28 May 2010 | Permalink

When we had hypotheekrenteaftrek in Britain, we called it MIRAS - mortgage interest relief at source. It was abolished about 20 years ago, but there used to be a sensible name for it.

7 Posted by ppk on 29 May 2010 | Permalink

@bryan: You're correct that GL and CU would fit well together. Still, GL would be in a tough spot as the only left-wing party in a mostly right-wing government, and it would make some demands.

Now that everybody's talking about a VVD+CDA+? coalition it might actually make sense for D66 to refuse a coalition, since it is the most obvious alternative for disgruntled moderate right-wing voters in the next elections, and should stay out of government.

That makes VVD+CDA+GL+CU all the more likely.

8 Posted by Bryan on 29 May 2010 | Permalink

Just read Femke Halsema’s alleged comment “she would have kneed Jan Peter in the groin”, if he had called her “sweet” as he did the debate moderator.

Balkenenede correctly apologized, while Femke pasted over too many good quips which would have shown potential statewomenship, something she apparently has done before. What, people are suppose to vote GL because she has “street toughness”. If Rutte and Pechtold can work it out, D66 might be the better coalition partner to form the Right-Centre- Christian- Intellectual/Humanist coalition.