Debate aftermath

Yesterday featured the first major TV debate between five party leaders. Rutte and Wilders had withdrawn, so only Buma (CDA), Pechtold (D66), Klaver (GL), Asscher (PvdA), and Roemer (SP) participated.

The two main questions were whether one of the left-wing leaders would take a decisive lead over the others, and thus become Rutte’s main opponent in the elections; and whether Rutte and Wilders were right or wrong in abstaining from the debate.

The centre

The second question is hard to answer. CDA leader Buma was supposed to profit from the absence of his right-wing competitors, and maybe he even did — let’s await the polls. Still, the economic and immigration segments suffered from the lack of the right-wing leaders. It’s all very well when the left-wing parties agree (and sometimes the CDA as well), but it would be useful if they could pile up on a right-wing opponent.

Buma played that part only up to a point. He was critical of immigration and integration, but agreed with the other four that islam in itself is not a threat to Dutch society; a question Wilders would have answered with Yes, and maybe Rutte would have done the same.

In general, Buma was maybe a bit too angry, although that is part of his debating style, and he is sometimes a very good debater. This time ... not so much. In his one-to-one with Pechtold, the D66 leader managed to disrupt Buma several times, and launched the debate’s best joke at Buma’s expense.

(What was the joke? Buma accused Pechtold of back room politics back in 2014 when Pechtold came to the aid of government. Pechtold said that he first had to dislodge a bunch of CDA people from those back rooms, where they’d been stuck since the fifties. The CDA being the ultimate back room party, this joke stung.)

Pechtold was generally considered the debate’s winner. He was very smooth and in great form, knew when to attack and when to hold back, and made an excellent impression. He also won all his one-on-one debates.

However, he has been very careful to reposition D66 as a true centre party and move away from the other left-wing parties. Thus he refuses to claim the position of left-wing hope against the rightists, instead continuing to opt for a centre position.

Pechtold wanted to win from Buma. He succeeded, and may become the Great Centrist Hope — a role that fits him very well.

The left

The other party leaders clearly saw GL leader Klaver as the biggest threat and tried to disrupt him — with some success. Klaver can hold an excellent speech, but he is clearly less at ease in a true debate. Interrupt him, and he loses track and takes a while to get back on it. Besides, he came across as over-eager, which reminds the voters of his relative youth (only 30).

Still, leave him to talk uninterrupted for a minute and you can see why some consider him the Great Left-wing Hope. In future debates the other party leaders should disrupt him more.

PvdA leader Asscher sounded very statesman-like, leaving the infighting to the others. However, his act broke down in the last half hour of the debate, when he continued repeating statesman-like but vague sentiments such as building connections without making any specific policy proposals. Statesman-like does not equate vague, and Asscher squandered his gains in that last half hour.

As to Roemer, his performance was a mixed bag. On the one hand he was not nearly as bad as had been feared, and he had a few cogent economic points to make (mainly: immigration is caused by poverty, as is opposition to immigration). The problem is that he took too long to make those points, rambled a bit when not making them, and made them too many times.

Personally I rank them Pechtold, then Klaver (if uninterrupted), then Buma, then Roemer, then Asscher (with Asscher taking the last place solely because of his weaknesses at the end).

A panel of (former) politicians voted Pechtold the best potential prime minister, followed by Asscher and Buma. Roemer and Klaver only got a few percent of their votes. Meanwhile, the viewers voted, in this order, Pechtold, Klaver, Buma, Roemer, Asscher.

Results

What will be the results of this debate? All in all I could see D66 winning a few seats, and possibly the PvdA as well — not because Asscher was so great, but because he reminded loyal PvdA voters what the party stands for. None of the others will lose many seats over this debate, though: the other three all made a passable effort that resonated with their voters.

Also, many left-wing voters have not made their decision yet, and they might use the debate to pick a party to vote for. This could move the left as a whole (now including D66) up a bit.

Finally, unless something changes radically in the next debate, there will be no overall left-wing leader, and thus no prime-minister race. A right-wing leader who wants to position himself as the one who’s keeping the leftists out needs a clear and convincing left-wing opponent. And there is none.

The next debate will be held next Sunday, 5th of March. Eight party leaders were invited: yesterday’s five, Wilders, Rutte, and the number eight in the polls: 50Plus leader Krol. However, Wilders withdrew, and number nine, CU leader Segers, is not about to debate on a Sunday. Therefore number ten, animal-rights PvdD leader Thieme, will join the debate — an unexpected bonus for her.

<— Wilders: Fortuyn killed by muslim | Small fry, 2 March —>

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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