The debate soap

Although a host of election debates will be held in the next seven weeks, there are only two that will be broadcast on national television, and traditionally these two debates have the largest impact on voters.

Also, we have been treated to a debate about the first debate for the past few weeks that was resolved today with a possible defeat for Wilders and Rutte.


On Sunday 26th of February, RTL (commercial broadcaster) will host its prime-minister debate. The name is of course nonsense; the Dutch elect their parliament, and not their prime minister. Still, since the leader of the largest coalition party will become prime minister, and the leaders of the largest parties will be present, there is one future prime minister among the participants.

The 2012 edition of this debate pitted two right-wingers, Wilders and VVD leader and current prime minister Rutte, against two left-wingers, SP leader Roemer and PvdA leader Samsom. Back then this made sense given the polls at the time: the four represented parties were going to be the largest ones, and the 2012 elections bore that out. More importantly, the debate was credited for then-PvdA leader Samsom’s remarkable come-back that led to the PvdA losing narrowly from the VVD instead of by a wide margin.

For these reasons the 2017 version is being hotly anticipated. But which party leaders would participate? It was decided that the average of the polls, in particular the Peilingwijzer statistical poll average created by political scientist Tom Louwerse, would inform that decision.

And that average is exactly the problem. PVV and VVD are In, no doubt about that. But what about the other two spots? CDA and the four left-wing parties are all within 12-18 seats, and, as Louwerse did not tire of reminding the media in the past few weeks, these differences fall well within the margin of error of the polls. The CDA is slightly ahead of the left-wing parties, but that might mean the RTL debate will feature three right-wing leaders and only one left-wing leader. That’s not a very good representation of the Dutch vote.

Therefore RTL announced it was looking at increasing the number of parties, possibly to five or six. That would still leave one left-wing party (likely the SP) out in the cold, but it would make the debate much more representative.

Wilders and Rutte reacted by threatening to stay away from the debate; it’s not in their interest that the number of parties is increased. They try to cast the elections as a struggle between the two of them. For Rutte this would be especially good: it’s conceivable that even some left-wing voters would vote for him in order to stop Wilders. (Of course, Rutte refusing a coalition with Wilders is much more effective than a bunch of votes, but this is election time, and every vote counts.)

Even better, if the other two participants would be CDA leader Buma and D66 leader Pechtold, as the polls seem to indicate, there would be no true left-winger, and the elections might be cast as moderate right wing against extreme right wing, which would further help Rutte.

Over the weekend RTL announced it would increase the number of participants to five, at which point Wilders ans Rutte made good on their threat and withdrew. RTL then announced the debate was cancelled.

Just now, however, it was reported that the debate would continue after all, with Buma, Pechtold, Roemer, PvdA’s Asscher and GL’s Klaver attending. Wilders already tweeted he wouldn’t even watch the debate; I haven’t seen a reaction from Rutte yet.

I’d like to think Rutte will relent and participate anyway. I mean, there’s little point in giving free media attention to your opponents and refusing it for yourself. On the other hand, with Wilders and Rutte absent the right wing would be underrepresented, which would serve to cast doubt on the debate — just as much as if the left would be underrepresented.

There’s one cultural wrinkle you need to be aware of: Sunday 26th, the night of the debate, is also the start of carnaval, which is a HUGE holiday in the Catholic south requiring everyone to get drunk and party for days, but usually goes by relatively unnoticed in the Protestant north (well, there’s an item on the national TV news, but that’s about it).

Wilders, who is a southerner, already waxed lyrically about the northerners’ lack of understanding of southern traditions (this was before he cancelled). Fellow southerners Roemer and Klaver are going to give up carnaval in favour of the debate, it seems.


On Tuesday 14th of March, the day before the elections, the NOS (public broadcaster) will host the final debate. This debate, as usual, will have a weird format. Eight parties have been admitted to the main debate, while six more will feature in the smurf debate (as D66 leader Pechtold called it back in 2006, when he was forced to participate).

As far as I know there will be no general debate between the eight party leaders. Instead, there will be eight rounds of two party leaders each. Most one-on-one debates will feature a classic left vs right split, with the one between Wilders and new PvdA leader Asscher being the most anticipated one. Wilders will also have to deal with CU leader Segers, while Asscher will also go against SP leader Roemer. The other parties in the main debate are GL, D66, CDA, and VVD.

In the smurf debate, established parties SGP, 50Plus and PvdD will be joined by newcomers DENK (good choice, they’ll make it to parliament), and VNL and left-wing PvdA split-off NW. The missing party here is right-wing FvD, which gets a seat in 2 out of the 5 curent polls, while VNL and NW get none. Weird choice.

In any case, this debate will deliver some fireworks, despite the weird format.

More info from the NOS.

<— 50Plus and the retirement age | The politics of weed —>

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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