Party profile — PvdA

The Dutch nine-to-twelve-party system is sometimes hard to understand for foreigners; especially when the small parties come into play. Therefore I’m running a mini-series that treats all eleven parties that stand a decent chance of getting seats in the upcoming elections. We’ll go from largest to smallest.

Today we’ll continue with the second-largest Dutch party, the PvdA.

History and profile

Full name
Partij van de Arbeid
Labour Party
Party leader
Wouter Bos, since 2002
Too centrist
Current seats
about 15-20
My estimate
about 30-35

The PvdA is the largest party on the left. The problem with being the largest party on the left is that the left as a whole is not large enough. The left block has never had a majority in Dutch history. and therefore the PvdA has time and again been forced to cooperate with the leftmost party on the right that was also its competitor for largest party in the country: the CDA.

Either that, or the PvdA was excluded from government. Even if it was the largest party. That’s happened a lot, too. Older party members still cringe when you mention 1977 or 1982.

So the PvdA’s politics position is a lot worse than its status as second party in the country would lead to believe. Its policy position is even worse.

The PvdA is a typical European social-democratic party that was originally pretty left-wing, tacked hard to the centre in the late eighties and nineties (in fact, former party leader and prime minister Kok pioneered that approach), and has now lost its ideological bearings.

That has led to challenges from the left, and one of the surprises of the 2006 elections was that left-wing SP grew to be nearly as large as the PvdA (25 and 33 seats, respectively). The PvdA is under continuous attack from its out flank.

Still, in the short term the PvdA has the advantage of initiative. In general the government crisis has worked well for the PvdA and its leader Bos, and it will profit in the 2010 elections.

Electoral position

Although the CDA is the PvdA’s competitor for largest party and a few seats’ worth of voters might switch from the one to the other, the PvdA usually wins seats from or loses them to the other left-wing parties: SP, GL, and D66. In the last elections the latter two parties did badly, but the SP did astonishingly well, and seriously threatened the PvdA’s position within the left block.

However, the SP has not convinced in the last three years, and now the crisis has given the PvdA the initiative, not only against the CDA but also against the other left-wing parties. My expectation is that the PvdA will do pretty well, and that the SP will be the main victim.

The PvdA has an excellent chance to suck quite a few seats out of the other left-wing parties. “Who do you want as prime minister, Balkenende or Bos?” Some SP, GL, or D66 voters will decide a chance to vote for Bos and (especially!) against Balkenende is too good to pass up.

If the PvdA tars the CDA efficiently for being too accomodating to Wilders, it might even win over some left-wing CDA voters. Stranger things have happened.

Still, the question remains whether the PvdA will become the largest party. Right now there is a chance, but not more than that. The CDA still has the better papers. The PvdA has done lousily in the polls for the past years, and while it will certainly significantly outperform them, it’s uncertain whether it can overtake the CDA.

Potential coalitions

If the PvdA does not become the largest party it will not form a coalition with the CDA, and that most likely means opposition.

If the PvdA does become the largest party, it still will not want to form a coalition with the CDA, but it will have the initiative and might try to bend negotiations away from the christian-democrats.

The secret dream of every left-wing voter (and some politicians) is the broad left-wing government consisting of PvdA, GL, D66, and SP. Unfortunately the left block has never yet held a majority in Dutch political history.

If the four parties of the left conquer 76 or more seats on 9 June, there will be heavy pressure on the PvdA to enable a broad left-wing government, which is not necessarily in the PvdA’s interest because it will drive away centrist voters.

Besides, the PvdA, being the largest party, would be held more responsible for that government than the other parties, which is dangerous because a four-party coalition is even less stable than a three-party one.

If a left-wing majority is absent, the PvdA will pretty quickly bump into the harsh reality that’s called CDA; now with added chips on shoulder due to the recent fall of government. Now in an ideal world it might (might!) be able to out-negotiate the CDA, provided the christian-democrats are significantly smaller than the PvdA, and there is some sort of alternative to a renewed PvdA+CDA+? coalition.

These two requirements are very hard to fulfill, so on balance it’s likely that without a left-wing majority, even a PvdA that becomes the largest party will be heading for opposition.

This has been the PvdA’s position ever since it started cooperating with the christian-democrats back in 1946. It’s nothing new, but it remains the fundamental bottleneck of Dutch politics.

Please pause for a little while here and reconsider the last few paragraphs. If you’ve truly grasped the PvdA’s impossible position you have learned your first and most important lesson in Dutch politics.

The only way out of the dilemma, math permitting, is a renewal of the Purple coalition with VVD and D66. Still, there are extremely serious policy problems with this solution: left and right each have their own approach to the economic crisis, and mixing them would make both left and right voters extremely dissatisfied. So on balance this coalition is not very likely.

Too centrist

In addition to all these tricky bits of coalition forming, the PvdA’s fundamental problems have not been solved. It’s still tarred by too many years of Purple cooperation with the VVD, and generally isn’t trusted with traditional left-wing viewpoints.

Scant months ago the PvdA had to agree to increase the pension age from 65 to 67, and that’s something that’s not very socialist. Worse, old age pensions were introduced by legendary PvdA prime minister Drees. Squandering an inheritance, anyone?

This will certainly be used by the SP and GL (as well as, oddly, Wilders). It might not work very well this time due to Bos’s new halo as the man who dared to stand up against the CDA, but in the long term the PvdA’s position remains unstable, and the other left-wing parties know that. The attacks will continue, especially if the PvdA enters a coalition with parties to its right. Which is almost inevitable absent a left-wing majority. Yet another reason to opt for opposition.

<— Minor defeat for Balkenende | Small fry; 25 February —>

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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Comments (closed)

1 Posted by Bartosz on 25 February 2010 | Permalink

You're probably right, incresing pension age may not be very socialist, but imho it's necessary due to population aging process. I've heard that Labour Party in UK opted for a similar increase (up to 68). Here in Poland its 65 for men and 60 for women, our liberally-conservative government wants to equalise it - which is a good idea; I suppose we can expect some attempts for an overall increase as well.