PvdA problems

This weekend social-democratic PvdA is holding its party congress. With most eyes on the CDA’s problems, attention for the PvdA is less than it should be, also on this blog. The PvdA is suffering from most of the same problems as the CDA, and it’s doing even worse in the polls — relatively speaking.

Like the CDA, the PvdA is a former mass party that’s slowly bleeding to death because its voters don’t trust it any more or are looking elsewhere for some old-fashioned ideological standpoints. It didn’t lose as much as the CDA in the 2010 elections, but the current polls are dramatic: 19 seats, a loss of 11.


Even worse, these 11 seats all end up with traditional-socialist SP, a party expressly aiming at taking over the Pvda’s role as the main force on the left. The SP is a whip party, a party that by its very existence forces its larger and more moderate competitor to pay more attention to its original ideas. It’s very succesful nowadays, and has evolved into the PvdA’s biggest nightmare.

The fundamental PvdA problem is that it moved too far to the centre in the Purple years (1994-2002), embracing a free-market fundamentalism that is at odds with what its traditional voters, workers, civil servants, and left-wing intellectuals, want. Back then this switch was a requirement to form the CDA-less Purple coalition (the VVD insisted on it), but Purple has been history for ten years, and the PvdA still hasn’t gone back to its left-wing roots. Instead, it allowed the SP to take over most of its working-class constituency.

This fundamental problem was not solved during the leadership of Wouter Bos (2003-2010), who remained a Purple boy at heart and was not the person to lead the party leftward. When Bos was replaced by former Amsterdam mayor Cohen before the 2010 elections, many expected the party to veer somewhat more leftward, but so far that hasn’t really happened, either.

Opposition or support?

Even worse, Cohen disappoints as party leader. He was originally chosen because he’d make a first-class prime minister, but the PvdA became the second party in the country and was defeated by the right block in the formation. That left Cohen opposition leader in parliament — a role that doesn’t really suit him. He is unable to stand up against Wilders, and more and more the true opposition leadership has devolved onto SP leader Roemer (and in certain respects D66 leader Pechtold).

In addition, the PvdA was forced to make some hard choices due to the peculiar nature of the current coalition. Although Wilders’s PVV supports the VVD+CDA government, he does not support every single government measure. That forces government to go shopping for votes among the left-wing opposition from time to time. I wrote a post about this construct a while back.

The PvdA needs to remain coalition-worthy. It has to be seen to take care for the country as a whole by supporting government in tough times, and it has to remain on speaking terms with VVD and CDA, both of which it could encounter in future coalitions. Thus the support.

Of course that leads to further centrism, if not supporting out-and-out right-wing ideas, which gives the SP yet another opportunity to steal a few votes from the PvdA. That’s basically what has been happening over the past months.

Now Cohen seems to think enough is enough. Government has to save yet another 7 billion euros, Wilders is already indicating that he won’t support further economising on the welfare state, and Cohen stated that he won’t help government, either. They’re on their own; after all the gedoogsteun-construct of VVD+PVV+CDA has a parliamentary majority (plus the support of the two SGP MPs), so let them take care of their own problems.

Quite apart from winning back ideological brownie points, this course of conduct may put severe strain on goverment; possibly even so severe that the gedoogsteun breaks down and new elections will be held before the year is over.

Leadership problems

The question is whether Cohen will still be party leader when new elections come around. Today the NRC published a poll among PvdA and SP professionals (council members and aldermen), and it’s clear that the PvdA ones are getting tired of Cohen. Only 20% of them feel that Cohen is the best party leader, while about 33% went for Amsterdam alderman and rising star Lodewijk Asscher, with the rest voting for several other candidates.

Compare this to the SP, where 98% supports party leader Roemer. (Admittedly, the SP has always been a firm believer in this kind of scores in internal elections and votes. Still, there’s no doubt that Roemer is doing very well both among SP members and voters, and among the Dutch at large.)

That’s a problem. Cohen reacted by stating there will be a free election for party leader, and that he himself will be a candidate. That’s a lot better than what the CDA is doing right now (i.e. not much), but it still means the PvdA does not have an undisputed leader.

I doubt if we’ll see any fireworks on the PvdA party congress. For that we have to turn to the CDA party congress, which is also held this weekend. I’ll see if I can write something about that tomorrow.

<— TNS-NIPO poll update | New Peil.nl poll; SP marching on —>

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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