A spectacular week

This week was a spectacular one in Dutch politics, with expectations starting very low but climbing to dizzying heights at the end of the week, after a five-party austerity agreement was reached. Winners: D66, CU, and maybe GL and CDA. Losers: PvdA and possibly the PVV.

Unfortunately I have little time right now, so I can’t discuss all the details as they merit. I’ll be ridiculously busy for the next two weeks, but I hope to have significantly more time for Dutch political news after that. And things will start to heat up only at the end of August or so.

Fall of government; new elections

Government formally fells hardly a day after Wilders walked out of the discussion. Strictly speaking that wasn’t necessary since it hadn’t yet lost confidence of parliament, and could possibly find new supporters, but apparently everybody from prime minister Rutte down considered it the best option.

Immediately after the fall of government there was a short, sharp discusion on the date of the new elections. Dutch law (barely) permit an election in late June, but many parties opted for September instead, with the argument that small parties (such as PVV dissident Brinkman’s) would still have time to register and create a candidate list.

Generally those parties that are doing well in the polls wanted a June date, with those that are doing not so well arguing for September. (Obviously, July and August are not an option, since a significant part of the electorate will be on a beach somewhere during the Sacred Summer Holiday.)

In the end it was decided that elections will be held on Wednesday 12th of September. So that’s that. That will still interfere a little with the summer holiday in some parts of the country, but even the latest cluster of provinces will return to work on 2nd of September.

Still, there’s something to be said for quick elections, and especially SP leader Roemer made that point. The fundamental problem right now is whether to go along with the austerity demands of the EU or not. And that requires a mandate from the voters.

The austerity budget and the Kunduz coalition

It will be remembered that the cause of the fall of government was the austerity discussions that Wilders walked out of because he’s too much a populist to agree with substantial reductions in the welfare state; especially the pensions.

Apart from the fall of government the problem was that the country did not have a new, austere budget to present to the European Commission. The deficit has to be below 3% of GDP next year according to the new, strict European rules that were pushed heavily last year, exactly by the Rutte government that failed to push them through in its own country. Furthermore, the new budget had to be sent to Brussels on Monday 30th of April (tomorrow) at the latest.

So Rutte was in a double quandary, and from last weekend on it was clear he’d have to look for alternative support in parliament. Discussions were started with the (former) opposition parties, and pretty quickly an ad-hoc consortium of D66, GL, and CU declared itself willing to discuss possibilities with VVD and CDA, who still supported the original plans.

This five-party coalition was also the one that was formed about a year ago to agree to the extension of the Dutch military mission in the Afghan province of Kunduz, which Wilders opposed from the start, and it is therefore named the Kunduz coalition. This name could stick, so it’s one to remember.

In the record time of two days a deal was reached that contained the bulk of the proposed austerity measures, minus a few concessions to the three-party consortium, and it was sent off to Brussels in the nick of time.

In addition all parties gleefully cooperated in ripping apart a few PVV points, such as the animal cops (the so-called “guinea pig police” that were supposed to concentrate on cruelty against animals and was met with ridicule by all parties but PVV and animal-rights PvdD), savings on cultural subsidies and on development relations, and other right-wing hobbies.

The blame game

Thus the political situation turned around entirely within the space of five days, and blame and praise started to be handed out.

The praise mostly went to the five-party centre-right coalition that saved austerity: VVD, CDA, D66, GL, and CU. The blame mostly went to PVV and PvdA, with the SP being judged neutral.

Both Peil.nl and the Politieke Barometer released new polls. They agree on some points and disagree on others. Basically Peil.nl sees a huge six-seat shift toward the Kunduz coalition, while the Politieke Barometer sees a more modest two-seat shift.

Let’s take a quick look at the rise and fall of the various parties:

  1. VVD: dropped slightly. This is likely caused by the fact that a prime minister losing his government is never appreciated by the voters. Still, the VVD has a pretty solid position since its party leader Rutte is popular with its electorate and it’s available on the right while being neither CDA nor Wilders. That’s exactly the same position as the VVD had in the 2010 elections, and retaining that position is not a bad result at all for eighteen months of governing.
  2. SP: stable. The SP did not participate in either the fall of government or the budget negotiations, but then nobody expected it to agree with the austerity measures. It played its part, surprised nobody positively or negatively, and remains a stable factor in politics. And party leader Roemer still has the highest favourable score of all party leaders.
  3. PvdA: dropped, slightly according to the Barometer, heavily according to Peil.nl. We’ll get back to the PvdA below.
  4. PVV: stable according to the Barometer, slight loss according to Peil.nl. Its own voters likely agreed with Wilders walking out, but it didn’t exactly inspire confidence in other voters. Still, the PVV’s position could have been worse, since one rule of Dutch politics is that he who blows up government pays a price, so for now it seems Wilders is weathering the crisis in pretty decent shape. Of course his chances of being in the next coalition are nil. Still, some commentators suggest he’s aiming at the coalition after next, which could hold a grain of truth.
  5. D66: won. D66’s role in the negotiations is universally applauded. D66 is supposed to be the reasonable alternative to any government, and succeeded admirably in proving that last week. The party took a true centre position between left and right, and that’s exactly where party leader Pechtold wants to be. So if this crisis has any big winner it’s D66.
  6. CDA: won modestly. Parliamentary leader Van Haersma Buma, especially, won praise by his handling of the double crisis, and the CDA is now rid of the PVV, so its non-voting sympathisers could return to the fold. Still, the party has to elect a leader after nearly two years without one. We’ll get back to that below.
  7. GL: stable according to the Barometer, won handsomely according to Peil.nl. It is in more or less the same position as D66, except that its traditional electorate is a lot more left-wing and may not like the austerity agreement all that much. Still, GL made sure the agreement contained some juicy bits for its voters.
    Since the two pollsters disagree sharply on GL it’s too early to tell what the effect of this crisis will be on the green party. But keep in mind that it’s not in the same position as D66, however much party leadership wishes it to be.
  8. CU: stable according to the Barometer, won according to Peil.nl. It wriggled into the political centre, economically speaking, although it remains pretty extreme on ethical questions. The current crisis has shown that D66 and the CU can easily cooperate on financial and economic matters, although they remain light years apart on ethical questions. Still, this is an interesting revelation that may have consequences, and a coalition with both D66 and CU has become slightly more likely.
  9. The small parties show no change, except that the OBP (Onafhankelijke Burgerpartij; Independent Citizens’ Party), the vehicle of PVV dissident Hero Brinkman, wins one seat according to the Barometer. That’s somewhat surprising. Still, it could be gone forever with the next poll.

PvdA leadership questions

The trickiest position of all is held by the PvdA. The social-democrats recently elected Diederik Samsom as their leader, and he indicated he was going to move leftward to the SP in order to recapture the party’s old base.

As a result Samsom was not very interested in cooperating in the budget talks, even though the five parties insist he was invited. The PvdA rejects the fixation on the 3% deficit, and considers too much austerity a danger for economic growth, as do the SP and the PVV. (I agree with this point of view, by the way, which is the main reason I’m going to vote SP this time around.)

In theory the PvdA has done exactly the correct thing for recapturing dissatisfied left-wing voters, but in practice it doesn’t seem to have worked very well. The party is down to 19 seats in the Peil.nl poll (6 seats down from last week, just before the fall of government), although the Barometer still shows 25 seats (2 down from last week).

The blame game is already being played within the party, with the social-liberal right wing squaring off against the more populist left wing, both claiming to represent the best direction for the party to go.

As far as I can see the problem is that Samsom is just not credible as a left-wing leader. He’s too much of a centrist intellectual, and has the air of someone looking for a prime-ministership instead of defending the interests of common people. He’s too much of a Purple boy, in other words, even though he was elected to parliament in 2003, after Purple ended. Former party leader Bos had the same problem, but was eventually able to overcome it. That took time, though — time Samsom doesn’t have before September. Besides, Samsom was neatly out-debated by CDA leader Van Haersma Buma, the traditional enemy, during the discussion on the austerity budget.

CDA leadership questions

Which leads us to the final point: the CDA leadership. It will be remembered that the CDA hasn’t had a formal party leader since Balkenende resigned directly after the June 2010 elections. A triumvirate of vice-prime-minister Verhagen in government, Van Haersma Buma in parliament, and chairwoman Peetoom in the party itself led the CDA, but now that elections are looming near a leader must be chosen: somebody has to take the top spot on the CDA candidate list on the ballot form.

Verhagen declined a spot on the CDA candidate list, meaning he can’t become party leader, either. That’s understandable: he was tarred quite efficiently by then-PvdA leader Bos during the fall of Balkenende IV in 2010, and his reputation never recovered. Besides, he’s too much associated with the PVV coalition, which was never universally accepted in the CDA and is now even less popular. It was clear from the outset he never made a chance to become the top dog, and he drew his conclusions (possibly aided by a behind-the-scenes push from party leadership).

The party decided on an open election by the members, the results of which should be known on 1st of June. Two very popular CDA leaders, finance minister De Jager, who led the succesful five-party negotiations, and former Traffic minister Eurlings, who (temporarily) left politics in 2010, declined nomination.

Parliamentary leader Van Haersma Buma seems to have the best chances, certainly because there’s no other good candidate right now. It seems to me that the CDA leadership may have decided on an open election, but will make very sure there’s only one viable candidate: the one agreed upon by the leadership. Still, an upset is always possible in an open system.

Next government: centre-left

Despite all the questions fired by breathless journalists at the five Kunduz coalition parties on whether this might be a good coalition for after the elections, I do not believe we’ll get a centre-right coalition. Instead, my theory is that we’re heading for centre-left: PvdA, CDA, SP, D66, possibly reinforced by GL and/or CU.

My reasoning is as follows:

  1. Wilders participating in the new coalition is out of the question. He can only rule in a VVD+PVV+CDA coalition, and he just blew it up. The CDA, especially, won’t stand for a repeat performance, even if the right block ends up with a majority.
  2. With that being the case, the VVD will not participate, either. If it did it would make itself vulnerable to an oppositional PVV, which would gleefully wage war against the VVD’s compromises and likely win quite a few seats from the liberals in the elections after next.
  3. So right, centre-right, and purple are out.
  4. The PVV is a whip party on the right, attacking the VVD for its compromises on immigration in the purple period (1994-2002). Similarly, the SP is a whip party on the left, attacking the PvdA for its compromises on social-ecomonic issues in the purple period.
  5. The VVD has had the courage to enter a coalition with its whip party. It’s now time for the PvdA to do the same and enter a coalition with the SP. (Admittedly, so far it doesn’t seem the PvdA has the courage to do so.)
  6. The CDA has moved far to the right in the last two years, and alienated its left wing (although it must be admitted that left wing isn’t huge in terms of voters). Now it’s time for the party to correct itself and move to the left, cooperating with PvdA and not VVD.
  7. So centre-left or left it is, seen from both the right wing, the centre, and the left wing. And I think a left coalition is out because it won’t capture a majority. Well, maybe with the CU it could come to 76 seats, but there’s still the old tension between CU and D66, who are polarised on the christian-secular axis, although the recent austerity negotiations have shown that they can cooperate if it’s really really necessary.
  8. So the VVD won’t play, PvdA and SP are fated to govern together and will need the CDA, which will want to move left anyway, for a majority. Centre-left it is.

Of course plenty could change before the elections, but for now this is the reasoning I’ll stick to.

And it could be that a centre-left government will do something about the ridiculous austerity rash that’s spreading all over Europe — possibly in conjunction with likely future socialist French president Hollande. What’s in a name?

<— Wilders quits consultations; government falls; new elections | Week overview —>

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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