My grand theory of Dutch politics

Back in the good old days there were three parties: PvdA on the left, CDA in the centre, and VVD on the right.

From 1946 to 1994 the CDA (and its predecessor parties) sat in government and decided on a case-by-case basis whether to form a coalition with PvdA or VVD. Then the CDA itself started to belong to the right but that didn’t change its position in politics. It could go over left, and did so occasionally just to remind the VVD.

Then D66 came along, as fourth party in the three-party system, and demanded change. After the 1994 elections, which were disastrous for the CDA, D66 proposed a Purple coalition, so named because purple is a blend of PvdA red and VVD blue. A PvdA+VVD+D66 coalition would banish the CDA from the halls of power and change Dutch politics.

Partly because the CDA was haughty and confused, partly because D66 was a vital ingredient for any coalition, the Purple coalition came into being, and stayed in power for eight years.

Still, it was not entirely natural for PvdA and VVD to rule together. Both had to make concessions: the PvdA agreed to a mostly right-wing economic programme with lots of free-market fundamentalism that would make everybody happy and share-holding and fulfilled, while the VVD agreed to embrace multiculturalism, which would automatically lead to an open, tolerant society where all cultural values were relative. Also, this would not bother native Dutch in the slightest.

This compact is the core reason of the current polticial imbalance. Purple made both PvdA and VVD suspect in the eyes of their traditional voters. Worse, it did not allow any sort of political canalisation of unease about either free-marketism or immigration. PvdA and VVD closed their eyes. As to CDA and D66, they’d eventually need PvdA or VVD for a coalition, and why upset potential partners by committing sacrilege against either free-marketism or multiculturalism?

The recent political upheaval is caused by voters rejecting free-marketism or multiculturalism (or both), finding no hearing with the traditional four parties, and looking for alternatives: LPF and PVV on the right, against multiculturalism, and SP on the left, against free-marketism.

What’s been happening since 2002 is three separate struggles for dominance: one on the left, one on the right, and more recently one in the centre. Eventually the country will go back to a three-party system, but what’s being determined right now is which three parties will be in the system. On the left, PvdA or SP? On the right, VVD or PVV? In the centre, CDA or D66?

It seems that Rutte has won a major victory for the VVD. He stretched out his hand to the PVV, and Wilders thanked him by walking out of the negotiations, causing the fall of government and new elections. That’s not how a leader of one of the three big parties behaves.

Besides, the PVV is only about Wilders, and doesn’t have the organisational clout to become a true political party. Also, the VVD has taken over the more moderate parts of Wilders’s anti-immigration platform. So on the whole I think the VVD is going to win its struggle on the right wing.

On the left the situation is quite different. The PvdA was much more deeply implicated by Purple than the VVD. The VVD only had to keep its mouth shut about immigration. That’s not hard to do, especially when it could resume talking in 2002.

The PvdA, on the other hand, had to really believe in VVD-style free-marketism in order to remain enthusiastic about Purple economics for eight years. A much more fundamental shift was asked of the social-democrats than of the liberals, and the PvdA, eager to stab eternal competitor CDA in the back, complied.

One of the besetting problems of the party is that all forty-something and younger party members believe in the free market — not in a positive sort of way, but as a kind of natural force that determines everything.

Sure, a bit of state here and there for garnish because we are social-democrats, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with the privatisation of health care, or energy, or the railroads, or whatnot. New party leader Samsom is the ultimate example of this type of centrist “third way” politician. Even though he knows he has to backtrack to the left, I doubt he can pull it off.

Because the PvdA has become completely disconnected from genuine left-wing thinking, because Samsom is such a glaring exponent of that disconnect, because it’s the SP that best represents core social-democratic values nowadays, I think the SP is going to win the struggle on the left wing.

The current prime-minister race between VVD and SP nicely fits in — which should make you distrust this theory. I hope I’m not guilty of extrapolating a few coincidences in order to make bold predictions. Then again, I’ve had the feeling the SP was going to win on the left for a long time.

And what about the centre? Casting the struggle there as one between CDA and D66 is incorrect. These parties do not compete for many voters. The CDA competes with VVD and PVV (and a tiny bit of PvdA), while D66 competes with the VVD and the left-wing parties.

With the CDA sharing the general malaise of the traditional parties, I see D66 as having slightly better chances right now. And Pechtold sees his opening and is tacking hard to get out of the left wing and into the centre. But CDA and D66 are ultimately more dependent on what happens on the flanks than on what happens in the centre.

<— Party profile — PVV | Final remarks —>

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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