Party profiles — D66

There will be general elections next March, and the dozen-plus-a-few Dutch parties are preparing for them. It’s time for another series of party profiles. We’ll go in order from small to large according to the August 2020 polls.

Today we continue with centrist, secular coalition party D66.

Full name
Democraten 66
Democrats 66
Party leader
Rob Jetten pro temp since 2018, likely to be succeeded by Sigrid Kaag
In parliament since
Catch-all party
Current seats
Polls (August 2020)

It is unclear whether entering the 2017 VVD+CDA+D66+CU coalition was a good move on the part of the Democrats. On the one hand they are in the unenviable position of being the most left-wing party in a right-wing government, and the most socially liberal party in a conservative one, on the other hand it may be not too steep a price to pay for reinforcing their position as a coalition-worthy party.

For more information and history please re-read the 2010 and 2012 profiles I wrote.

In the past D66’s current position was a recipe for electoral disaster, but so far the polls are relatively gentle on the Democrats. Although the party always loses after a period in government, and always wins after a spell in opposition, this time around the loss is only a moderate 6 out of 19 seats according to the August 2020 polls. That is not too bad.

Still, D66 feels the need to enhance its profile. It is pushing for signature legislation around socially-liberal topics; right now an updated euthanasia law that sits very badly with coalition partner CU, and to a lesser extent CDA. Also, even if you agree with D66 on the merits of allowing euthanasia, it is unclear whether this law is actually necessary. The Corona crisis has moved this matter to the back burner, though.

Sigrid Kaag

Another explanation for their gentle drop is the fact that D66 has an upcoming leadership election, and those always grab some attention. Succesful party leader Pechtold quit in 2018 after twelve years, and the parliamentary fraction elected the completely unknown Rob Jetten as temporary successor, while the party decided a proper election would take place later.

Later has become now; the D66 membership can vote in early September. Initially the battle was supposed to be between Jetten and Foreign Trade and Development minister Sigrid Kaag. Of the two, Kaag clearly has the better profile, not in Dutch politics, where she is a newcomer, but in international diplomacy and the UN.

She studied Arab at university, and is fluent in tha language, as well as five others. From 1993 to 2014 she served in various UN posts, most notably the mission to destroy the Syrian chemical weapons in 2014. She married a Palestinian diplomat and politician.

When Trump halved the US payments to the UN organisation in charge of Palestinian refugees, Kaag gave a few million of emergency funding without, apparently, notifying the coalition partners. This led to sour reactions, mostly because the Dutch right, and especially the christian block, is generally pro-Israel, and the left generally pro-Palestine. She made clear where her loyalties lie. Also, she found yet another way to annoy the CU, which of all coalition parties is the most pro-Israel.

Compared to Kaag, Jetten is somewhat of a blank slate. After two years of party leadership it’s not easy to point to any achievement of his, unless you count being an openly gay party leader — but so is Krol (PvtT), and back in 2002 Pim Fortuyn was the first one, so that’s not really unique, either.

In late June Jetten surprised everyone by withdrawing from the leadership race. His stated reason was that he thought it was time the country gets a woman as a party leader (and prime minister). No less than 72% of D66 members agree with him (source: AD). Combined with his vague profile this poll apparently convinced Jetten to step back.

It turns out that there has been a third candidate all along, one Ton Visser, who never had any political function, and about whom it is hard to find biographical information that surpasses the anecdote level. Frankly, I had never heard of him until I did research for this article. Then again, the D in the party name requires there to be more than one candidate for the top job so that members can vote.

Therefore the conclusion must be that Kaag will become the next D66 leader, and in a recent interview she said she wants to become the first woman prime minister. Now all party leaders are supposed to say they aim for the top job (if not, what’s the point of becoming a party leader?), but that doesn’t mean anyone thinks she actually stands a chance. Whatever else happens, D66 will not become the largest party in parliament — or even in the coalition.

Update: Kaag elected with 95% of the votes. So that's done, and so far D66 has avoided the negative consequences of a leadership election.

Party position

What does Kaag’s apparent anointment mean for D66? It’s unlikely to change a lot.

Under Pechtold D66 squarely aimed for the centre. His idea was to leech off of the VVD left wing, who were liberal in cultural matters, centre-right in social-economics and could not stand a coalition with PVV (or, nowadays, FvD). D66 certainly hasn’t done badly during Pechtold’s tenure, so I suppose this strategy worked up to a point.

Still, I continue to believe that D66 is fundamentally a party of the left — certainly not of the right, and probably not even of the centre. D66 members and voters consider themselves progressive, especially in ethical questions, and that pretty much excludes everything but the left — see also the 72% who want a woman as party leader; this sort of numbers cannot be found on the right.

On the whole, D66 has become the centrist party for progressive, educated city dwellers (and GL has become the left-wing party for the same group). The party feels at home in this position, and it is unlikely to move. Still, the most important question is whether what its voters expect when it comes to social-economic policies.

The Corona-induced movement to more state intervention is an excellent test of that: will the Democrats move to the left and demand neo-Keynesian measures? Or will it stay closer to the VVD and see the current measures as the exception, returning to free markets with a bit of state on the side once the crisis is over? It is unclear to me how its voters will be served best.

One thing is certain, education as a D66 spear point is falling out of fashion. In the past Pechtold made a lot of noise about education, D66 participating in the coalition has not really done a lot for the Dutch educational system. D66 minister Van Engelshoven of Eduction, Culture, and Sciences is considered fairly weak, and she has never been seen to actually stand up for education, culture, or the sciences, even when the hard-hit cultural sector needed her during the Corona crisis.

D66 continues to see itself as the most secular party in the country, and therefore it stands to gain from arguments with the CU. Since the CU stands to gain equally, they like to snipe at one another, as we saw above. In the past party leader Pechtold did the same with Wilders: the two attacked one another and both profited. Nowadays D66 is still the most anti-Wilders (and anti-FvD) party in the country, but because of the current coalition the CU and CDA were the party’s targets of choice these past years.

Apart from ethical concerns, the most serious disagreement between the parties is about the reduction of nitrogen emissions from agriculture. Back in 2019 D66 said that reducing the amount of livestock by about half was unavoidable. For obvious reasons farmers, and especially livestock holders, were bitterly opposed, and politically they’re represented by CDA and CU (and SGP). Thus D66 and the christians were able disagree once more, although all involved parties are in the coalition, and a solution had to be found.

Maybe I’ll write a separate piece about the nitrogen problem; for now it’s enough to say that it enhanced D66’s profile somewhat. (It did the same for CDA and CU, by the way.)

Thus the Democrats have held out in government while not totally relinquishing their profile. For now the polls indicate that this strategy has more or less worked, though we’ll have to see what effect Kaag’s likely election as leader will have, especially when the extra attention for D66 due to the leadership election dissipates. Then again, even if the Democrats lose heavily they might still be needed to pad the next coalition.

<— Party profiles — FvD | Party profiles — GL —>

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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