Party profiles — GL

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.

Todsy we continue with GL, the green-left party that is maybe the Dutch party to change most in the past five years.

Fair warning: I plan to vote for GL in 2021. That may affect my judgement.

Full name
Green Left
Party leader
Jesse Klaver, since 2015
In parliament since
1989; predecessors since 1918
Witness party evolving to catch-all
Current seats
Polls (August 2020)

Born from a merger of three small left-wing witness parties and initially occupying their old niche in Dutch politics (though with an enhanced green profile) GL is now changing considerably. Where it used to be fairly small and fairly dedicated to bearing witness to its green-left philosophy, under the leadership of Klaver the party has broadened its base considerably, and now has a chance of becoming the largest party on the left.

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

GL is not unique here; in Germany, in particular, the Green party could also become larger than the social-democratic one. Still, this process started slightly earlier in the Netherlands, where GL outdid the PvdA in the 2017 elections 14 to 9 seats.

This shift from witness to catch-all party started during the tenure of former party leader and current Amsterdam mayor Halsema (2002-2010), but at that time it appeared that GL wanted to occupy exactly the same niche as D66, which was already occupied by D66.

The 2012 elections were disastrous because of a combination of a prime-minister race between PvdA and VVD that saw the PvdA sucking many seats from the other left-wing parties, and an unclear course under Halsema’s successor. Klaver got the broadening of the party base back on the rails and performed well in the 2017 elections.

In any case, the 14 seats in 2017 was GL’s best score ever. According to the polls the party is still at or around that number. If Klaver manages to hold steady he’ll have done decently, and if he even wins a few seats again he has done quite well indeed.

GL voters

This shift from small witness party to medium-sized catch-all party caused (or is caused by) a change in GL’s electorate. On the whole, the old, witnessy GL voters are defecting to the PvdD, but that loss is more than made good by the centre-left former PvdA or D66 voters that flock to the party.

I’d best take myself as an example. I used to dislike GL, which mostly goes back to the 1994 campaign where they basically said “Anyone who doesn’t vote for us doesn’t understand.” This is classic witness-party stuff, and I found I was not interested in supporting such a party. I voted mostly SP, occasionally D66.

I changed my mind partly because of Klaver personally (he seems a bit overeager in his youthfulness, but he means well and is actually a pretty good politician), and partly because the alternatives were so awful. SP: too conservative. D66: too centrist. PvdA: too VVD-light. So I voted GL, especially since that party was giving up on its most annoying witness-party traits.

I’m not much of a green voter, but something needs to be done about climate change. Of all left-wing parties GL has by far the best credentials here.

Jesse Klaver

With his 34 years Jesse Klaver is the youngest party leader in the country, and when he succeeded to the leadership he was even younger. Nicknamed “the Jessiah,” his 2017 campaign and personal profile was clearly inspired by Justin Trudeau. He held mass meetings, showed himself an inspiring speaker (though less of a debater), and is social-media-savvy. This endeared him to the younger sections of the urban middle classes.

Incidentally, his father is of Moroccan descent, though his name comes from his mother’s side, who comes from a Dutch-Indonesian (Indo) family. This fact hardly played a role in the 2017 campaign, even though, say, Geert Wilders, isn’t too fond of Moroccans in general. I vaguely seem to remember one snide remark on Wilders’s part, but he mostly constrained himself to attacking Klaver’s policies. That counts for something, I guess.

Klaver’s most important decision of the 2017 campaign was not to enter the coalition. See this summary of his dilemma back then. Although he negotiated with VVD, CDA, and D66 in good faith, in the end he concluded that the differences with VVD and CDA were too big to be bridged, and managed to extract himself from the coalition process gracefully without upsetting the other parties.

Thus Klaver showed his base that he is willing to enter serious talks but would accept compromises only up to a point, while showing the other parties that GL is a serious coalition partner even though it didn’t work out this time. Keeping this balance is more difficult than it might seem, but Klaver managed.

Merger talk

When the coalition lost its one-seat majority through the defection of a VVD MP it had to look for extra support, and found it now with the left, then with the right. GL became a serious partner for the coalition, just as it was in the constructive opposition during Rutte II, where several parties were also called upon to spport government in the Senate. By cooperating with the coalition from time to time GL can get part of its programme executed, while it manages to draw attention to the part that is not executed. In addition, it shows itself to be a coalition-worthy party.

The PvdA, GL’s largest competitor, is in the same position and also occasionally cooperates with government. Because they are on the same flank and in similar positions, calls for a merger between the two parties started a few months ago. This is an old tradition in Dutch politics that occurs every five to ten years, with sometimes the SP being thrown into the mix as well. On the face of it there’s some logic behind a merger, since the parties occupy fairly similar niches quite close to each other and are also electoral competitors. Why not reinforce the left flank by creating one large party?

In the past such merger talks came to nothing, mostly because the PvdA was a lot bigger than any other parties, and the others were afraid to be swallowed whole by their large compatitor. This time PvdA and GL are roughly equal in the polls, so this danger is absent right now. A poll found that overwhelming majorities of voters for the two parties (or three, if you also include the SP) was in favour of a merger.

A merger party would have much more opportunity to become the largest in the country, and its party leader would become prime minister if the coalition negotiations worked. I think many voters look at this aspect first, even though I’m not sure it matters all that much which party is largest — it’s entering the coalition that matters. Also, which party leader are we talking about exactly? Klaver or PvdA leader Asscher?

Another problem, I think, is that most voters interpret a merger as “my preferences will be better represented in parliament” without thinking too much about competing preferences of other parties that will also be represented better.

For instance, Klaver proposed earlier this week that the financial Corona measures be extended considerably, and would include a temporary fixed income for freelancers (essentially a basic income without the name, and only for people without a regular contract, and temporary, oh yes, very temporary). Turns out the PvdA is against that proposal for reasons we’ll discuss in its entry. This is a pretty hefty disagreement, even though the parties do agree that government should do considerably more than it is doing right now.

For such reasons I continue to believe that the differences between GL and PvdA are currently too large. It seems the party leaderships and opinion makers agree: after a brief discussion in March the merger disappeared from the agenda again.


The current polls indicate GL will stay roughly at its current score of around 12-15 seats. Of course the party could make a serious mistake, but based on what we’ve seen in the past four years this is unlikely.

The real question is whether GL will be able to become the leader of the left block. This position is vacant since the PvdA’s fall in 2017, and as far as I can see there are only three options: the PvdA could return, Klaver could manage to snatch the leadership after all, or nothing will change. D66 is too centrist right now, while the SP is too conservative.

If GL manages to become larger than PvdA, D66, and SP, and it wins 20 or more seats, we could see a real re-alignment on the left of Dutch politics. On balance it’s not likely right now, though.

Even if it stays around its current number of seats, the chances for GL to enter the new coalition are decent. Right now it seems the VVD will once again become the largest party but will once again need a coalition over left, since neither Wilders nor Baudet are government-worthy material.

That would mean that the current VVD+CDA+D66 block remains in place but needs a fourth party. Again CU? Possible, but the CU is smaller than GL, and its coalition chances are dependent on how many seats the other parties get. GL instead of CU? That is a very likely occurrence, and D66 would welcome another progressive party. On the other hand, GL would want to see at least a few green and social-economic concessions on the part of VVD and CDA.

And if the VVD disappears into the opposition some sort of coalition of left-wing parties and CDA is the likeliest option. GL would certainly be a part of such a centre-left coalition.

All in all GL’s position is more than decent heading into the 2021 elections.

<— Party profiles — D66 | Party profiles — PvdA —>

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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