Party profiles — CDA

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’ll continue with christian-democratic coalition partner and former ruling party CDA.

Full name
Christen-Democratisch Appèl
Christian Democratic Appeal
Party leader
Hugo de Jonge, since 2020
In parliament since
1977; predecessors since the 1880s
Catch-all party
Current seats
Polls (August 2020)

Former ruling party CDA (in power from 1918 to 1994 and again from 2002 to 2010) has fallen, just like its eternal competitor PvdA. It has now firmly been relegated to a mid-size party without too many principles (except for power), and its succession problems are once again hampering its effectiveness.

For more informtion and a bit of history please re-read the 2010 and 2012 I wrote.

Leadership and election losses

Leadership changes in the CDA have been a serious issue since 1994, when catholic leader (and prime minister) Lubbers attacked his official protestant successor Brinkman and the party lost a disastrous 20 seats. Still, back in those days they had 34 left, which is about double their current size.

In 2010 PvdA leader Bos managed to disturb the succession of protestant prime minister Balkenende by catholic foreign affairs minister Verhagen — in fact, Bos’s action inspired me to my first political article. This caused the CDA to lose 20 seats again. We are starting to see a pattern here — though right now the CDA doesn’t have 20 seats to lose.

The 1994 defeat meant the temporary end of the CDA’s natural position in the centre of Dutch politics. During the Purple period (1994-2002) under first protestant Heerma and then catholic De Hoop Scheffer (who was later NATO secretary-general; we have to dump our failed politicans somewhere) the CDA was the nominal leader of the opposition, but the party is absolutely lousy in opposition. It lost again in 1998.

When De Hoop Scheffer resigned in 2001 the parliamentary CDA fraction elected the then-unknowen Balkenende party leader. There were no elections yet in those days, and as a result the succession went fairly smoothly and Balkenende could take credit for the 2002 results.

In 2002 the times had changed and Pim Fortuyn had founded the populist denomination in Dutch politics. By now, Purple parties PvdA, VVD, and D66 were thoroughly discredited, so what were you to do as a right-wing voter who detested both Purple and Fortuyn? Vote CDA, that’s what.

In the Balkenende years the CDA regained its position and formed coalitions over right and left as usual. This new lease of life ended with Bos’s intervention in 2010. I’m not sure why exactly 2010 forms the break point, but the botched sucession is one reason.

In the end Verhagen did succeed Balkenende, but he was damaged not only by Bos, but also by his decision to seek out a coalition with Wilders after the 2010 elections. When that coalition failed in 2012 he quit. The party decided to have a ladership election, which was won by protestant Buma in the first round. This election succeeded in the sense that Buma immediately got a majority of votes, and nobody doubted these results. Unfortunately that appears to be an exception, not the rule.

Buma remained leader until he resigned in 2019, and the party decided to have another leadership election. Spoiler: it didn’t go well.

Mid-sized party

Since the 2010 elections the CDA has been relegated to the status of mid-size party. It hasn’t been able to find its way back even to 25 seats, let alone 40-50. The question here is which period is the exception to the rule: the Purple and the current one when the CDA was mid-sized, or the Balkenende years when it was large. On the whole it appeats that the CDA’s fall from power is permanent — at the very least it won’t be rescinded by the 2021 elections.

Also in 2010, the party had to decide if it wanted to form the Rutte I government with the VVD that would be supported by Wilders. This caused a rift in the party that still hasn’t been healed. From a power-political perspective the CDA should embrace the new coalition, and in addition the right wing didn’t have any particular problems with Wilders. The (smaller) left wing was vehemently opposed to the coalition, though.

In the end the leadership made an unusual decision: a special party congress would decide on the question. Despite their advanced age former prime ministers De Jong (1967-1971) and Van Agt (1977-1982) came to the congress specifically to vote against the coalition, with De Jong quoting freedom of religion as his reason: no restrictions on muslims, as Wilders wants.

The party congress agreed to the coalition by 68-32%, but the opposition was so vehement that the Rutte I government had to deal with two CDA MPs who opposed the coalition — though not to the point of causing fovernment to fall. In the end Wilders blew up the coalition by walking away.

New elections were called and catholic Verhagen was succeeded by protestant Buma after leadership elections. Buma was the first CDA party leader to come from the old CHU, the right-wing moderate protestants, instead of the ARP. (See this article for the difference between the two parties). As such he was pretty right-wing, and pulled the entire CDA in that direction. It is unclear if this was the correct course — although the CDA won seats in 2017 it is still far from its former glories.

The Corona crisis and the candidates

When Buma resigned in 2019 Pieter Heerma (son of former party leader Enneüs Heerma; 1994-1999) took over pending the announced leadership elections. Both main candidates were in government, and not in parliament: Hugo de Jonge is health minister, and Wopke Hoekstra finance minister. Initially the contest seemed to become a two-horse race between the two, with the usual caveat that there wasn’t all that much difference between the candidates politically. Both of them are protestant, though, and with that it appears the CDA has abandoned its principle of alternating the party leadership between catholics and protestants.

The Corona crisis allowed both candidates to create a profile. De Jonge, ultimately responsible for government Corona actions as health minister, initially made a good impression, striking the right tone and announcing the right amount of containment measures. He and prime minister Rutte formed the face of government in the dark days of the lockdown (mid March to 1st of June). This could not but help De Jonge in his campaign.

Then came the European support measures for especially Italy, Spain and Greece. Initially the idea was to set up an emergency fund that would just donate money to help affected countries to combat the crisis, but the “thrifty group” led by the Netherlands prevented this and eventually a complicated compromise was reached where only part of the money would be a gift. This shameful episode has likely damaged Rutte’s, and the country’s, European influence — maybe I’ll write a separate article on this topic.

During these negotiations finance minister Hoekstra played a major part. According to reports he was even stricter than Rutte, and point-blank refused any plan other EU members proposed that involved giving money. His behaviour was at least partly inspired by the CDA leadership race and his need to find a profile that matched De Jonge’s and involved thriftiness.

It is unclear what the average CDA member thought of Hoekstra’s actions, and we’ll never find out, because in mid June Hoekstra suddenly rescinded his candidacy, leaving De Jonge the apparent new leader. Crucially, however, Hoekstra failed to endorse De Jonge, as the party leadership had asked him to do. And there still was another candidate, catholic secretary of state Mona Keijzer, who also ran in 2012. She was considered much weaker than De Jonge, though, so the election outcome was never in doubt.

The 2020 leadership elections

Or was it? Suddenly catholic MP Pieter Omtzigt became a candidate. He made a name for himself as a parliamentary watchdog, first in the MH-17 affair (the airliner that was brought down by a Russian/Ukraininan missile back in 2014, killing nearly 200 Dutch citizens). In the 2017 elections he personally got about 97,000 votes, which is quite a lot for a backbencher — more than enough for his own seat plus a bit more.

Recently he handled a sordid affair focused on the tax service, where lots of people, disproportionally non-white citizens, were wrongfully accused of fraud with child subsidies. Ethnic profiling anyone? It was Omtzigt who did the necessary research, kept this affair on the national agenda, and forced the tax service to backtrack, and as a result he is one of the best-known backbenchers in the country.

Omtzigt turned out to be popular with the members. The first round ended with De Jonge at 48% and Omtzigt at 40%. The rest went to Keijzer, who, as worst-scoring candidate, dropped out of the race.

Political journalist Tom-Jan Meeus wrote an interesting reconstruction, where he shows that the choice between De Jonge and Omtzigt was not a simple choice between two opposing viewpoints, such as for or against cooperation with the extreme right. For instance, Omtzigt was supported by a few hardline anti-PVV luminaries, but also in the end by Keijzer, who supports a coalition over right. Meeus credits this surprisingly wide support to Omtzigt’s authenticity plus a whiff of anti-establisment feeling. De Jonge was supported by the party establishment, after all. If anything, Omtzigt stands for the power of parliament as opposed to government. It will be interesting to see if he adjusts his stance if he would ever be called to government.

In the second round De Jonge won with a marginal difference of 1.4%. The party establishment breathed a sigh of relief, and De Jonge could get to work.

A few days later the party made it known that there had been no irregularities in the voting process at all, thanks so much for asking.

Oh dear.

Due to the Corona crisis the vote was digital this time. Also, CDA members are disproportionately older and less fluent with computers. Finally, Omtzigt’s wife reported that after voting for her husband the system had thanked her for her vote for De Jonge.

An external company was speedily hired and found no irregularities. Omtzigt himself declared himself satisfied with the proceedings as well. That was the end of the 2020 leadership election, but the process will never win even the second prize in a beauty contest.

Why did Omtzigt support the establishment in the end? I see two reasons. First, he wants to return to parliament after the elections, and thus wants a spot on the party list. Better be friendly to the people who decide about such matters. Second, even though he formally won, De Jonge’s position is not brilliant with all the question marks attached to his election. And if he gives the CDA another defeat, as the polls indicate ...


But even then the CDA wasn’t in the clear. This week it turned out that on his wedding, Justice and Security minister Grapperhaus had rather spectacularly failed to keep to the 1.5 meter social distancing — while he heads the department that is supposed to enforce that social distancing.

Oh dear.

I wrote about this department before. From 2010 to 2017 it was in VVD hands, and a series of knuckle-dragging neanderthals from that party made it into a snake pit of law, order, and VVD talking points aimed at PVV voters. In 2017 CDA man Grapperhaus was made minister, and while he couldn’t solve all the problems Justice and Security had, he at least did not make them worse, and he toned down the law & order rhetoric considerably. In that sense I consider him one of the better ministers in current government.

Anyway, the pro-Corona opposition on the right demanded the immediate end of all measures, the opposition in general called a motion of distrust which was narrowly defeated by coalition+SGP, although Grapperhaus had to apologise in parliament for his failure to follow his own rules. Like De Jonge, he is damaged goods now.


With all that going on, the CDA’s position has become weaker. New party leader De Jonge is damaged, and although there are still nine months to go before the elections and the fact that De Jonge is health minister might give him an opportunity to restore his position, it’s not looking good right now.

Meanhwile, the VVD, notably prime minister Rutte, plays a waiting game. If the CDA would shed voters, where would they end up? A few will go populist, sure. But the rest...

At the same time, a weak CDA means that the VVD will have to get more left-wing parties into the coalition after the elections (assuming the VVD will once more be the largest party, but that seems likely right now).

The left-wing parties are in the same predicament. Damaging the CDA is a popular sport on the left, but if there is ever to be a left-wing government it needs the CDA as well. So the CDA cannot become too small.

As you see, despite its fall from power the CDA remains necessary in the calculcations of both the right and the left. In that sense its position in Dutch politics has remained intact, and it is fairly likely to enter the next coalition as well.

<— Party profiles — PVV | Party profiles — VVD —>

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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