The State of Play: Mid-January 2021

My plan was to post this overview on the first weekend of 2021, or the second weekend at the latest. As they say, a week is a long time in politics, and with the third weekend of the year almost in the past, I’ve had to make several adjustments in the wake of recent events.

With an election just over two months away, the Dutch cabinet has just resigned, or “fallen” as they say in the Netherlands. Poor handling of the coronavirus? No – even though the Netherlands hasn’t fared particularly well (almost 900,000 cases, closing in on 13,000 deaths as of this post), this government has fallen apart over a childcare allowance scandal (toeslagenaffaire) in which low-income families were false accused of welfare fraud and saddled with massive debts (I’ll put up a full post to explain the details later this week). This policy was implemented by the second Rutte cabinet (VVD/PvdA), with the support of several opposition parties in the Tweede Kamer, all of whom are rapidly putting some distance between themselves and the government on this matter. The scandal has had an impact on the opposition benches as well: PvdA leader Lodewijk Asscher has withdrawn as lead candidate for the election. Asscher was the Minister for Social Affairs during the second Rutte cabinet and his department was involved in the whole process.

Below is a brief run-through of all the parties currently with seats in the Tweede Kamer. Next to the party abbreviation/name I’ve given the number of seats they are projected to get in the latest update (14 January) to the Peilingwijzer, a polling aggregator. The site estimates a 95% certainty of a party ending up with a number of seats within the provided range.

VVD (41-45), currently 32: Say it with me: “Mark Rutte is the VVD and the VVD is Mark Rutte”. Okay, that’s probably a questionable statement, given that we haven’t seen how the public feel about the resignation of the cabinet. But while there will undoubtedly be a day when the Dutch public has had enough of Rutte, 10 years into his Prime Ministership does not seem to be that day. His charismatic optimism may be better suited for good times, but overall his handling of the pandemic has been well-received by the population, even though it hasn’t been any better than most of his European counterparts. Klaas Dijkhof was expected to be the next VVD leader, but he has decided to quit politics and find work in the private sector, meaning that Rutte probably will be around for as long as he likes.

PVV (18-22), currently 20: Say it with me: “Geert Wilders is the PVV, and the PVV is Geert Wilders”. This one, at least, is beyond debate. Wilders remains firmly in control of his party as sole member with all the power his to delegate where he sees fit. While Wilders began the pandemic calling for a hard lockdown, he shifted over time towards a more sceptical position on restrictions, while spending more time on his more familiar themes of anti-Islam rhetoric and calls for a highly-restrictive immigration policy.

CDA (16-20), currently 19: I had to think for a moment about who the CDA leader in the Tweede Kamer was for most of the last few years – which is probably one reason why Sybrand van Haersma Buma decided to move on, becoming Mayor of Leeuwarden, the largest city in his home province of Friesland. His decision to stay out of the cabinet and continue to lead his party didn’t do much for the CDA either way. A messy election for the new lead candidate followed, which was narrowly won by Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Hugo de Jonge. With his penchant for colourful suede cowboy boots, de Jonge was meant to appeal more to the big cities, traditionally not a strength for the CDA. However, his unexpectedly narrow win immediately cast a shadow over his leadership. Citing the need to focus on the coronavirus, de Jonge stood own as lead candidate, paving the way for Treasurer Wopke Hoekstra to take over – whom it seems a majority of the party wanted as leader in the first place.

D66 (13-15), currently 19: Interim leader Rob Jetten never seemed like a long-term prospect after the resignation of Alexander Pechtold, who was weakened by some questionable behaviour in his private life. And so it came as little surprise when Jetten announced he wouldn’t seek to continue as party leader, effectively handing the reins over to Sigrid Kaag, current Minister for International Development. Kaag has an impressive resume which includes several high-level positions at various bodies of the United Nations. However, the question is how much this translates to the Dutch electorate, and so far there is little indication people are greatly impressed.

GroenLinks (11-13), currently 14: Probably the most cutting criticism of Jesse Klaver is that he comes across as someone with more style than substance. After refusing to join the third Rutte cabinet over refugee policy, Klaver hasn’t really defined himself as the main opposition leader on the left, despite some healthy polls over the last few years. GroenLinks is at its best when the focus is on environmental issues like climate change, so since the pandemic took over the political scene it has been difficult for them to grab as much attention as they otherwise could expect.

SP (9-11), currently 14: They might deny it, but there must have been some hope among SP members that returning a Marijnissen to the top job would turn the party’s electoral fortunes around. After all, hadn’t the SP seen years of consecutive election victories under Jan Marijnissen, the ultimate representative of salt-of-the-earth working class men? Perhaps his daughter Lillian could return the party to its glory days? She had already followed her father’s footsteps by leading the SP on Oss council. Unfortunately for the SP, Lillian Marijnissen’s first term as leader has only led to a string of election defeats, including the shock loss of both seats in the European Parliament. Not even the extra seats given to the Netherlands after Brexit could bring the SP back to Brussels.

PvdA (10-12), currently 9: After the humiliating defeat of 2017, the PvdA under Lodewijk Asscher was on a slow rebuild to return as the largest party on the left. However, the pandemic slowed this ascent down to the point where the PvdA has been on a downwards trend in the polls for some months now. To make matters worse, with barely two weeks left before candidate lists have to be declared, Asscher has stepped down in the wake of the welfare allowance scandal, leaving the party scrambling to find a suitable successor.

ChristenUnie (6-8), currently 5: Gert-Jan Segers was another leader who decided to stay in the Tweede Kamer rather than head into the cabinet. Unlike Buma and Pechtold, he’s still in place, with his party coming out of a period of government without much of a blemish and on track to increase its numbers.

PvdD (4-6), currently 4: Generational change at the PvdD, with long-term leader Marianne Thieme retiring from parliament to pursue a broader role as an ambassador or sorts for animal rights parties across the globe. Veteran MP Esther Ouwehand is now in charge. The only other major change was the loss of Femke Merel van Kooten-Arissen, who defected to 50PLUS in 2017.

50Plus (0-2), currently 3: Waves of infighting have left this party on the verge of being removed entirely from the Tweede Kamer. Parliamentary leader Henk Krol departed in 2019, taking former PvdD MP Femke Merel van Kooten-Arissen with him. Those left over don’t have anywhere near Krol’s name-recognition.

Denk (0-2), currently 3: A strange bout of infighting mid-term, where one faction had control of the party headquarters but the other had the party’s media outlet eventually resolved itself and all is apparently well inside Denk. However, the question is whether they still have enough support to keep their three seats.

SGP (2-4), currently 3: The oldest and most stable force in Dutch politics keeps on keeping on. The SGP know their place well: while they’ll never be a large or even a medium sized party, in a time of tight margins, their small handful of seats occasionally are in high demand.

FvD (2-4), currently 3: Okay, one last time: “Thierry Baudet is Forum, and Forum is Thierry Baudet”. FvD’s stunning win in the Eerste Kamer elections in 2019 marked the high point of its first term in parliament. Since then, infighting led to a handful of Senators splitting from the party. The pandemic has shown up a few politicians across the world, and in Dutch politics it became clear just what Baudet was – or wasn’t. Initially he joined Wilders in calling for a hard lockdown, but also slid away from that position. Then he went further than Wilders and delved into conspiracy theories around the virus. This is was arguably the beginning of the end, at least for now. It was compounded by his defence of the FvD youth wing, which was found to be engaging in homophobic and antisemitic ‘banter’ on WhatsApp. As of this writing, the only remaining FvD are three seats in the Tweede Kamer (the original two plus the eventual addition of former VVD MP Wybren van Haga) and two in the Eerste Kamer. The other 10 Senators have split into two separate groups. All four MEPs have also left the party and taken their seats with them. Various FvD representatives across the country in provincial and local government have also departed.

So that’s how it stands as we move into several weeks of an acting cabinet before the Tweede Kamer elections on 17 March. I’ll be aiming to post each weekend, with shorter extra posts if something major happens.