They were almost there: after two days of meeting with the various party leaders, Annemarie Jorritsma (VVD) and Kajsa Ollongren (D66) were back at the Binnenhof last Thursday to meet Mark Rutte and Sigrid Kaag separately in order to work out where to begin coalition negotiations.
Two things then happened in quick succession. Firstly, Kajsa Ollongren announced that she had tested positive for the coronavirus. Earlier in the week, CDA minister Mona Keijzer announced she had tested positive to the virus. Despite cabinet meetings being conducted with the appropriate physical distance between attendees, the rest of Keijzer’s colleagues headed off to get tested. Only Ollongren’s test came back positive, although she showed no symptoms. In any case, this resulted in talks being suspended until it could be decided how best to proceed. However, this state of limbo didn’t last long. Ollongren left the Binnenhof not long thereafter, face mask on and carrying a large stack of papers, of which the top page had the text facing outwards. A press photographer captured the shot, and sent it back to to be published online. Then someone zoomed in on the page of notes, and everything went sideways.
The notes were for the most part not hugely interesting, except for two comments which raised a lot of eyebrows and hackles. The first one suggested that despite regular statements to the contrary, PvdA and GroenLinks wouldn’t continue to insist that they enter the coalition together or not at all. While this has caused some irritation, the second comment has proven to be far more damaging: “Positie Omtzigt, functie elders” (status Omtzigt, position elsewhere), a reference to incredibly popular CDA maverick Pieter Omtzigt, who looms large as a key figure in coalition negotiations, despite currently being on medical leave. A very generous reading of this phrase could be that Omtzigt needed to be allocated an important role, but more obvious one would be to move him to a position where he wouldn’t be able to cause much trouble.
Understandably, the CDA were not impressed by this, pointing out that these kinds of comments were beyond the scope of the investigators’ brief. The next question was where this suggestion came from: Rutte and Kaag were quick to state that neither of them had anything to do with it. Both know how important the CDA is to the next coalition, and Rutte in particular needs to keep Hoekstra interested and onside. This has seen an increase in tension within the CDA: the party’s president left after the poor election result, and a successor has yet to be chosen. And with Omtzigt out of the picture for the moment, Hoekstra is in the unenviable position of having to assert authority within the party where there are still questions about what exactly Omtzigt’s ambitions are, as well as keeping up the pressure on Ollongren and Jorritsma (failing that, Rutte and Kaag) to fully explain the Omtzigt comment.
Given this messy state of affairs, Jorritsma and Ollongren announced they were stepping down from their positions, describing the situation as untenable. Two ministers from the current cabinet have taken over as new investigators: Tamara van Ark (VVD) and Wouter Koolmees (D66). They will have to start again, speaking to each of the 17 party leaders individually.
In the meantime, Jorritsma and Ollongren are set to face questions in the Tweede Kamer on the 31st, which sets up the awkward scenario of Rutte and Kaag (technically members of the Tweede Kamer again) potentially interrogating Jorritsma and Ollongren on matters relating to their own conduct.
Not long ago, Rutte expressed his hope that coalition negotiations wouldn’t take very long. That ship has well and truly sailed.
Also on the 31st, the members of the new Tweede Kamer will be sworn in, which means that on the 30th, those who won’t be returning had a chance to farewell their workplace. Some big names are leaving politics, mostly by choice. They include:
Klaas Dijkhoff (VVD, 2017) – It’s a strangely early exit for the VVD caucus leader in the Tweede Kamer, given he was considered to be the most obvious successor to Mark Rutte. But Dijkhoff has decided to return the private sector, although given his age (late 30s), it’s entirely possible we’ll see him back around the Binnenhof in years ahead.
Pia Dijkstra (D66, 2010) – Formerly the television news reader for the 8pm bulletin on NOS, one of Dijkstra’s key areas of interest in her political career was expanding voluntary assisted dying legislation to cover some situations where someone has decided their life has been “completed” rather than needing to have a terminal illness or suffering from an incurable disease. It’s more nuanced than that, but the legislation is something D66 will be pushing hard for in the next term of parliament.
Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA, 2017) – In a parallel universe, Asscher would still have been at the head of the PvdA, preparing for another spell on the opposition benches or maybe even another tilt at a ministerial post after serving a full term as part of Rutte II. However, while his decision to take responsibility for the childcare benefits scandal may have played a role in bringing down Rutte III, most of the others who were on the scene at the time decided to continue in politics, and don’t seem to have been punished by the voters for it. Given the lackluster election result, this may be a “what if” scenario playing out in the minds of some PvdA members for a while.
Madeleine van Toorenberg (CDA, 2007) – Despite an unsuccessful tilt at the leadership in 2012, van Toorenberg has been a key member of the CDA in the Tweede Kamer, specialising in areas like justice, security and counter-terrorism. She ends her parliamentary career as the deputy leader of her party in the chamber.
Joël Voordewind (CU, 2006) – Among other things, Voordewind made a name for himself as an effective and passionate advocate for refugees and asylum-seekers. In his earlier days in the Tweede Kamer, he worked with the PvdA to introduce legislation which banned smoking in restaurants and cafes. As a former aid worker, international development remained high on his agenda throughout his political career.
Bram van Ojik (GL, 2012) – The 2012 election was the worst in GroenLinks history, with the party crawling to just four seats. Van Ojik, who served in the Tweede Kamer for GroenLinks from 1993-1994 before a stint as the Dutch ambassador to Benin in the early 2000s, took over the leadership and set about mending bridges and healing the hurt within the party. He handed over the leadership to Jesse Klaver in time for the 2017 election, but will be remembered as a key figure who helped GroenLinks out of its darkest hour.
Henk Krol (50+/PvdT/LHK, 2012 ) – It’s been quite the ride for Krol, leading 50Plus to some strong results over the years before departing and eventually setting up his own party in an attempt to avoid yet more infighting. It wasn’t enough – he managed less than a third of the votes needed for a seat.
Of the 150 members of the Tweede Kamer, 68 won’t be returning: 45 because they decided not to re-contest or weren’t selected by their party, the remaining 23 because they weren’t re-elected.