Campaign Update (4 March)

There’s some chatter on how the latest opinion polls have the VVD on a slow slide in comparison to previous polls from earlier this year and late 2020. Part of it no doubt is a result of increasing discontent with the ongoing restrictions, which inevitably comes back to Mark Rutte as the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, these former VVD voters haven’t exactly thrown their weight behind a single party, as others have only gained marginally from these nominal defections. It’s a difficult narrative to work with for journalists: barring some massive polling error or catastrophic event in the next two weeks, the largest parties look to have settled in a finishing order remarkably similar to the results of 2017, with the only stories worth mentioning at this stage (aside from the VVD remaining the largest party by quite some distance) being that the PvdA looks like it will overtake GroenLinks by a seat or two to retake its crown as the largest party on the left (although still a shadow of what it could usually expect to poll), and that Forum voor Democratie, while definitely not approaching the giddy heights of the provincial elections in 2019, may still end up returning with a few more seats than 2017. This is hardly the stuff of bold headlines and breathless reporting.

Dutch politics isn’t a place where you see a lot of money being thrown around, but two large donations were revealed today that will have raised eyebrows. D66 received a donation of 1 million euros from tech-billionaire Steven Schuurman, who also donated 350,000 euros to the PvdD, saying simply that these two parties appealed to him the most, especially in terms of their plans to combat climate change. (Dutch electoral law requires all donations of 4,500 euros to be made public.) And while we’re on money and tech matters, it was revealed that the CDA has spent the most on digital advertising so far, with a budget of over 130,000 euros. This is almost double that of the next big spender: D66, with around 70,000 euros. In contrast, the VVD has only allocated 11,000 euros for online advertising, while the PVV spends almost nothing on digital ads, confident that party leader Geert Wilders has enough following on his social media accounts to be able to spread his message for free. With over 856,000 followers on Twitter, Wilders leaves his fellow lead candidates in the dust: only Jesse Klaver of GroenLinks (283,000) and Thierry Baudet of Forum voor Democratie (251,000) rise above the pack.

An easing of some of the coronavirus-related restrictions meant that hairdressers were able to re-open yesterday, apparently leading to a scramble by a number of politicians: Geert Wilders (PVV), Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks), Tunahan Kuzu (Denk) and Pieter Omtzigt (CDA) were among those posting on Instagram from their favourite barbershop. Mark Rutte (VVD) usually books his hairdressing appointments on Saturdays, so we might see an update from him then.

Campaign Update (3 March)

(Note: Given that I’m writing these updates from a timezone ten hours ahead of the Netherlands, when I put the date in the title it’s actually about midway through the day in question, in case this is ever important to know.)

Sometimes it can be really hard to explain Dutch politics without a lot of background. Things can be so specific that it feels almost absurd unless you take a step back and take in in the wider context, and even then. The CDA is currently in one of these situations. Yesterday, Hugo de Jonge, caretaker Minister for Health and former lead candidate of the party casually declared in a TV interview that he wouldn’t be voting for Wopke Hoekstra, the CDA’s lead candidate for this month’s elections. Instead, he’d be casting his vote for the candidate sitting at number 22 on the CDA’s candidate list: Bert van den Brink, who is one of de Jonge’s staffers. Fundamentally, this doesn’t change much. Lead candidates usually attract the vast majority of the votes for a party, so Hoekstra definitely doesn’t need de Jonge’s vote. However, this is being interpreted by some in the party and the press as a sign of discontent with Hoekstra’s leadership, as de Jonge isn’t on the list himself and therefore would be expected to support the leader.

The historical precedent for this is a traumatic one for the party. In 1994, CDA Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers, retiring from politics after 12 years in the top job, said he wouldn’t be voting for his successor Elco Brinkman in the upcoming election. Instead, he would cast his ballot for the number 3 on the list, Minister for Justice Ernst Hirsch Ballin. Despite Lubbers claiming that “Elco won’t mind”, the election was a disaster for the long-dominant CDA, losing 20 of their 54 seats and ending up on the opposition benches. This marked the first time a governing coalition did not consist of at least one party with christian democratic colours. Lubbers was blamed for not paving the way enough for Brinkman, although there were a number of factors in the CDA’s poor results. Fast forward back to today’s campaign, and there are fears de Jonge’s declaration might have a similar result, although we’d need to wait for the next set of polls to see if it has any impact. A major difference between the two scenarios is that while Lubbers was ending a long career as a popular politician, de Jonge’s leadership was contentious from day one: he won by a much smaller margin than expected, and Hoekstra’s decision not to run for the leadership at that point despite his popularity within the party loomed large over the contest.

Elsewhere, it looks like the populist right parties might be on the march again, with the latest polls giving a boost to both FvD and PVV. It appears that almost half of potential voters haven’t entirely made up their mind, and polls may be underestimating the appeal of Thierry Baudet’s “Freedom Caravan” as he continues to travel around the country.

This election, 10 of the 37 parties who will appear on the ballot are led by women, the highest number yet. It is one of those moments which also shows how far the quest for some kind of gender equity has to go, given that most likely only half of these women will be elected (the leaders of D66, SP, PvdA, PvdD and 50PLUS), with Sigrid Kaag of D66 on track to lead the pack, her party currently 4th in the polls with an estimated range of between 12-16 seats (D66 currently has 19).

Lastly, it might be worth keeping an eye on the microparty Volt, which looks like it could sneak into the Tweede Kamer with a seat or two. It is a pan-European movement which calls for a federal Europe and generally sits left-of-centre. It has one seat in the European parliament (elected from Germany) where it sits with the Greens/EFA bloc. It has also managed to win over 30 seats at the local government level across Bulgaria, Germany and Italy.

The Campaign So Far (2 March 2021)

Since it has been known for some time that the next general election in the Netherlands would be held on 17 March, you could argue that the campaign has been under way for a while, even if a number of politicians (especially ministers) have been pretending otherwise, claiming that their main focus is on combating the COVID-19 coronavirus. The parliamentary term technically ended on 12 February, but the Tweede Kamer has been recalled since to deal with a few outstanding matters here and there, as well as passing a new law which allowed the government to impose a curfew on the country. An earlier attempt at using emergency powers to achieve this was initially struck down by the courts after a legal challenge by an anti-lockdown group. The ruling was overturned on appeal, but the government rammed through legislation through parliament just in case.
It seems like ages ago that the Rutte III cabinet was handing in its resignation over the report into the childcare benefits scandal. Successive cabinets implemented policy which unfairly and falsely targeted thousands of low-income families (many from a migrant background), accusing them of claiming childcare benefits to which they had no right. It took several years of legal action by a number of these families for the injustices to be exposed and compensation to be awarded.

Despite the magnitude of this scandal, which destroyed relationships and lives as these families fought off debt collectors, there has been little movement in the polls: the scandal has had no significant detrimental impact on any of the governing parties. The most recent update to poll aggregator Peilingwijzer shows the VVD projected to win around 40 seats, or 25% of the vote. The PVV and CDA are currently fighting it out for a distance second place, on around 20 seats each. This shows a small gain in momentum for the CDA since Wopke Hoekstra took over the leadership: the CDA was clearly trailing the PVV in months past. Next up is a group of left or left-learning parties: D66, GroenLinks, SP and the PvdA. Together they might manage 50 seats, which is why no one is doing much more than shrug at GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver’s call for greater cooperation on the left. Unless there is a massive shift in the polls, one or two of these parties will probably have to work with the VVD and CDA, who seem almost certain to form the core of the next governing coalition.

With COVID-19 nowhere near under control yet in the Netherlands and the vaccine rollout progressing at a slower pace compared to neighbouring countries, campaigns have been mostly online, although some parties have tried to move about on the streets where possible. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Thierry Baudet of Forum voor Democratie, long since submerged in conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. He has held rallies in towns across the country, urging the removal of the curfew and reversal of various restrictions. It seems to be a last ditch attempt at some form of relevancy, as polls have FvD down at around three seats (their current number after a former VVD MP joined late last year), a far cry from two years ago when the FvD was keeping pace with the VVD. Once the pandemic started, support for the FvD started to plummet and it seems almost impossible for this to be reversed, especially in the light of ongoing allegations of Baudet’s
racist and homophobic tendencies.

A few debates have already taken place, most notably the NPO Radio 1 debate, with 13 lead candidates rotating in small groups, and the RTL TV debate, with the leaders of the six largest parties based upon the 2017 results. At this point everyone knows what they need to do to appeal to their supporters, so the all-important “game changer” moment hasn’t made an appearance and doesn’t seem likely to do so the way things are going.

That’s the basics for now. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be back here on a daily basis with a shorter post recapping the most recent events.

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.

Continue reading “The State of Play: Mid-January 2021”

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Welcome to the Dutch Politics in English blog, formerly a podcast (and before that also a blog). The goal is to publish a short post each week that the Dutch parliament sits, and on a more regular basis during a general election campaign.

For bits and pieces, random thoughts, and the occasional live tweet session, please see my Twitter account @dutchpoliticsEN

Dutch Parliamentary Calendar 2021 / 2022

Start of the parliamentary year: 7 September 2021
Autumn recess: 15-25 October 2021
Christmas recess: 17 December 2021 to 10 January 2022
Spring recess:  25 February to 7 March 2022
May recess: 22 April to 19 May 2022
Summer recess: 8 July to 5 September 2022

(All dates are inclusive.)

The Tweede Kamer usually sits from Tuesday to Thursday.

Local government elections will be held on 16 March 2022.