Campaign Update (14 March)

Since last weekend, only one of the three polling organisations which the Peilingwijzer uses to construct its weighted average has released new polling, so I won’t build another table. It’s clear that the pollsters are all geared up to release their final poll over the next couple of days, as close to polling day as possible. However, I will mention that the most recent poll shifted the Peilingwijzer average in few ways: JA21 and Volt look more and more likely to enter the Tweede Kamer on at least one seat, and possibly up to three each; the VVD continues its slow slide, but remains around double the size of the PVV in second place. Other parties have shifted a seat in one direction or another, but this is easily within the margin of error. Amazingly, 50Plus are still tipped to retain a couple of their seats despite the ongoing infighting.

Debates between lead candidates kicked off in early February with the “Debate of the North” held to debate issues important to voters in Friesland, Groningen and Drenthe, and around a month later the “Debate of the South” was held – this time all the lead candidates were present, as VVD, CDA and D66 were criticised for sending the second candidate on their lists to the north. However, one of the more unusual debates is held during the Jeugdjournaal (Youth News), which airs for 20 minutes each evening, offering a version of the day’s events targeted at children. Lead candidates for the VVD, SP, CDA, D66, PVV and GroenLinks were present, paired up in the order which I’ve listed them. The format is a mixture of Q&A from children in the studio (and elsewhere), and a light-hearted quiz on current affairs (one question the candidates struggled with was the name of the panda recently born in a Dutch zoo). The event always gives an insight into how parties frame their policies to younger people. For example, when a question was asked about CO2 reduction, Klaver was quick to talk about how important it was, and how it was the responsibility of adults to make it happen, but Wilders emphasised that it would be too expensive, which meant less money in your wallet “to go on holiday or to McDonalds”. But if there’s one place where raising your voice or general aggression never does you any good, it’s the Youth News debate.

Lastly, Councils across the Netherlands have flagged that coronavirus restrictions mean they won’t be focussing on the speed at which they count votes. At previous elections, tiny councils Vlieland, Schiermonnikoog and Rozendaal engaged in friendly competition to see who could tally their votes first, but this will be put aside in order to sure the safety of their staff. Given that restrictions will also apply to all councils, I’d expect results to come in slower in general, although usually results don’t shift much beyond the first couple of hours of counting.

Campaign Update (13 March)

Today I’m going to take a look at a few parties which haven’t featured much in my daily reports for one reason or another.

Let’s start with the Socialistische Partij (SP), which has been in a bit of a rut lately – the last election where they increased their numbers overall was 2015, when a successful provincial election campaign resulted in a gain of one seat in the Eerste Kamer (or Senate). The party has been hampered by the coronavirus-related restrictions, as a key aspect of their election campaign is doorknocking. In fact, it is so central to how the party operates that it wasn’t too long ago that a few local branches were banned from taking part in their council elections under the banner of the SP because they were deemed not to have made enough of an effort to engage with their community. Lilian Marijnissen, who took over the leadership after the 2017 election, should in theory be a voter magnet. She has a trusted surname (her father, Jan Marijnissen, led the SP into the Tweede Kamer for the first time in 1994 and to many election victories over the next decade or so), plenty of confidence, charm, and a calm approach to delivering her message. She even manages to toss out the odd zinger, most notably when she described Mark Rutte as pretending to be “self-employed”, but pointing out that when you hire him, he brings “the VVD along for free” – a biting way to describe the fact that Rutte is far more popular than his party. In any case, the problem for Marijnissen is that the SP just won’t shift in the polls. It has been on around 10 seats for a while, down from the current 14.

Arguably the most collegial head-to-head debate of the campaign was between Sigrid Kaag (D66) and Lilianne Ploumen (PvdA). While there certainly are differences between their parties, the candidates held a measured debate where they agreed upon most things. This stands in stark contrast to some of the more fiery contests, in particular the Rutte vs Wilders clashes (although it is usually Wilders who goes on the attack). However, the way these campaigns have been tracking diverges from how they are portrayed in the media. Kaag is considered to have run one of the better campaigns this time around, but the polls still have D66 on a loss of four seats. There are still a fair amount of voters yet to make up their minds, but unless polls to be released in the coming days show a significant shift it doesn’t look like the momentum will amount to much. Ploumen on the other hand doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact in terms of press coverage, but nevertheless it appears certain that the PvdA will at least win a few extra seats next week, even if this still leaves them with a very low number of MPs in the context of the party’s history. It’s entirely possible that both D66 and PvdA end up with the same number of seats when the dust clears.

Lastly, the Partij voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals, PvdD) may have started out as a single-issue party in the early 2000s, but over the years they’ve developed a full suite of policies that just happens to place animals and the environment at its core. They’ve called their election manifesto “Plan B”, and that’s a good summary of their approach to politics. They seek a radical reworking of the Dutch economy, more so than other parties on the left. While the party is too small to appear in any of the television debates they have been growing steadily over the years at all levels of government. Lead candidate Esther Ouwehand has indicated the party is now interested in governing after many years of saying they were “too activist”, so they’ll be one to watch in the coming parliamentary term.

Campaign Update (12 March)

Usually, a debate between the two largest parties in a parliament is a battle of left vs right, or progressive vs conservative – in any case, two opposite visions of the future of the country. This does not apply to the current political scene in the Netherlands. The two largest parties after the votes are counted are likely to be the two largest parties after the 2017 election: the centre-right VVD and far-right PVV. So while the media regularly puts Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders head-to-head as though they are the top two candidates to be the next Prime Minister, everyone knows that Rutte is the only real candidate. The PVV is effectively under a cordon sanitaire since the failed attempt by the VVD and CDA to govern with Wilders in a supply and confidence role from 2010 to 2012. And if the VVD and CDA want nothing to do with Wilders (the same applies to Thierry Baudet of Forum voor Democratie), then the seats he wins will always be in opposition. These debates do nothing for the vast majority of the country who don’t see Wilders as someone who could ever have the top job.

Did the CDA overestimate the appeal of Wopke Hoekstra? I’ve already written about some of his missteps and poor debate performances, but with only a few days left in the campaign and the party showing no sign of moving in any direction in the polls, he really doesn’t seem to be the boy wonder his party thought he was. Would sticking to Hugo de Jonge have been a better choice? Or maybe the maverick Pieter Omzigt, who appears to have a cult following both within the CDA and in the wider community. It wasn’t too long ago that Hoekstra was being touted as the big challenge to Mark Rutte. Now his biggest challenge is to stop his party losing seats next week.

Most parties agree upon the need to take action on climate change, but the question of how much action and what action to take still varies quite a bit. The independent government agency Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving or PBL (roughly translated: Institute for Environment & Planning) offered parties the opportunity to have their climate policies analysed to see how they would impact CO2 levels. The VVD decided not to submit their plans, so GroenLinks did so on their behalf to consultancy Kalavasta, perhaps hoping for evidence that the VVD was nowhere near as climate-friendly as they may have claimed. The results were released by Jesse Klaver at a press conference in Nieuwspoort, a media centre next door to the Binnenhof. While GroenLinks’ plan was estimated by the PBL to reduce carbon emissions by over 50% by 2030, according to Kalavasta’s analysis the VVD would only manage a 41% reduction in this timeframe. This would fall short of the Climate Accord agreed upon by the cabinet and Tweede Kamer in 2019. “Climate-betrayal”, declared Klaver. Former D66 leader Rob Jetten joined Klaver on stage, declaring that Rutte’s signature on the climate agreement was worthless. The VVD saw it differently, claiming that a number of assumptions in both the PBL and Kalavasta analyses were questionable in terms of how they calculated the subsidies set aside for renewable energy.

Campaign Update (11 March)

One last hurrah for this parliamentary term, although it was more of a whimper, as the Tweede Kamer met today to hear an update on the state of play regarding the coronavirus. Currently there are around 100,000 infected persons in the Netherlands, with around 5,000 new cases per day. 80% of these new cases have the British variant of the virus, which would explain why it is still spreading at such a pace despite the lockdown/curfew. Aside from the usual suspects (mostly the PVV), there wasn’t much appetite to demand a loosening of restrictions. The cabinet itself argued that the current set of restrictions (including the curfew) needed to continue until at least the end the month. Most parties voted to support this, although some of them chose to emphasise their own particular talking points where possible (i.e. the schools have to stay open, there needs to be more support for certain groups of people, etc.).

Election day might still be six days away, but voting has already begun. Citizens over 70 are eligible for a postal vote, and can drop off their ballot at their nearest town hall. However, postal voting is not as easy as it seems (take it from me). You have to print out your ballot, cast your vote, and then seal it in the white envelope marked “Ballot”. Next, you have to sign a declaration and seal that, together with the sealed white envelope, in a larger orange envelope. Caretaker Minister for Internal Affairs Kajsa Ollongren (D66) reported that 2.5% of postal votes received didn’t follow this process, placing the ballot and declaration in the same envelope, which is a breach of the principle of a secret ballot. Voters who attempted to cast their ballot this way can return to their town hall and apply for a new one.

While the government still wants most people to vote on 17 March, a limited number of polling stations will be open on 15 and 16 March for people from at-risk groups in relation to the coronavirus.

Campaign Update (10 March)

It must be about that time of year again: ailing seniors party 50Plus has fallen into yet another bout of infighting (the last one was May 2020); this time at the worst possible moment: one week before polling day. Liane de Haan, the lead candidate, and number three on the list, Ellen Verkoelen, have been fighting a war of words via the media. It started when Verkoelen accused de Haan of not sticking to the party’s policy platform – de Haan accused Verkoelen of the same sin and called for her to step aside. Verkoelen has refused to do this. At one point, both candidates were in separate television talkshows explaining their position. If this keeps up, they run the risk of neither being elected.

Nieuwsuur is a fairly serious news program which airs each evening at 9:30pm on one of the public television channels. It regularly interviews politicians, and in the run-up to the election they’ve been interviewing a lead candidate each night where possible. Earlier this week Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) and Sigrid Kaag (D66) submitted themselves for scrutiny – both came away somewhat bruised from the experience. Next in line was meant to be Geert Wilders (PVV), but he withdrew late in the game, citing the need to prepare for his one-on-one debate on the program Pauw against Mark Rutte (VVD), which would take place a little later the same evening. While the merits of this excuse could be debated, it seems likely that Wilders was avoiding a situation where he would almost certainly be pinned down over Dion Graus, current PVV MP and number 13 on the party’s candidate list. Graus is under police investigation over allegations that he forced his now ex-wife into having sex with his personal security detail when they were still married. (He claims that his wife consented to these activities.) Documents seen by newspaper NRC Handelsblad also suggest that Graus falsely claimed around 125,000 euros in reimbursements relating to his position as an MP. Wilders has refused to engage much with any of these allegations and shows no sign of standing down Graus – something he could easily do, as he wields total control over his party.

In 2017, Jesse Klaver was the new kid on the block: a young lead candidate in his early 30s who named Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau as inspirational figures, and definitely attempted to emulate the latter with his rolled-up shirt sleeves and upbeat approach to campaigning. In a political scene accustomed to staid middle-aged men, this was a breath of fresh air and the end result was 14 seats, the best result the party had ever achieved. Lightning doesn’t seem to be striking twice, though – current polls have GroenLinks looking like it will lose a couple of seats next week. Klaver has been searching for something to bring back the momentum of 2017, but the coronavirus certainly hasn’t helped, as part of the hype of the last election campaign was generated through large rallies, or “meet-ups” which felt like quasi-religious gatherings at times. Last night in the one-on-one debate on Pauw with the CDA’s Wopke Hoekstra he finally seemed to strike a few blows, backing Hoekstra into a corner over funding for one of his party’s policies – an unexpected position for the caretaker Finance Minister to find himself in. Now we’ll see whether voters were paying attention, and whether they were impressed.

Campaign Update (9 March)

As we enter the last full week of the campaign, you can expect lead candidates to be as many places as they possibly can – which in this case means, in the media. And unlike two or three-party systems where there are only a small number of people the press really want to speak to (i.e. the two candidates most likely to next lead the country), there are plenty of opportunities going around for media outlets and candidates alike. Hence, if you were monitoring Dutch media, you would have seen Sigrid Kaag (D66) Sunday afternoon on Buitenhof (TV), and would do so again in Nieuwsuur (TV) Monday evening 9:30pm, while Mark Rutte (VVD) will appear on Dit is de dag (radio) at 6:30pm. The Christian newspaper Nederlands Dagblad will host the traditional “Christian lead candidates” debate with Wopke Hoekstra (CDA), Gert Jan Seger (CU) and Kees van der Staaij (SGP) at around 8:45pm. To round off the evening, Hoekstra will head over to Pauw (TV) at 10:10pm in order to participate in a head-to-head debate with Jesse Klaver (GL). Hence, it is possible to pick your favourite news program or two and eventually see an interview or debate with most of the main lead candidates in the run-up to polling day.

And all that’s just the national media. While lead candidates naturally gravitate towards the programs with a larger audience, they’ll definitely make some time for some local and provincial press, especially if its an area to which they have a personal connection. Otherwise, you’d expect candidates lower down on the ticket to take up these second-tier media opportunities.

Forum voor Democratie (FvD) leader Thierry Baudet appears to be the first Dutch politician to have a tweet slapped with a warning about misinformation about COVID-19. Baudet took to Twitter to say he wouldn’t be accepting a vaccination, implying that the death rate was too high, the side-effects were severe, and the long-term effect on the immune system was unknown. Twitter responded by preventing the tweet from being liked, retweeted or replied to, and added the note “This tweet is misleading. Find out why health officials consider COVID-19 vaccines safe for most people.” (I’m hoping this message appeared in Dutch for those with their Twitter account set to that language.)

International Women’s Day would seem like a good opportunity for well-meaning men to brandish their feminist credentials, but often it leads to embarrassing situations, as the CDA’s Wopke Hoekstra found out when he tried to give his women’s day message a personal twist. Hoekstra recalled as a young boy his surprise when he discovered the new car which arrived at the family home was bought by his mother from her salary, and not his father’s wages as he had assumed. While Hoekstra went on to mention how this was a case of how quickly gender roles can manifest in the minds of children, his suggestion on how to combat this contained so many platitudes that it wasn’t clear whether he’d really learned much from this great revelation at all.

Campaign Update (8 March)

With it being Sunday – still a day of rest in the Netherlands, although not as much as it was when I lived there in the late 1990s and early 2000s – I’m going to spend this post talking about how trends in the polls over the last year. Once again, I’m using data from Peilingwijzer, the polling aggregator which weighs the results of the three main pollsters in the Netherlands: I&O Research, Ipsos, and Kantar. The table below compares the parties movements over the last year, since the pandemic began. The margin of error is estimated to be roughly two seats either direction for the parties with at least 10 seats, and one seat either direction for parties with fewer than 10 seats.


The first thing worth noting is that the current government (VVD, CDA, D66, ChristenUnie) is on 77 seats, which is a small but workable majority. It is quite unusual for this to happen, especially given the childcare benefits scandal and the increased level of discontent with the coronavirus restrictions. However, Mark Rutte’s image as a calm crisis manager is the primary reason why the VVD is so far ahead of the others. Even though the VVD has slipped a bit in recent polls, on these numbers it will still increase its representation by six seats in comparison to the 2017 election result.

The fall from grace of the FvD appears to have sent voters back to the VVD, PVV and maybe the CDA – Baudet didn’t do himself any favours by buying into coronavirus conspiracy theories at a time when the population wanted stable, competent government with a focus on controlling the pandemic. Geert Wilders’s PVV was smart enough to centre its opposition on the severity of lockdown measures rather than whether the virus was a thing to begin with.

Among the left there has been very little movement in the last year – a small shift away from GroenLinks, possibly to D66 as an experienced governing party with decent progressive credentials. While the PvdA will almost certainly increase their representation from the current nine seats, it’s worth keeping in mind that the 2017 result was their worst ever, so there really was only one way to go. If a party on the left plays any role in the next government, it will probably be as the last piece of the puzzle to get to the minimum majority of 76. Hence, the reluctance of parties like GroenLinks and the PvdA to be the only one on the left to join the VVD and CDA – they know that any benefit they might receive from governing with them will be negligible in comparison to the heat they’d face from their rivals.

Lastly, the smallest parties give a good example of what infighting can do. FvD was meant to be a medium-sized party but looks like it will end up with a small handful of seats after many key members split late last year. Similarly, 50Plus will be lucky to end up with much at all after losing charismatic leader Henk Krol, who has started his own party. Denk seem to have survived and repaired their bout of infighting, but seem unlikely to attract more than their very specific group of backers from migrant backgrounds. The ChristenUnie and SGP also have a small group of supporters, but these have shown to be incredibly loyal over many election cycles, guaranteeing these parties a certain number of seats just by how well they can turn these people out to the polls. The Partij voor de Dieren (PvdD) appears to have found its niche in Dutch politics as they broaden their horizons beyond animal welfare, but their policies for a radical re-thinking of the way the Netherlands operates is a step too far for many voters, who are used to Dutch politics having a more incremental approach to matters. As for the new parties like JA21 (FvD splinter party) and Volt (pan-European, pro-EU), we’ll just have a to wait and see, but neither look like they’ll enter the Tweede Kamer with anything more than a seat or two.

Campaign Update (7 March)

A quiet start to the weekend, with mainly spot fires in the headlines. For example, Don Ceder, the number four on the ChristienUnie list (and thus almost certain to be elected) called for the five-day cooling-off period for women seeking an abortion to be applied even in the case of a pregnancy conceived through rape. This was in response to a recent motion which passed the Tweede Kamer by a huge margin, calling for the cooling-off period to be abolished entirely (the CU voted against). While this is an issue that is strongly felt on both sides of the equation – D66 and GroenLinks were furious at Ceder’s comments – in the wider political context this is a cry in the dark: the cooling-off period will go; it’s just a matter of how soon this can be carried out.

PvdA lead candidate Lilianne Ploemen has decided it’s time to take the VVD and CDA to task, accusing them of treating the Netherlands as though it were a multinational corporation, with a focus on winners and losers, profits and debts. Instead, she said, in a speech from her home city of Maastricht, the PvdA would govern on the basis of fairness and unity. The PvdA is set to gain a few seats according to the latest polls, but it needs a game changer if it has any chance of being more than a minor player in the next set of coalition negotiations.

Given that tomorrow is Sunday and I don’t expect much news, I’ll break down the latest state of the polls and take a look at some of the recent trends instead.

Campaign Update (6 March)

If there’s one misconception about the Netherlands I’m always keen to debunk, it’s the idea that the entire country is like Amsterdam: super-progressive and super-liberal. While in comparison to most other countries, even in Europe, the Netherlands overall does indeed sit on the progressive end of the spectrum in terms of matters like marriage equality, abortion and euthanasia, the country has a strong history of Christian political parties, and is more right-wing than most people realise.

While recent elections have not been kind to the largest Christian party in the Netherlands, the CDA used to dominate politics, often winning around a third of the vote with crushing margins in regional areas, especially the more Catholic southern provinces. Increasingly, it is becoming a medium-sized party which hangs about in the range of 15-20 seats in the Tweede Kamer. Research presented on radio program Dit is de dag (This is the day) Friday evening suggested that not only do a majority of Christian voters plan to vote for a secular party (57%), but that the shift away from the CDA might be here to stay. Among Christian voters in general (defined as those who attend church at least once a month), the top three parties are the ChristenUnie (CU), CDA and VVD in that order. This already marks a shift from the days when the CDA would easily take out the top spot, but the numbers among younger Christian voters were even more alarming for the party: the CU is still most favoured, but D66 came in second ahead of the VVD, with the CDA finishing sixth behind even GroenLinks. Why D66? As a centrist party which has worked with the CDA and CU in the past they’re a familiar face, but it probably also helps that lead candidate Sigrid Kaag openly speaks about her Catholic faith. In contrast, CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra is not particularly religious. And while these numbers pertain to the upcoming election only, it does suggest that the CDA’s supporter base is ageing, and they’ll need to find a way to attract younger voters quickly. The only bit of hope for them is that around 15% of Christian voters remain undecided.

A survey on trust in politics and politicans conducted by I&O Research for newspaper NRC Handelsblad gave a handy overview of the state of Dutch politics. The question I found most useful was where voters were asked about the level of trust they had in the government. The only answers were that they either had trust, or very little/no trust. Unsurprisingly, VVD voters survey had the most trust in the government (around 85%). At the other end of the trust spectrum, but not the political spectrum, were FvD voters; fewer than 5% said they had trust in the government. Other parties whose supporters had low trust in the government were the PVV, SP, PvdD and Denk. Together, these five parties represent the more radical left and right wings of the Dutch political spectrum – ones that call for a shake-up of the status quo. Supporters of the CDA, D66, PvdA, CU and 50PLUS also showed strong levels of trust in the government. With the exception of 50PLUS, these parties are often to be found in governing coalitions, and are closer to the centre of the political spectrum than the first group. You could call VVD, CDA, PvdA, D66 and to a lesser extent CU the “establishment” parties, with the others being the “outsider” group. (Of these parties, only the PvdA could be said to be a truly left-wing party – D66 is socially liberal but also tacks more to the right in economic matters.) This leaves SGP and GroenLinks to be explained – the former’s supporters were third in levels of trust behind VVD and CDA, while GroenLinks supporters were split 50/50. The SGP has a long history of supporting the concept of stable governance: this, combined with a strong respect of authority and the state means that their trust in government is more about one of their core principles instead of commentary on the specific policies of the current government. On the other hand, GroenLinks is attempting to make the transition from outsider to establishment party, with the hope of participating in the next coalition government.

Oh, and it being Saturday morning as I write this, Mark Rutte did indeed appear at his hairdresser to finally get his hair cut.

Campaign Update (5 March)

On election night, votes in the Netherlands are counted and reported by local government area (a booth-by-booth breakdown is usually published in the next edition of the local papers). So despite the facts that votes are tallied nationally when determining seat allocation, parties still are able to drill down in order to work out almost exactly where their supporters live. For example, the conservative Christian SGP rely upon a high percentage of the vote from a couple of dozen small councils along the Dutch “Bible Belt”, which runs roughly from the centre to the south-west corner of the country. D66 and GroenLinks are usually strongest in cities, especially those with universities. The SP usually does best in the industrial areas of the south, and the CDA’s strongholds are traditionally in the more rural parts of the country. Watching the map is exciting but also not always a particularly reliable indicator of the state of the nation. In the 2017 election, the PvdA’s demise was so devastating (losing 29 of their 38 seats) that the VVD found itself topping the polls in local government areas where normally it could expect to run a distant second or third, despite losing 8 of its 41 seats that evening. And while it looks like the map will be dominated by the blue of the VVD again in a couple of weeks, it’s always worth remembering how much can easily change should enough votes coalesce behind a major rival. I say all this because while the province of Groningen has never been a happy hunting ground for the VVD, it managed to top the poll in two of its councils as well as most of the councils neighbouring province Drenthe – both of which are usually PvdA strongholds. However, Mark Rutte made some puzzling comments yesterday, claiming that Groningen would be a good place to establish a nuclear power plant, citing the province’s eagerness to be a leader in the transition to new forms of energy. Of course, Groningen has just settled a long-running battle about the impact of gas drilling on the province, and is in no mood to embrace a different form of controversial energy. Rutte recanted the next day, but let’s just say it will be a big surprise if the map doesn’t become significantly less blue in that corner of the country.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the CDA under Wopke Hoekstra is positioning itself as a hard-nosed alternative for disillusioned VVD or FvD voters. Hoekstra claimed that spending cuts would have to come sooner rather than later, although he said his preference was simply not to increase spending, despite the ongoing economic fallout of the pandemic. He also suggested that unemployment benefits should only last for 12 months after losing one’s job, rather than the current 24 months – also something you wouldn’t expect in a recession. However, to those who in the last few years who felt that the VVD was becoming too soft and had nominally moved their vote to FvD (before Baudet went down the rabbit-hole of virus conspiracy theories) might decide that Hoekstra’s CDA is a safe pair of hands to make sure Rutte doesn’t slide any further leftwards.

Research published by weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer details just how much women in politics are attacked on social media platforms. D66 lead candidate Sigrid Kaag is the most regular target: the report estimated that she is currently on the receiving end of an abusive tweet every 15 minutes. In addition to gendered insults, Kaag’s husband is Palestinian, which brings in an Islamophobic element (although he isn’t a practicing Muslim). Women from across the political spectrum are regularly attacked in a gendered way, demonstrating that while misogyny might be more prevalent in certain political circles, it certainly isn’t restricted to them. Some of the women in politics interviewed for the article and adjacent media appearances say this kind of behaviour is keeping talented women away from politics, showing that even in a country usually seen as a progressive frontrunner, there is plenty of progress to be made.