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Saturday, 19 October 2013

Successful negotiations in The Netherlands and the US: a success for democracy?! Or failed politics hanging out on a limb?!

This week was seemingly a good week for two countries which stand very close to me,  The Netherlands and the United States: 
  • Last Friday, 11 October 2013, the Dutch government, consisting of VVD (liberal-conservative) and  PvdA (labour) could reach an agreement with three opposition parties and thus saved the 2014 annual state budget before the gates of hell;
  • This Wednesday, 14 October 2013, the American congress could reach an agreement upon the debt ceiling and the government shutdown, thus preventing the American economy and consequently the world’s economy from turning into a nuclear fall-out zone (according to the most bearish pundits).

All’s well that ends well?! A blatant success for democracy in both countries, right?! Think again.

The Cabinet Mark Rutte II is the sixth unstable cabinet in a ‘period of utter confusion’ in The Netherlands that already endures since 2002.

This period started with the uprising of Pim Fortuyn’s LPF party (List Pim Fortuyn): a populistical rightwing party that took The Netherlands by storm and acted as a renovating gamechanger, shaking up the whole political spectrum in The Netherlands.

Before this period, the initially successful Purple Cabinet Wim Kok II, consisting of the liberal/conservative VVD and D66 and Dutch labour party PvdA, showed an increasingly regentesque and lackluster performance: “trust us, we know what is good for you”. This attitude drifted them apart from their grassroots: the cabinet didn’t understand the people anymore and vice versa.

This became especially obvious after the 9-11 attacks in New York: Purple II failed to recognize the feelings of fear and discontent of the white middle and lower class people and the anger and inferiority complex of the (coloured and originally foreign) minorities in the cities. Their soothing words and politics of forced togetherness increasingly fell on deaf ears with the population turning more radical.

The intelligent, straightforward and eloquent Fortuyn came, saw and conquered by expressing the thoughts of the ‘moral majority’ and mobilizing the white lower classes for his populist policy, in spite of his open homosexuality and his often blunt expressions about his opponents.

When eventually Pim Fortuyn was shot on 6 May 2002 by an environmental extremist, being the first political murder in a few hundred years, the purple Cabinet Kok II was left in total confusion and despair. They widely received the blame for this political murder, due to the heavy and sometimes unfriendly debate which took place with Fortuyn in the months before the murder.

The heirs of the populist Fortuyn movement, most of them being politically weak and unexperienced opportunists and business-men with wild ideas, flourished on the storms of protests in The Netherlands. They came in the Second Chamber of Parliament with an overwhelming 26 seats (of 150): a unique situation for such a new party.

Subsequently, the LPF formed a cabinet with the Christian-Democrat CDA and the opportunistic liberal/conservative VVD, under the hopelessly weak and uninspiring leadership of PM Jan Peter Balkenende. The Cabinet Balkenende I, a battle-zone from the very beginning, only lasted for a pitiful 86 days before entering its resignation to the queen, after a series of accidents, arguments and political mischief.  And the LPF? It capsized within four years after its establishment, never reaching again the popularity of 2002, straight after the murder of Fortuyn.

Nevertheless, this LPF party sowed the seeds for the outer rightwing and populist PVV  (i.e. Party for Freedom), established in 2005 by VVD-refugee Geert Wilders, who gained instant success from the increasing dissatisfaction, general distrust and radicalization of the Dutch people. PVV gained more seats at every election and the more rude Wilders behaved himself, the more popular he became.

This phenomenon led to a further radicalization of the PVV, culminating in (intended) joint ventures between the PVV and Front National (France), Vlaams Belang (Belgium) and the UKIP (although the latter was immediately discarded by Nigel Farage): a European front against the EU and the Euro.

In hindsight, the emergence of the LPF and the PVV was the first sign of a much broader crisis of trust, credibility and general dissatisfaction between the Dutch citizens and the establishment: the people in the middle of the political spectrum, who had led the country for decades.

These regents were suddenly discarded by large parts of the Dutch population, in favor of the parties at the right and left extremes. They had lost their political credibility, virtually without knowing what hit them in the first place.

This loss of trust and credibility is an extremely important theme in The Netherlands, with far-reaching consequences. Therefore it is my firm opinion that the current economic crisis is not so much a financial/economic crisis per sé, but a consequence of the expanding ruptures in Dutch society.

From  2002 on, the six Cabinets (Balkenende I-IV and Rutte I-II) have been looking for an answer to the public discontent ever since, trying to find it through moderate mid-left and mid-right Cabinets, but also through the more outspoken right Cabinets Balkenende I (as earlier mentioned, with the LPF) and Rutte I (with the PVV as silent partner). The painful result was, however, that every cabinet further alienated large parts of the Dutch population and that every election since 2002 further split up the Dutch political landscape.

The current situation in this Dutch political mess is that PVV (outer rightwing) and SP (outer left-wing) are the largest parties in the polls and the combined mid-right and mid-left parties hardly can form a workable majority, based on the same polls. This turns October 11’s agreement between VVD, PvdA, D66 (liberal), ChristenUnie (christian-social) and SGP (orthodox-Christian) almost in a Pyrrhic victory.

The current Cabinet parties VVD and PvdA, in spite of their political differences, are glued to their seats, afraid as they are to be blown to smithereens by the parties from the outer rim of the political spectrum. This is a recipe for political indecisiveness and petrification and a bad omen for political disaster on the horizon. Every bad move of the parties in the centre makes the parties at the edges stronger.

This brings us to the situation in the US: since the Republican party tried to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1999 as a consequence of the Monica Lewinsky affair, there has been a growing schism and distrust between the Democrat Party and the Republicans. This led to two parties who basically didn’t understand each other, didn’t trust each other one bit and did everything to tackle each other’s politics. The interest of the country as-a-whole was left behind in favor of cheap political gains and blows below-the-belt.

This growing division between Democrats and GOP-members was in my opinion the visible result of the growing cracks in the American society:
  • between rich and poor people;
  • between people making millions in salary and fees per year and people, who need three jobs to keep their head above water;
  • between worshippers of the Second Amendment concerning Fire-arms and people who became victims of random gun violence;
  • between people who see taxes as a necessary evil and people who basically want to abolish the whole federal government;
  • between deeply religious and conservative people and progressive ‘liberal’ freethinkers;
  • between white people and differently coloured people;
  • between people, who want to keep their historical privileges at any price and people who have to pay dearly for these privileges. 

All these divided groups of people completely lack any kind of understanding for the people in the opposing groups, leading to open and sometimes very aggressive hostility between these groups.

Everybody who thinks that the Tea Party are ‘just a bunch of fools’ – many middle and upper class citizens in historically progressive cities, like New York, San Francisco and LA seem to think like that – deny the strong, persistant and sometimes openly militant grassroots of this ‘party within a party’ and the enormous divisions with the US society.

This is the quite desperate situation that the US political landscape is in now. And the agreement of October 14 does not change anything about this. Rather to the contrary…

With the shutdown and especially the debt ceiling, hanging above the Congress as Damocles’ Sword, both GOP-members and Democrats did produce ‘some kind of majority’ in Congress to solve these issues… for a while. I must admit: almost to my surprise, these people succeeded eventually.

But will this agreement, making a preliminary end to the debt ceiling-issue, lead to growing trust in the moderate political representatives in Congress and to a diminishing influence of the Tea Party?! Probably not!

And will this agreement lead in any way to a narrowing of the cracks in American society?! Probably not!

Will this agreement convince the American citizens that paying taxes, generally insuring basic healthcare and narrowing the gap between the highest and lowest incomes, are necessary evils to keep the society in one piece?! Probably not!

In other words: this crisis sowed the seeds for the next debt ceiling crisis… And the next political crisis, widening the gap between parties in the US.

This debt ceiling crisis could be solved after all, albeit in overtime! However, I am not so sure about the next debt ceiling crisis… in February 2014.

Just like in The Netherlands, the Democrat and GOP representatives in the centre of the political spectrum get punished, in favor of the representatives at the outer rims of this spectrum. Also in the US, October 14’s victory was a Pyrrhic Victory for the moderate Democrats and GOP-members.

The political developments in the United States and The Netherlands are a proof to me that the financial/economic crisis in our countries is only at the beginning and not at the end of its lifecycle: it is especially the crisis of political trust and credibility that needs to be fought to the bitter end. The end of THIS crisis is yet a distant spot at the horizon. 

Without credible and trusted governments, based upon the moderate political forces in both countries and with enough leeway for solving crises, the financial/economic crises in the United States and The Netherlands won’t be solved.


  1. 1. VVD and CDA are no 'mid' parties. They are right-wing, conservative, capitalist parties who have been steering Dutch politics in a conservative, capitalist, neolib, company- and employer-friendly direction in every government since WWII. Jointly, or in a temporary combination with the moderately left-wing party PvdA, who has accepted the neoliberal 'third way' politics of Tony Blair and Whim Cock. Dutch governments have mostly been right-wing governments, not 'mid'. The same is true for the period after the murder of Fortuyn.

    2. Particularly the right-wing VVD has hardly suffered from the policial climate you describe. It was a main part of the "purple" cabinets, and after Fortuyn's murder it capitalized on the discontent among the Dutch people by opportunistically joining Fortuyn's right-wing bandwagon and attributing all the blame for the people's discontent to its former eight-year partner PvdA. All in accord with its right-wing partner CDA, with which the VVD would govern during 7 of the 11 years since Fortuyn. Nowaday's the right-wing VVD is the largest party in the Dutch parliament, and the main coalition partner who forces the PvdA to make many more steps in the neolib direction, thus rapidly alienating the PvdA from its voters. Politically, the right-wing VVD has done a fantastic job, in political results as well as electoral success. They have perused the economic crisis - induced by right-wing financial policies - to force right-wing measures upon a society already pushed in the neolib direction. The major shift in Dutch society & politics in the past 30 years is a landslide victory for VVD ideology. And yet they succeed in blaming the PvdA for financial problems and sowing distrust of 'big government' - while governing all the time.

    3. In the end, the VVD is not after 'moderate political forces'. They appear not be interested in solving this crisis as a main priority. The financial and economic results of VVD policy turn out to be disastrous as a whole, and even more disastrous for several parts of Dutch society: the unemployed, the people on welfare, chronically ill people, students with huge loans, even independent workers with no contract. Even at the cost of prolonging the crisis and unjustly affecting helpless people while protecting their own electorate, the VVD's main priority is to steer Dutch society in their own direction.

    4. I bet the next station will be: flat tax rates. They might even make the PvdA agree on this. It will be a total victory for Mark Rutte.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Hannes. I always appreciate them and I agree with most things you said.