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Saturday, 30 December 2017

Will the liberal-conservative VVD in 2018 throw off the veil of nihilism that has covered the party since the early 21st Century?

You know you live in a civilized country
When not only you and your political allies behave valiantly and fair,
But also your political opponents…
Ernst Labruyère

I am a social-democrat, I have always been one and I probably will always be one. It felt naturally for me to pay my taxes and share some of my wealth with people who were not so lucky as I was. I never had the intension to become really rich and to work so hard that I lost track of what was going in the world. Leisure time and nature were just as important as the time spent in the office.

Therefore, as a citizen living in The Netherlands, it always felt naturally to vote for the social-democrat Partij van de Arbeid (i.e. PvdA, the Dutch labour party). And even though I have been quite dissatisfied with this party over the last ten to fifteen years, I could not think of another party to vote for. Just because…

Nevertheless, the PvdA is nowadays not the pivotal party anymore that it was in the past. The steady decline of social-democracy during the last twenty years, in combination with the devastating effect that participating in Cabinet Rutte II had on the leftwing voter’s confidence in the party, made that the PvdA is currently at the edge of the cliff.

Will it rise again? Or will the PvdA definitely topple over into the abyss? It is anybody’s guess…

As also the Christian-Democrat CDA party is not the pivotal party anymore that it was in the past, there is only one party left that deserves this statement: the liberal-conservative VVD.

Even though I would never think one second about voting on the VVD, it has always been a quite dignified and worthy party. A party that represented people with above average wealth, but of which the representatives did not seem to forget that they lived and worked in a world in which people took care for each other. A party also that brought forward good officials, responsible civil servants, as well as excellent aldermen and governmental representatives inside and outside The Netherlands (i.e. in the Europe forae).

However, that changed since the emergence of the rightwing populists in The Netherlands – initially represented by the murdered Pim Fortuyn with his “Livable Netherlands” movement and at a later stage his Lijst Pim Fortuyn – at the beginning of the 21st Century.

Suddenly the VVD felt like a party that was overtaken at the right flank by the populists, whose real “moment of glory” came with the initially unstoppable rise of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom: a former member of parliament for the VVD.  

Since then, the VVD has been torn between its more centrist leaders, who see the VVD as a broad, centrist ‘people’s party’, that brought numerous decent government officials in the past, and the people in the party who wanted to follow the footsteps of the populists closely, in order to not loose more votes to them. 

Especially during the heyday of Geert Wilders the voices of the right-wing semi-populists within the VVD started to sound louder and louder. The choice between these two parts of the party was in fact an impossible choice. Simply, because both goals  being a moderate liberal-conservative party vs a semi-populist, very conservative party  can hardly be combined under one roof, unless at least one share of the party members gives in to its goals and values.

This conundrum might explain the surprisingly quick, but nevertheless enduring success of party leader Mark Rutte, who came into power in 2006 as fraction leader and political chief and stayed at the top without ‘wearing out’ too much, in spite of already three periods as Prime Minister.

Mark Rutte is a thoroughbred bridge builder, seemingly without an own face or opinion, and an excellent manager, who can keep everybody more or less happy and can follow the agenda of the greatest common devisor, until the end of the cabinet period.

In a centre-rightwing cabinet with the Christian-Democrat CDA and the Party for Freedom, he followed the rightwing agenda with initially enough keystones to keep Geert Wilders and his extreme-rightwing party happy.

In the “leftwing-ish” cabinet with the social-democrat PvdA, he built up very good personal relations with his vice-PM Lodewijk Asscher, as well as a very tight and structured agenda, that he followed to a T. Therefore Rutte kept the cabinet afloat for the whole five year period, in the longest stint for a Dutch cabinet since the Second World War.

And at the end of every cabinet period with him at the helm, all the participating other parties suffered substantial losses in the national elections, but Rutte always survived with unchallenged confidence and his signature “stainless steel grin” glued to his face: the undisputed winner of the elections.  

These substantial losses of the popular vote happened to the CDA and especially to the PvdA (this party was almost annihilated in the last elections), but to a much lesser degree to the VVD itself: the party also suffered losses, but remained the largest party by far.

Therefore one could see Mark Rutte as a textbook example of a good leader and an excellent manager. Even I have to give him that.

The only thing that should bother his voters, however, is for what Mark Rutte himself stands in the elections. 

Mark Rutte has made so many statements and promises in the past that were either blatant lies or that he knew in advance he could not keep that people don’t have an idea what is the truth with him and what not. And he was also political friends with so many people with so many 180 degree different opinions, that he seems without any form of spine or conscience.

His greatest strenght is therefore also his greatest pitfall: he can be friends with anybody and seemingly never draws the line of decency, that other politicians would have drawn in the same situation.

This habit of the PM has not been bad per sé for the VVD as a party (i.e. in sheer number of voters, compared with the other parties), but the consequence is that the VVD is still a “schizophrenic” party with two incompatible sides in it, that might fall apart as soon as the leadership changes.

In my humble opinion, it must be worrisome for the more moderate (i.e. liberal) members of the party and for a list of decent ex-politicians, like Erica Terpstra, Frans Weisglas, Ed Nijpels, Joris Voorhoeve and Pieter Winsemius, that their party has turned into a hotbed for increasingly radical and populist politicians, with a very self-interested view on the world.

These politicians steer the party in a more and more conservative, even xenophobic and anti-European direction, in order to not lose track to the PVV and to the also extreme-rightwing and xenophobic Forum for Democracy of the ‘new political talent’, Thierry Baudet.

Compassion with the less fortunate people in society, with the goals and foundations of the European Union and with the necessity for a fair tax payment for rich people and (large) companies have been exchanged for a “me first” politics. And Mark Rutte remained ‘on course’ as the perfect manager and never raised his voice to clearly draw the line, in order to stop this more and more conservative direction.

This is the reason that I – as a social-democrat person with respect for some past politicians of the VVD – think that it is time for the other leaders and pundits within the VVD to draw the line for Rutte in 2018:
  • either become more conservative, more anti-EU and selfish in your vision for the future and loose the other members of the party;
  • or again become the broad, liberal party with a great tradition of very good, moderate officials and leaders. A party that encloses all people and also encloses the European Union concept and the need for cooperation in Europe with respect to the global challenges of this time.

The latter undoubtedly means that the conservative and populist voters and politicians within the VVD will leave the party disappointed. But you really can’t have it all, even though the contrary seems to be true at this moment.

In my vision, Mark Rutte, in spite of his chameleontic characteristics and his excellent management skills, is not the leader that the VVD needs for the future. 

Too long he has held the party hostage with his failure to choose a sustainable road for the future and with his lack of choice for the party that he wants to lead.

The rumours of Mark Rutte aiming for an important position in the European Union are enduring, in spite of his categorical denial of these rumours. 

Nevertheless, his excellent management skills would make him a very good follow-up for current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk (i.e. “the other Donald”) and he did not make many enemies in Europe. 

On top of that, Rutte would be an excellent guy to keep up the good old Atlantic connection with the United Kingdom and the US, in spite of the Brexit.

After he would have left national politics in The Netherlands, it would give the VVD the time for a very thorough cleansing within the leadership and directions of the party. 

There have been simply too many scandals and too many politicians in distress within the VVD. This can’t go on and this should not go on! And then the VVD can finally make the important choice to become the party that they really want to be! 

So they can finally throw off the veil of nihilism that has covered the party since the beginning of the 21st Century!

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