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Dr Gerrit Voerman: ‘Election results fit trend – voter involvement declining’

15 June 2010

The results of the Dutch parliamentary elections fit a trend that started some decades ago – the involvement of citizens in political parties is declining. The parties now find themselves in an impossible position, is the opinion of Dr Gerrit Voerman of the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties. ‘As soon as you start to govern nowadays, you’re accused of having lost sight of the voters. It’s virtually impossible to defend yourself against this criticism.’

Never before has the political landscape been so evened out as it is now. Mark Rutte was widely congratulated for his victory, but with 31 seats his party is significantly below its record from 1998. Then the VVD managed 38 seats, but still had to put up with the PvdA having one seat more than them. Gerrit Voerman: ‘Until the 1980s, the PvdA and the CDA (and before them the KVP) each managed to win about a third of the seats virtually automatically. Those days are now over and the political midfield has had to take some savage blows since then. Voters are incredibly flighty. What’s happening to the CDA now could happen to any of the other parties at the next elections.’

Long-term trend

Since the end of the 1950s, the link between politics and the voters has been getting looser. Secularization and depillarization have played a major role in this process. The rise of parties such as the Farmers’ Party, the PPR, DS 70 and the Middle Class Party – all from the end of the 1960s, early 1970s – illustrate this perfectly. Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s a political triangle developed, with the VVD, PvdA and CDA dominating. Voerman: ‘Politics was really thriving at this time. Party membership revived and major events took place – demonstrations, or the occupation of the nuclear power station at Borssele. The major themes of the time divided the electorate into clear camps.’

Flighty voters

But the revival was short-lived; since the mid-1980s, involvement in politics has been declining again. Depillarization continued and individualization increased. Since the start of this century, about 35 seats regularly go to populist parties of one type or another, who set themselves off against the established mid-field parties. Voerman: ‘The electorate is getting more and more flighty. Last week in the run-up to the elections, about a third of the voters were still undecided. This group has never been so large.’

More ideology

Voerman does not expect that more emphasis on ideology will help to bind voters to parties. ‘During the first ‘purple’ coalition, the former opponents PvdA and VVD worked closely together; during the parliamentary elections of 1998 the turnout hit an all-time low, which was not really surprising given the situation. Now though, thanks to the economic crisis, there really was something to choose between in an ideological sense. But even though the turnout was slightly higher than in 1998, it was still very low.’

District system

Voerman doesn’t expect much from institutional adaptations. Introducing a district system, a voting threshold or an elected prime minister – all of the options have important drawbacks which are more likely to increase rather than decrease the chasm between politics and voters, or lead to an impasse in the political system. Voerman: ‘Introducing a mixed system, like the German one, would perhaps improve things slightly. There they don’t only have a party list, but voters also vote for regional representatives, which could improve the contact between the two sides. Even this won’t work miracles, though. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.’

Losing sight of voters

Governing parties hardly seem to learn from their mistakes. Voerman: ‘Internal committees of the PvdA and the CDA have analysed previous election defeats. The conclusions were surprisingly similar: they listened too little to members and voters, they wanted to govern too much and would to that end even smother internal discussions. That’s exactly what’s gone wrong again now for the CDA.’ Nevertheless, Voerman also relativizes the self-criticism of the parties. ‘It’s a major problem for governing parties. No matter how well they have their internal democracy organized, as soon as they start to govern and make concessions, the populists will accuse them of losing sight of the voters. It’s virtually impossible to defend yourself against that criticism.’

Curriculum vitae

Dr Gerrit Voerman (1957) has headed the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties (DNPP) of the University of Groningen since 1989. In 2001 he was awarded a PhD by the University for a thesis on the Russianization of the Dutch Communist Party in the interwar period. Voerman's books include ‘Verloren illusie, geslaagde fusie? GroenLinks in historisch en politicologisch perspectief’ [Lost illusions, successful merger? GroenLinks in a historical and politicological perspective ](1999; with P. Lucardie and W.H. van Schuur), and ‘Om de stembus. Verkiezingsaffiches 1918-1998’ [Around the voting box. Election adverts 1918-1998] (2002; with D.J. Elzinga). He also initiated a series on Dutch political parties, in which the following volumes have appeared so far: ‘Zestig jaar VVD’ [Sixty years of the VVD] (2008; with P. van Schie) and ‘Van de marge tot de macht. De ChristenUnie 2000-2010’ [From the sidelines to the halls of power. The ChristenUnie 2000-2010] (with J. Hippe). Anthologies over the CDA and GroenLinks will appear in the autumn.

Note for the press

More information: Gerrit Voerman

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