The Christian Democratic party CDA is in the middle of a three-pronged crisis: electoral, strategic and personnel-related. Prof. Gerrit Voerman, historian at the University of Groningen, sees few opportunities for the CDA to climb up the ratings within the foreseeable future. ‘The grassroots support is evaporating, the position of the party within Dutch politics has become unclear, and there is no widely accepted party leader.’ The party is disoriented and divided. Voerman does not rule out success completely, however. ‘The electorate is in flux. Don’t forget that in 2008 the VVD was just as low in the opinion polls as the CDA is now.’
At the moment, the CDA has hit a historic low among voters. An opinion poll organized by Maurice de Hond at the end of June shows that the governing party would only win 15 seats. The party is in a three-pronged crisis, according to historian Voerman. ‘Society is becoming less religious and by no means everyone who would regard themselves as Christian automatically votes for the CDA. In addition, the party’s strategy is unclear. What position should one take regarding Wilders? The CDA is seriously divided on this issue. Finally, the party has a leadership problem. The meeting when the results of the Provincial Council Elections were announced was symbolic: Spies, Verhagen, Brinkman and Van Haersma Buma were all on the podium next to each other. But none of them was really the leader of the party.’
The Christian grassroots support for the CDA has been declining for decades. Nevertheless, the party achieved major success under Lubbers and Balkenende. ‘On a number of occasions the party has been able to appeal to non-Christian voters too. The deciding factor then was a combination of personality and programme. Lubbers, “Mr No-nonsense” as he was called, appealed at a time when many believed that the welfare state needed to be slimmed down. Austere unknown Balkenende was helped by circumstances, when many voters were in search of sanctuary in the politically unstable times after the murder of Fortuyn.’
In the meantime, however, not only floating voters but also many Christian voters have lost sight of the CDA and sought refuge with the PVV and the VVD. By shifting to the right, Maxime Verhagen wants to win back these lost voters. Voerman wonders whether this policy will succeed. ‘It’s very crowded to the right of the spectrum. With his speech on the multicultural society Verhagen shifted significantly towards the PVV, but in actual fact he’s presenting a very watered-down version of Wilders’s ideas. It’s neither fish nor fowl. I can’t imagine that that will appeal to many voters, particularly because Rutte and Wilders are both on the top of their form and are doing well in the polls.’
In the meantime, the internal tensions in the CDA are growing. The dividing line between supporters and opponents of cooperation with the PVV runs through the whole party, is how Voerman sums up the problems. ‘The CDA doesn’t have a true leader. On the one hand there is Verhagen, a proponent of cooperation, and on the other Ruth Peetoom, who is critical. The grassroots are also divided; old stagers like Hirsch Ballin, Wijffels and Lubbers are ranged against Donner, Hillen and Verhagen, who want to turn the CDA into a conservative, right-wing party.’ Nevertheless, Voerman hasn’t written the CDA off quite yet. ‘The electorate is in flux – everything is possible when so many are floating voters. Don’t forget that in 2008 the VVD was just as low in the opinion polls as the CDA is now.’
Gerrit Voerman (1957) is head of the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties (DNPP) of the University of Groningen and since 2011 professor of the development and functioning of the Dutch and European party systems. He is an expert in the field of political parties and their histories. Voerman studied history at the University of Groningen, was awarded a PhD for a thesis on the history of the CPN, and publishes widely on political parties. In recent years, publications about the VVD, the ChristenUnie and Groenlinks parties have appeared under his editorship. In March 2011, ‘De conjunctuur van de macht. Het Christen Democratisch Appèl 1980-2010’ [The economics of power. The Christen Democratisch Appèl 1980-2010] appeared. Voerman is currently researching party cultures in an international perspective and populists in the Netherlands.
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