Commentary by the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands on the results of the general election of 22nd January, 2003

31 January 2003

Commentary by the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of the Netherlands on the results of the general election of 22nd January, 2003

The SP gained more votes in last elections (january 22nd 2003) then ever: from 5,9 to 6,3 percent. Not enough however to increase the number of seats in parliament (nine since May 2002).

For the fourth time in a row, our support in parliamentary elections has grown. On this occasion it grew from 5.9% to 6.3% of the total vote, reaching over 600,000.[1] This brought us nine seats, and very nearly ten. As far as Parliament goes, we are now the fourth biggest party in the land, after the CDA (Christian Democrats – centre-right), PvdA (Labour – centre-left) and VVD (Thatcherite Liberals) [2]

These are also the three parties which, along with ourselves, increased their vote. In each case they increased it by more than we were able to, giving these parties extra seats. [3] The CDA, which, as we did last May, recorded its biggest ever success, gained an extra seat. The VVD added four seats, a rather modest gain in view of its enormous losses last time. The PvdA did better, gaining 19 seats.

Looking at things from a historical perspective, in comparison with the situation before 15 May 2002 (the date of the last parliamentary elections), only CDA and SP have grown. In the meantime the party’s membership has also increased, moving much closer to those of the "Big Three". On 22nd January we had 38,524 members; on 23 January this had grown to 38,836, and by 24 it had topped 39,000. [4] The gap with the VVD is now less than 8,000. In another year we could be number 3. Never before were we so close to a record rise. Sympathy with our party took completely new forms. Where only a few years ago our pool of potential voters was relatively small, one in three voters has said in response to polls that they would consider casting a vote for the SP.

In polls on the eve of the campaign we were predicted to double our representation. We were the flavour of the month, but we were also ready for this growth, had candidates who were more than suitable – and we were raring to go. But in sight of the finish we were outrun by the Bos-train [5] which, with the wind of an overblown media attention behind its back, won back masses of voters who were sympathetic to the SP. Bos achieved this with striking policies (sometimes remarkably similar to our own!) and by posing the strategic question: who do you want to be the biggest party, who do you want for Minister-President? [6] We proved unable to counter this. Unfortunate, but that’ s how it was. In the end, widespread sympathy did not translate into more seats.

On the other hand, we saw enough to make it obvious that we have a great deal of growth left in us. That we did not establish the SP so that it could remain small is now clear for everyone to see. A bigger SP is no longer unimaginable, and what can be thought can be achieved. As to when, we cannot, as yet, say for sure. But this potential is certainly an inspiration. What now? A strong SP is the best guarantee of a more socially-conscious Labour Party, as we have said. We shall now see how that turns out.

We have noted down all of Wouter Bos’s promises, from the scrapping of the increase in the individual’s contribution to health insurance, to his promise to ensure that we fix the tax system so that the strongest shoulders carry the heaviest burden; from the promise of a health care system with income-related premiums to the commitment to support the SP’s proposal to institute an enforceable right to timely health care when it is needed; from the promise to give us back our railway [7] to the assertion that "modernisation" should mean just that, and not be a euphemism for privatisation; from the promise that we should try even now to cancel the weapon-order of the century, (for JSF bomber planes, for which no suitable target enemy has been identified) to the assertion that we will no longer tail-end America in its march towards a new war against Iraq.

If we could hold Bos to his promises it would be a great victory for our country. If we had not been so strong, including in the run-up to the elections, the PvdA would never have made such statements, something which we can realistically claim as a major success. If Bos breaks his promises in exchange for a place for the PvdA in Balkenende ’s second cabinet [8], then he will know that a large number of voters are likely to respond by switching their allegiance at the nect election to the party with which their sympathies already lie. In that sense, the PvdA victory was based to a large extent on borrowed votes. Next chance: 11th March and the Provincial elections and a new Eerste Kamer [9], an opportunity for another step forward. It is up to us to make sure that we make the most of this opportunity.

seeThe election results themselves...

Explanatory Notes

[1] The comparison is with last May. The sudden rise of the right-wing populist LPF (List Pim Fortuyn) gave it a place in government, but the assassination of its colourful, flamboyant but also astute leader, Fortuyn himself, had left the new party rudderless. In government it floundered, and its members, who ranged from people who are virtually fascists to some who, while certainly confused, were less right wing than the mainstream centre-right parties, on occasions came publicly to blows. Within a few weeks the unstable coalition with CDA and VVD collapsed, and new elections had to be called.

[2] British and US readers in particular may be misled by the continental European meaning of "liberal". Unlike in the US or, to some extent, Britain, "liberal " does not denote a non-socialist who is nevertheless centre-left or even progressive on many issues, but a free market enthusiast with roots in the rising, secular-minded bourgeoisie of the 19th Century. The Dutch version, the VVD, has also shown itself the mainstream party most willing to pick up the baton of anti-immigrant, law-and-order rhetoric dropped by Pim Fortuyn’s right-wing populists as the latter disintegrated after his assassination and their disastrous foray into government ( a coalition with the aforementioned liberals and the CDA)

[3] The Dutch Parliament, like most others, has two "houses" – kamers, literally "chambers". The Eerste Kamer (First Chamber) has limited power (mainly of constitutional review), is indirectly elected and was not involved in last week’s contest, which was for the Tweede Kamer (Second Chamber, pronounced Tway-Der Kah-Mer). The Tweede Kamer, usually simply referred to as "de Kamer", has 150 Members chosen by a strict proportional representation system from national lists nominated by parties great and small. There is no lower threshold, so, depending on the turnout, around 65,000 votes nationally can give a party a seat. The SP entered the Kamer in 1994 for the first time with 2 seats, increased this to 5 in 1998 and 9 last year, a success consolidated on January 22.

[4] Because political parties have a definite legal standing in the Dutch system, these figures are independently audited and accepted by all sides as accurate.

[5] Amusingly for English-speakers who may have long accused social democratic organisations of being "bosses’ parties", Bos is the Labour Party’s new leader.

[6] The leader of the biggest party in the Tweede Kamer is invited by the Queen to attempt to form a government. If he (it has as yet never been a she) can command a majority in the Tweede Kamer, he forms a government from the parties which have agreed to support him. Naturally, this usually involves protracted negotiations over policies and positions. One unusual feature is that the leader himself need not become prime minister (known as the Minister President), but can nominate someone else for the office. This would have been Bos’s strategy, as he himself preferred to stay in the Tweede Kamer, and put forward Amsterdam’s unelected mayor, Job Cohen, as his party’s nominee. Unlike in the British system, ministers are never MPs and, as is often the case, if they are MPs at the time they are invited to join the cabinet they must stand down. This does not necessitate by-elections, as the next person on the relevant party’s electoral list (or one from further down if they decline) then takes their place in the Kamer. If the leader of the biggest party cannot form a government, the leader of the second biggest is invited to try to do so, but this is highly unlikely to occur this time. The process is presided over by a "formateur", an experienced politician who is expected to weigh up the various options and advise the queen accordingly. The two possible outcomes are a coalition of centre-left and centre-right, or a coalition of right wing parties under CDA leadership.

[7] NS, the Dutch railway system, was recently partially privatised and deregulated, since when it has of course gone from one of the country’s major sources of civic pride to a complete shambles.

[8] Balkenende was the Minister President in the coalition of CDA, VVD and LPF formed after the May, 2002, elections. He remained as acting Minister President after the government’s collapse, and, as the leader of the biggest party, seems certain to retain that role.

[9] The Provincial assemblies are seen as the least important layer of government by most Dutch people, and turnouts are low. However, it is on the basis of support in the Provincial assemblies that the Eerste Kamer (see note 3) is chosen, as the elected members of these assemblies then vote for members of that body. Though it consists of part-time members and has limited powers, it is important for the SP to increase its representation in the 75-member body. Currently, the party has 2 "Senators", as they are known. In common with the Euro elections, Provincial elections are characterised by low turn-out.

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