Christian democrats become underdog in Dutch campaign
Incumbent prime minister and CDA leader Jan Peter Balkenende finds himself in an uncomfortable spotlight as his party continues to tumble in the polls.
With one week to go until the elections, the Dutch Christian democrats, CDA, have ended up in the wrong quadrant. Their rankings in the polls have been plummeting for weeks and the party is now third, behind right-wing liberal VVD and the Labour party. And the gap continues to widen. TNS Nipo, one of the three major polling institutes in the Netherlands, predicts the party will garner only 21 seats, a stark contrast with its current 41.
In this final phase of the campaign, all parties have marked their positions
and clarified their plans. The spotlight is now on Jan Peter Balkenende, who
has been the leader of his party and the country since 2002.
On Tuesday, public broadcaster NOS quoted anonymous sources in the leadership of the party as saying they no longer believed in a good result. They now want to look beyond the June 9 election and focus on the Balkenende’s succession. In Wednesday's morning papers, Balkenende was labelled a "dead man walking".
Not willing to sit in parliament
Sources within the CDA leadership confirmed to NRC Handelsblad that there are concerns, but they say they still believe in a resurrection of their party and its leader. They would only need to steal a couple seats from the VVD (now estimated at 38) and the tables could turn, the sources said. The top members dispute that the CDA is in the midst of a leadership crisis. "We do not recognise ourselves in these news reports," Balkenende's spokesperson said.
According to Ab Klink, the current health minister, "this is not an issue in the upper echelon I am familiar with". Most said the atmosphere is great and that no extensive plans have been drafted yet outlining what to do after June 9.
But it is certain that the Balkenende era will come to an end if his party does not emerge as the biggest in the parliamentary election. His mantra, "I am going for gold", means he will only serve as prime minister again and is not willing to sit in parliament or serve as a deputy in somebody else's coalition government.
Balkenende has been down in polls leading up to elections before, but he ran a smoother campaign in 2002, 2003 and 2006. Ever since its founding in 1980, the CDA has always supplied the country's prime minister, except during the 'purple' governments composed of Labour and liberals, which were in office from 1994 till 2002.
Who is next in line?
Campaign staffers are trying to present the CDA as a moderate, reasonable party that doesn't shy away from reforms, but the possible leadership crisis is taking up a large part of the public's attention. The party's number two, Ank Bijleveld, the deputy home affairs minister, has already said she is "available for any position", but Ab Klink, number four on the CDA ballot, has refused to state whether he wants to be the next party leader. "I am not even going to think about it," he said on Wednesday.
Insiders told NRC Handelsblad that the final result of the election will largely decide who is next in line. If the party does manage to become the second party in a coalition, chances are a transitory figure, such as Bijleveld, will lead the party in parliament. A heavyweight like Ab Klink or foreign minister Maxime Verhagen could then become deputy prime minister. But if the CDA is forced to become part of the opposition, a long-term leader will be required, the insiders said.
Meanwhile, politicians from other parties are rubbing salt in the CDA’s wounds. One VVD member has suggested that reappointing Balkenende as the leader right after the fall of his last government in February was the root cause of the party's current problems. VVD campaign leader Stef Blok, however, suggested that the sex scandal in which a CDA spin doctor became embroiled set off the party's demise. "The paint started to peel right after Jack de Vries left," Blok said.
Some people within the CDA see a silver lining in all the negative publicity. There is a silent hope this might get the party the sympathy vote. "I believe that is the card we are playing now," one anonymous CDA member said. "We are hoping voters will think they need to come to our rescue."