Who is Alexander Pechtold?


Though Geert Wilders and his anti-Moroccan comments dominated  headlines following last month’s municipal elections throughout The Netherlands, the clear winner was the Democraten 66 (D66, Democrats 66) and its leader Alexander Pechtold (pictured above).Netherlands Flag Icon

Nearly a year and a half after the last Dutch general election, D66 is emerging in polls as the strongest party in The Netherlands today, in light of the government’s increasing unpopularity under the strain of budget cuts and a continued sluggish economy.

Notably, D66 became the largest party in both Amsterdam and Utrecht. That’s a big deal because Amsterdam since 1946 has been the stronghold of the Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA, Labour Party), the junior partner in the current Dutch government. It’s a sign of just how unpopular the government has become, and how specifically unpopular the Labour Party has become.

Nationally, the Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal) won the highest share of the vote with 17.7%, largely on the strength of rural voters.

The center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), the leading partner of the national government placed second with 12.7%, a significant decrease.

But D66 placed third with 9.6% of the vote and, in light of the advances in Amsterdam and Utrecht, emerged from the March 19 elections as the party with the most momentum in Dutch politics today.

It’s somewhat of an odd party.

Founded in (you guessed it!) 1966 by journalist Hans van Mierlo, its original goal was to make The Netherlands a more democratic country, with a two-party presidential republic and greater direct participation through referenda. 

Today, it doesn’t necessarily want to enact a presidential republic, but it’s still split between an older radical wing and a newer liberal wing, and it has essentially become a just-left-of-center party that’s both socially liberal and economically liberal, with chiefly urban appeal limited to The Netherlands’s large cities and progressive university towns. 

An art historian by training, Pechtold was the mayor of Wageningen before making the leap into national politics. He briefly served in the second government of Jan Pieter Balkenende between 2005 and 2006 as minister for government reform and kingdom relations.

Though D66 has participated in government four times, it has never come close to becoming the largest party in the Dutch Tweede Kamer (the House of Representatives). After winning 24 seats in the 1994 elections, it joined the Labour-led governments of Wim Kok, alongside the VVD in a so-called ‘purple coalition,’ for the next eight years.

When the CDA’s Balkenende became prime minister in 2002, D66 stayed out of government, but joined his second cabinet between 2003 and 2006. Boris Dittrich, then the D66 leader, resigned from his position in February 2006 over his opposition to sending Dutch troops to Afghanistan, in contrast to other parties in the government and in contrast to many members of his own party.

Shortly after Pechtold won the leadership contest, D66 quit the government in 2006 over the handling of the Ayaan Hirsi Ali  citizenship case, precipitating snap elections. Unfortunately for D66, it was reduced to just three seats and 2% of the vote, though Pechtold survived the drubbing.

Under his leadership in the ensuing eight years, D66 improved in the 2010 election to win 6.9% and 10 seats, and in the most recent 2012 elections, it scored 8.0% and 12 seats. But polls that show it winning 25 seats and emerging as the largest party in the Tweede Kamer would mean an unprecedented breakthrough for D66, and it would mean that Pechtold could arguably become the next Dutch prime minister.

So what’s powering this?

Under Pechtold’s leadership, D66 has emerged as the most strident critic of Wilders and his far-right, anti-Islam Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom). It has also emerged as a reliably progressive vote on matters of social and cultural legislation on issues like euthanasia, marijuana production, same-sex marriage and prostitution. That’s largely in line with the mainstream Dutch electorate.

Pechtold supported Rutte’s budget deal in spring 2012 (which ultimately unraveled when Wilders withdrew his support), and he supported the budget deal of the current VVD-Labour government in late 2013 that cut €6 billion in spending from the Dutch budget, albeit in exchange for €600 million in additional spending for education. D66, in its quirky left-liberal way, is also generally more enthusiastic about tax cuts these days than Rutte, whose priority is balancing the Dutch budget by 2015. It’s easiest, though, to think of D66 as a left-leaning version of Rutte’s VVD — both parties belong to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) family of parties at the European parliamentary level.

Polls have been incredibly volatile over the past two years in The Netherlands, but there’s a strong case that the D66 surge has staying power, especially among that slice of the electorate that largely supports the European Union and Dutch membership in the eurozone, but which wants a government focused somewhat less on austerity and somewhat more on public investment, and that’s a demographic that seems incredibly receptive to Pechtold’s doctrine of ‘social liberalism.’

Consider the other alternatives that have crested and crashed in the past 24 months.

In the lead-up to the September 2012 election, it looked like the Socialistische Partij (SP, Socialist Party) held a clear lead. But as voters started paying attention to the campaign after returning from summer holidays, Socialist leader Emile Roemer faltered during the leaders’ debates, and he seemed to lack the presence of a prime minister. Moreover, voters weren’t comfortable with the Socialist Party’s euroskepticism. The Socialists ended up with 15 seats — just as many as they had before the election.

The voters that deserted Roemer thought they had found their champion in Diederik Samsom, the dashing new leader of the Labour Party. It’s not an understatement to say that the 2012 campaign culminated in a debate between Rutte’s accelerated version of austerity and Samsom’s vision of balancing the budget more gradually (without the same level of painful budget cuts). The Labour Party won 38 seats, a gain of eight, and it fell just short of becoming the largest party in the Tweede Kamer.

But during the government negotiations, Rutte and Samsom agreed on a coalition program that ended up much closer to the VVD position than to the Labour position. Almost immediately, polls showed a drop in support for the VVD and Labour, but today, Labour has absolutely tanked.

50PLUS, a new party founded in 2009 for the purpose of promoting the interests of pensioners (hence the name), leapt nearly to the top of polls in early 2013 before falling back. Over the course of 2013, Dutch voters also flirted with Wilders, once again. The PVV actually lost much of its support in 2012, dropping from 26 to 15 seats in the Tweede Kamer after Wilders shifted his top campaign issue from immigration to pulling The Netherlands out of the eurozone. But that trend was already in decline when Wilders made his anti-Moroccan remarks, which have been denounced by just about everyone else in Dutch politics.

Late last year, though, D66 started to rise in the polls, to the point that, if an election were held today, Pechtold’s party would win more seats than any other party in Dutch politics. The latest March 30 Peil.nl poll finds that the D66 would win 25 seats, Wilders and the PVV would improve to 23 seats, and the Socialists would improve to 22. The Christian Democratic Appeal (also very much on the rise) would win 21 seats, as would Rutte’s VVD (amounting to a 20-seat drop). Labour would win just 11 seats — a staggering 27-seat drop.

It seems fairly clear that D66 is pulling strength from both the VVD and Labour, though its social liberalism means that it could also pull soft votes away from the Socialists, too.

Unlike Roemer or Wilders, Pechtold cuts a strong figure as a prime minister — it’s easy to imagine him as a slightly center-left version of Rutte. Unlike Sybrand van Haersma Buma, the leader of the CDA, Pechtold is by now a familiar face in Dutch politics.

Rutte doesn’t have to call an election until March 2017, and though the VVD-Labour coalition may be under some strain, it would be political malpractice for either Rutte or Samsom to risk snap elections in the face of such horrendous polling. Of course, the economy will likely to improve between now and 2017, and that could help the VVD and Labour. But there’s no guarantee that their woes won’t increase — for any reason, economic or otherwise. Remember that Wim Kok’s last government fell in 2002 over the relatively obscure matter of Dutch responsibility in the Srebrenica massacre.

But with voters intent on punishing the government coalition parties (especially Labour), and with no serious chance that the Socialist Party or the Freedom Party will win an election, it gives D66, nearly 50 years after its foundation, its best chance to lead a Dutch government.

One thought on “Who is Alexander Pechtold?”

  1. Great article, I’d noticed the D66 surge and it’s good to get some background on it. Fascinating to see a party go from truly rock bottom to the top within a decade too, it seems a rare thing in politics anywhere. I’d be interested and pleased to see if this continues, until the last couple of weeks the Dutch polls have been very concerning to me!

    Only thing I’d fault is putting social liberalism in inverted commas, it’s a very common term and particularly useful in countries like NL which have both a social liberal and an economic liberal/conservative-liberal party (or significant wings in the same party).

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