Traditionally, the morning after the elections, the campaign leaders’ debate of the Machiavelli Foundation took place in Press Center Nieuwspoort. This time we looked back at the parliamentary elections of 2021, without an audience, but with a livestream via our own website and NPO Politics. After what was perhaps the most extraordinary election in decades, there was plenty to discuss. This time without suffering from “small eyes,” as debate leader and Machiavelli board member Remco Meijer (Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant) noted at the beginning of the debate. COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, after all, made grand result nights and subsequent celebrations impossible. Some suffered only from a politically tinged hangover.
Present were Sophie Hermans (VVD/Conservative Liberals), Raymond Knops (CDA/Christian Democrats), Sjoerd Sjoerdsma (D66/Liberal Democrats), Maarten Hijink (SP/Socialist Party), Nelleke Vedelaar (PvdA/Social Democrats) and Wijnand Duyvendak (GroenLinks/Green Party). It was clear that the parties had deployed political heavyweights and experienced campaigners to make the campaign a success.
During the discussion, all campaign leaders indicated that they had run into the limitations of the COVID-19 pandemic. The SP was particularly bothered by the fact that they could no longer “go into the neighborhood.”
GroenLinks missed the 2017 meet-ups, and alternative meetings were also ultimately too risky due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Duyvendak, this did not give the GroenLinks campaign the momentum it needed to solidify its historic victory in the previous election and further expand its seat count. As campaign leader, he felt “caged” by the pandemic.
Sjoerdsma also indicated that Sigrid Kaag might have reached even more voters under different circumstances. In short, physical meetings and human contact were – not surprisingly – missed in this campaign.
Change of guard
The CDA and the PvdA had to deal with a turbulent start to the election campaign. Both parties changed party leaders at an awkward moment, to say the least. The expectations of the CDA were high beforehand. After a number of incidents, however, there was a downward flow. The fact that there were de facto four list leaders at the CDA (De Jonge, Omtzigt, Grapperhaus and Hoekstra) did not hinder the campaign, according to Knops.
For the PvdA, the late change of party leader was not ideal, according to Vedelaar. Although Ploumen has according to her “made the best of it”.
“Trustworthy government” as a theme did not gain traction until the elections. According to Knops, this is due to the resignation of the Cabinet. According to him the CDA has also not been able to benefit from the decisive action of running mate Omtzigt in the child care benefits scandal.
When asked whether it was the intention to deploy Leijten in the final phase of the campaign, Hijink replied that this had been the intention from the start. However, the child care benefits scandal did not become dominant in the debate. In the end it was mainly about the COVID-19 pandemic and the leadership that goes along with it. Support for the government’s COVID-19 policy made visibility difficult for the party: the SP’s issues were not put on the agenda.
Extended congratulations were given to the only two contestants who managed to win: VVD and D66. The image of Kaag dancing on the table was recalled by many as something they would naturally have preferred to see with their own party leader. Duyvendak indicated that the clever thing about the winners’ campaigns was that the emphasis on stable leadership stuck well with voters. The leadership story was decisive. D66 managed to offer a credible alternative to Rutte. Other parties were unable to do so.
The VVD succeeded particularly well in using Rutte’s position as prime minister and ignoring other parties during debates and television moments, Sjoerdsma said. Thus the VVD eliminated the competition by not attacking them at all. A defensive campaign, is the conclusion. According to Hermans, the “sophisticated” campaign of the VVD is mainly focused on what the voter now cares about: the COVID-19 pandemic. An offensive one simply does not fit with that.
Duyvendak argued that the party has succeeded in pursuing an apolitical strategy. Something that got in the way of GroenLinks, but that worked very well for the VVD. Knops agrees. By campaigning “not at all” Rutte has been able to make the most of his position as prime minister. Thanks to this strategy, he may become the longest-serving Dutch prime minister in post-war history during the coming cabinet period.
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