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Leiden scientists discuss elections in online session

During the online panel discussion ‘Het spel en de macht’ (the game and the power) held on 9 March, six members of Leiden’s Centre for Dutch Politics and Governance (CNPB) discussed trends regarding the current and previous general elections. Will it be tense, this campaign? ‘Baudet probably still has a card up his sleeve.’

It can be difficult to get a clear picture of the election campaign, partly due to remote campaigning and the large number of new parties. Fortunately, over 60 participants were able to benefit from the insights of scientists from the Centre for Dutch Politics and Governance during a webinar. The session was chaired by Tom Louwerse (Associate Professor of Political Science), and speakers Jaap de Jong (Professor of Journalism and New Media), Wimar Bolhuis (Associate Professor of Economics), Maartje Janse (Associate Professor Of History), Marijn Nagtzaam (researcher of Political Science) and Simon Otjes (Associate Professor of Dutch Politics) gave short presentations on a range of subjects relating to the elections. The audience was subsequently invited to ask questions. What was discussed?

Language use

Jaap de Jong kicked the session off with a short reflection on the use of political language and the election speeches so far. He observed, for example, that unlike in previous campaigns, which included many speeches, it took just two major COVID-19 speeches and several press conferences to put Mark Rutte at the top of the polls.

A question from the audience: Have any campaign or rhetorical strategies been used so far by other parties that appear to be counterproductive?
‘Most parties are targeting Mark Rutte, but nevertheless don’t seem to want to criticise him too harshly as this could be detrimental to any cabinet formation discussions. At the very start of the campaign, Jesse Klaver called Rutte a “liar”, but has not repeated it since. Perhaps in hindsight they will say, “if only we had been harsher”.’


A Dutch tradition, said Wimar Bolhuis. An important break with tradition during this election is that all parties, including generally more conservative parties like the VVD and SGP, favour a strong government in their manifestos, one in which more money is spent on civil servants and policy implementation. 

A question from the audience: What do these analyses involve in practice? In the past, the Dutch Data Protection Authority (CBP) only analysed the final manifestos; is this still the case?
Bolhuis: ‘Since 1994, a party’s manifesto has been determined at their party conference, after which the CPB starts analysing a large Excel sheet of measures. This means there is often a difference between what was decided at the conference and what will eventually be included in the analysed election manifesto. If these differences are noticed, it can lead to problems for the party, for example if they suddenly decide to increase the state pension age after all. This time there is a discussion about whether or not the duration of unemployment benefit, dealt with by Wopke Hoekstra, was in the manifesto. At any rate, it was included in the analysis.’

Protest and politics

Maartje Janse provided the audience with a brief historical overview of protest movements and their effect on politics. ‘In the first half of the nineteenth century, protesting citizens were always quiet around election time because their protests would otherwise be interpreted as a means of conducting party politics, which was a serious accusation in those days.’ Nowadays, of course, there are many more protests, particularly in recent years. These protests have had varying degrees of success. The climate is a prominent topic in this campaign, but not racism or Black Lives Matter.

A question from the audience: Did political parties arise as a result of protest movements in the past, or do existing parties embrace protest movements?
Janse: ‘Both; topics are continually introduced outside of the Lower House and then adopted. One good example is the Party for the Animals. They have grown to become a small but stable power factor within Dutch politics. Moreover, they have helped to make other parties’ manifestos greener. You could also say that the socialist parties have arisen from the socialist movement. The legacy of past protest movements, such as the peace movement or the anti-nuclear weapons movement, has been taken over by parties like GroenLinks.’

Preferential votes

Marijn Nagtzaam discussed the weight of preferential votes during these elections. He concluded that preferential votes are becoming increasingly important; more voters want more women in the Lower House, for example. It is also important to vote strategically; it would be prudent to vote for a female candidate who is a little lower on the list. After all, women who are higher up on the list will gain a seat anyway.

A question from the audience: A system is being considered in which citizens would only vote for a party, rather than individual people. What do you think about this?
Nagtzaam: ‘That seems like an excellent idea to me as it would make the electoral system more transparent. Some people who vote preferentially do so because they do not want to vote for the party leader. So they vote for a different, arbitrary candidate, which in fact creates a kind of ‘noise’ in the preferential voting results.’

New political parties

Simon Otjes analysed the motives behind the formation of new political parties.  ‘Some people think that many parties have shifted to the left or the right,’ he said. ‘Citizens therefore believe they see a “gap” on the left or right that they think needs filling, so they form a new party.’

A question from the audience: Many new parties have been established which have no chance of getting into parliament. Have people set up parties as a result of ‘COVID fatigue’? 
Otjes: ‘I don’t think so. To set up a party you have to collect signatures, and the COVID situation has made that more difficult. These small, new parties are not without perspective, however. I think, for example, that BIJ1 has a real chance of winning a seat, because this party appeals to migrants, and migrants are not yet well represented in the polls.’

Finally, the panel looked ahead at the next few days: is anything else going to change? Jaap de Jong: ‘It is to be expected that Baudet will do something. He appears to be radicalising, so perhaps he will still make a ‘wild’ statement.’ Simon Otjes is primarily curious about the left-wing party struggle. ‘This is where you see most floating voters, for example those who cannot decide between PvdA, SP, D66 or GroenLinks. Are any of the parties going to say that their candidate is the right alternative for Rutte? Kaag seems to be shifting up the polls; maybe that will get the other left parties moving.’

On 18 March, the day after the election results, the CNPB will be holding another online session. Anyone can register for this (in Dutch).

About the CNPB

The Centre for Dutch Politics and Governance (CNPB) is an interfaculty partnership within Leiden University. The CBPB carries out research on public administration and politics in the Netherlands, at national, provincial and municipal levels, within and outside parliament.

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