27 October 2013

A History of D66 (lecture given in Athens)

Text of a speech given in Athens, on 26th October 2013, for the Social Liberal meeting organised by Koinonia Action to prepare the 2014 European Elections.
Good morning,

As a former member of D66 Rotterdam, I was asked by Hugo van Haastert to give you a short overview of the History of our party. I hope it will help give you all an idea of how it appeared in Dutch politics. This History was not an easy one and it might be helpful for our Greek friends to learn from their Dutch counterparts some of the difficulties they will no doubt face as well.

D66 is the heir of a more ancient Dutch liberal and progressive political tradition, following pre-WWII parties such as the VDB (Free-thinking Democratic League). As the name indicates, the party was created in 1966. However, it participated in its first elections in 1967, where it won 7 seats in the lower house of Parliament (150 total seats), quite a record for a new party in the Dutch political landscape. The party was created based on a call by 36 personalities of the media and politics, led by the late Hans van Mierlo, published the 10th October 1966.

These personalities were concerned about the lack of direct involvement of citizens in the political decision process, they wanted more individual freedom for all as well as a modernization of the institutions of the Netherlands (based on the 1848 fundamental law). Last but not least, D66 founders wanted to offer an ideological alternative in the existing Dutch landscape. This Dutch landscape was at the time deeply rooted in confessional organizations (religious pillarization) and in a strong opposition between conservatism and socialism. D66 proposal was one linking a liberal economy and more secular society supported by a sustainable and fairer welfare system. On the international level, D66 favored more European integration and cooperation as well as a reinforced participation in NATO, but at the time also wanted to open the door to cultural and economic exchanges with the Eastern countries under Soviet control. From the start, the party defined itself as social liberal, progressive and reformist.

From the start too, the party was quite popular with a certain intellectual elite, academics and generally people with a higher education level. After its initial success in the 1967 elections, D66 placed itself in opposition to the (conservative) governing coalition of the time. In 1971, it won 4 more seats in Parliament, and created an alliance with moderate left wing parties (Labour and Christian Left), called the Progressive Accord, with a common program. This led D66 to lose 5 seats in the 1972 elections. Nevertheless, the Progressive Accord won the elections but had to enter a coalition with more religious left wing parties. Hans van Mierlo subsequently left the party direction, replaced by Jan Terlouw.

Until 1974, the party saw a succession of electoral failures, nearly ending in the dissolution of D66. To avoid this, Jan Terlouw tried to call for more popular support and reoriented the party position towards more liberalism and less insistence on institutional reforms in the country. This paid off and the 1977 elections were a success with 2 more seats in Parliament. This success was doubled in 1981 with D66 reaching a representation of 17 MP’s. It entered a governing coalition with the CDA (conservative Christian Democrats) and the PvdA (Labour). Due to ideological and personal differences between the two main parties in the coalition, the government could not last more than 9 months. D66 continued to support the CDA, despite their clear ideological differences, in a restricted coalition. This did cost the party 11 seats in the 1982 elections. Jan Terlouw left the party leadership, replaced by Maarten Engwirda, and D66 entered opposition.

In 1986, Hans van Mierlo came back to the direction of the party. Unlike Jan Terlouw, who represented the more progressive liberal wing of the party, Hans van Mierlo was representing a more pragmatist one also called radical democratic. Three seats in the Parliament were won in 1986, and later three more in 1989. Although the party leadership was willing to participate in a coalition with the conservative liberal VVD and the Labour, the third partner involved, the conservative CDA disagreed and D66 remained an opposition party, although in a rather constructive way. This attitude was popular with the voters.

In 1994, they doubled their ballots for D66, with its best representation in parliament ever: 24 seats. The party could eventually enter its much desired coalition with the VVD and PvdA (social democrats). This lead to one of the longest coalitions in recent Dutch History, the two “Purple Cabinets” (Paars) of Prime Minister Wim Kok. D66 could eventually try to implement most of its program: the democratization of politics, the liberalization of the economy and several progressive social initiatives. Amongst these were the legalization of euthanasia, same sex marriage, the regulation of prostitution, the introduction of more direct democracy via referendums and the direct election of mayors. While the economic and social policies were supported by the other coalition members and succeeded, the institutional reform proposals were all refused by members of the other parties. In return for these elements of its program, D66 nevertheless obtained an increase of the funds allocated to education and research and innovation, as well as more environmental policies. It is also in 1994 that D66 European Parliament representation switched from independent to the ELDR group (ALDE). Anyway, Hans van Mierlo, then Foreign Minister, left the party leadership again in 1998, replaced by Health Minister Els Borst. The party lost 10 seats in the parliament although it remained in the second Paars cabinet. Els Borst was subsequently replaced at the head of the party by Thom de Graaf. At the same time, a group inside the party called “Opschudding” (Upheaval) began to demand a more progressive liberal approach in the party direction. Since institutional reforms were rejected again in 1999 by the Senate, D66 temporarily left the government, before joining it again during new negotiations.

All this ended in 2002, when, despite its objective economic success, the Paars Coalition lost heavily the general elections, destabilized by the electoral success of the newly founded populist LPF party. With only 7 seats left in Parliament, D66 found itself again in the opposition to the newly created Balkenende cabinet (CDA, VVD and LPF). This was made worse by the 2003 general elections following the disintegration of the LPF and of the coalition. D66 got only 6 MP’s. The Dutch atmosphere was very unfavorable to the moderate reformism and pro-European positions of the party. A wind of nationalism, populism and even extremism was blowing on the usually quiet Netherlands. Thom de Graaf left the party leadership and was replaced by Boris Dittrich. He managed to negotiate a new coalition agreement with the CDA and VVD, effectively replacing the LPF in the cabinet and thus marking a return to more balance in Dutch politics. De Graaf became Minister for Democratization and Dittrich managed to obtain reforms in the education and environment fields. But the party had to vote with the other coalition members for more controversial right wing measures. Unfortunately for D66, this contributed to alienate more of its traditional voters and when the Senate rejected again the constitutional reform which would have allowed direct election of mayors, de Graaf stepped down as Minister.

D66 entered into negotiations with the other coalition parties and got an “Easter Accord” for more reforms. Alexander Pechtold replaced de Graaf at the Ministry of Democratization Reforms and Laurens Jan Brinkhorst became Minister of the Economy. This accord was ratified by the D66 members in congress and in public (as the debates were broadcasted live on public TV). But in 2006, Dittrich left the party leadership, protesting against the policy of the other coalition partners to send more troops to the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan. This was touted as purely a reconstruction mission to the Afghan government, but many D66 members believed it was simply a military reinforcement of NATO operations. D66 MP’s voted against the cabinet, with the opposition parties. Lousewies van der Laan replaced Boris Dittrich as party leader (disclaimer: at the time, I was part of the minority in the party in favor of the military intervention).

These dissensions and disagreements about both foreign policy and the more unpalatable measures of the conservative coalition lead to a disaffection of the voters. D66 lost ground in local elections and some members left the party. It is generally considered as one the worst moments of the party History. During internal elections, Alexander Pechtold replaced Lousewies van der Laan as party leader, a position he has hold since then. But before national general elections could take place in 2007, D66 stopped supporting the government about another issue: the debate on the naturalization of VVD fellow coalition MP Ayan Hirsi Ali. A motion of no-confidence was voted against VVD Interior Minister Rita Verdonk, but the Prime Minister refused to let her go, which precipitated the fall of the government. Both D66 Ministers resigned in June 2006 and the Balkenende cabinet continued as a minority government until the general elections of November. In these elections, D66 got its worst historical result, with only 3 MP’s in the Lower House of Parliament.

This lead Hans van Mierlo to publicly ask the question of the party relevance in the increasingly polarized Dutch political debate, at the 40th anniversary of D66 foundation. His answer was that, despite its errors of the past, there was still ideas, reforms and proposals that D66 could bring to the public. He also supported Alexander Pechtold’s leadership towards such goals. His feeling was vindicated by the better performance of D66 in recent polls and elections. In 2009, it managed to gain 3 representatives to the European Parliament. Alexander Pechtold’s combative dispositions in the Second Chamber debates won him the sympathy of the public and of fellow MP’s. Particularly, he began frontally attacking the populist far-right PVV party and positions, daring to call its leader Geert Wilders a racist. These oratory jousts with Wilders and with the government ministers made of Pechtold the de facto leader of the opposition in the Second Chamber. Such visibility helped in the ballot box and D66 won ten seats in the 2010 general elections. In the municipal elections the same year, the grass root campaign of D66 paid off as well, leading to record wins in city councils (more than 600 councilors all over the country). More disclaimer: I participated in this election campaign in the city of Rotterdam and I can testify to the enthusiasm shown by the party members and militants. Unfortunately, this was also the year that party founder Hans van Mierlo passed away.

At that time, the PVV of Geert Wilders, which was supporting the minority coalition of the Rutte government, took back this support about budgetary issues. Together with the Green-Left and the Christian Union parties, D66 took the responsibility to help the CDA and VVD caretaker government pass an austerity budget. In the September 2012 elections D66 program of reform proposals won it 12 seats in the current Dutch Parliament. This relative popularity is also reflected in the number of party members which rose to 23 500, an all-time record and a very good score for a small country like the Netherlands.

The party expects thus good participation and hopes for even better results in the 2014 local elections. In any case, it will be presenting even more candidates than in 2010. These MP’s, MEP’s, city and district councilors and candidates will defend the five principles of D66:
  • Trust in people’s own power (support creativity and self-development)
  • Think and act internationally (European federalism and participation in world affairs)
  • Reward performance and share wealth (economic dynamism and proper welfare)
  • Work toward a sustainable and harmonious society (prosperity respecting the environment)
  • Cherish civil rights and shared values (personal freedom, equality, the rule of law…)
Thank you for your attention.

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