In the novel De Schaduw van Erasmus (The Shadow of Erasmus), Erasmus uses all kinds of underhanded methods to survive in the political and religious minefield of his time. Inspired by this book, journalist Lucette Mascini spoke with Paul Frissen (professor of Public Administration) and Rinus van Schendelen (professor of Political Science) about backroom politics in Rotterdam.
The great philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam was by no means always a paragon of virtue who invariably handled his affairs in an open and transparent manner. To have his translation and interpretation of the New Testament printed without ending up at the stake for the publication, he bribed a printer, for example. Erasmus did so to ensure that his opponents would not have the opportunity to publish and circulate a critical pamphlet that could have brought his work into disrepute.
We would now refer to such action as backroom politics; arranging something behind closed doors so that the public remains unaware of the interests being decided on and the manner in which deals are struck in this regard.
“Nothing to be worried about,” according to Paul Frissen, dean and chairman of the board of the Netherlands School of Public Administration (NSOB) in The Hague and professor of Public Administration at Tilburg University. “Politics would not be possible without backroom wheeling and dealing. Those in power must be able to negotiate with each other without being under the microscope every step of the way.”
It is no different in Rotterdam. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the city hall at Coolsingel has been the bastion of the politicians who call the shots. The shots are currently called by the Christian Democratic Alliance (CDA), Democrats 66 (D66) and Leefbaar Rotterdam (Liveable Rotterdam), the last of which is the largest party.
Following the elections of 2014, forming a coalition was not a smooth process.
In the final phase of negotiations, for example, D66 insisted that the largest party, Leefbaar Rotterdam, choose between CDA and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), both of which held three seats. D66 insisted on the choice because it did not wish to join a coalition that consisted of three right-wing parties.
Leefbaar Rotterdam acquiesced and opted for CDA because it needed D66’s six seats to secure a municipal council majority.
CDA, however, had earlier made a deal with VVD that both parties would act in concert in the coalition negotiations. Nevertheless, CDA jettisoned VVD as soon as it became clear that D66 had opted for CDA as a partner in municipal government.
‘The toilet break made it possible for both parties to save face.’
Reports suggest that negotiator and current CDA alderman Hugo de Jonge went on a toilet break when the disappointing message was delivered to VVD negotiators Jeannette Baljeu and Antoinette Laan.
Was that a polite thing to do? According to Frissen, the CDA negotiator was of course aware that the message was coming. “The toilet break made it possible for both parties to save face.”
It was therefore a form of backroom politics. Is that a bad thing? Frissen believes that it is not. “While backroom politics has a negative connotation, seeing such politics in a negative light is not justified in cases of this kind. Politicians need space to reach an agreement. How they do so does not matter that much. They must later account for the substance of their agreement. A comprehensive set of democratic mechanisms is in place to ensure that they do so.”
The municipal council can ask questions and journalists can investigate money flows, for example. According to Frissen, it is of vital importance that questions are asked, because the way in which public resources are used
Agreements of companies with civil servants and politicians
What about the funding of political campaigns during municipal council elections? Until this year, political parties on the municipal council were not required by law to disclose the financial contributions made by companies. There was also no law that prohibited sponsors from demanding things from parties in exchange for support. It could therefore have been the case that, entirely below the public radar, construction companies sponsored a political party and expected to be awarded a construction project in return if the party won.
“The situation is more favourable at national level because parties can obtain funding from the state. “It is strange that arrangements of the kind referred to could be made at municipal level,” Frissen agreed.
According to Professor Rinus van Schendelen, whose research at Erasmus University Rotterdam focuses on political lobbying, it has become increasingly normal in recent years for political parties to conclude agreements with companies, care organisations and educational institutions prior to elections regarding the investments that they will make if they come to power. The civil servants of municipal and national agencies are also involved in these agreements.
Kept under wraps
In exchange, the political parties receive support during election campaigns. No one kicks up a fuss as long as it is all kept under wraps. Van Schendelen added that the parties involved often jointly decide in advance on what they will disclose about their agreement.
Again, is that a bad thing? Is it a bad thing, for example, that a construction company, without voters being aware of the matter, could invest one hundred thousand euros in the election campaign of the largest political party on the Rotterdam council, regardless of which party this was, because the company foresaw that the party in question would win and the company would be awarded a construction contract in return?
Van Schendelen stated that action of the kind referred to is allowed as long as such action remains within the parameters of the law. “If this is not the case, the politicians responsible for the breach must bear the consequences. A deal that is unlawful should not be made. It’s that simple. We are living in a time in which everyone has internet access. For politicians, there is therefore always the risk of details leaking out. In this sense, it would be imprudent in the extreme, downright foolish even, for politicians to make deals that break the law. They could end up making headlines for all the wrong reasons or could even end up in prison. If they made a deal that is illegal they would only have themselves to blame.”
‘Politicians must have the opportunity to make compromises and concessions. Doing so is only possible behind closed doors.’
In Frissen’s opinion, the whole idea that every step and facet of a negotiation process must be transparent is misguided. “You would insist on knowing absolutely everything about those in power. Such a demand would be misguided because it would mean insisting on exercising total control over what our politicians do. It would resemble what rulers in totalitarian states do in relation to the citizens of such states. Such a situation is undesirable. Citizens have a right to transparency regarding decision-making processes and the outcomes of decisions. At the same time, however, politicians must have the opportunity to make compromises and concessions. Doing so is only possible behind closed doors.”
The Calypso tower block opposite Rotterdam’s central station is worth considering as an example. The municipality paid property developer De Wilgen Vastgoed thirty million euros for the land that the future owners of the apartments would pay back in the form of ground rent. Questions were subsequently asked about the wisdom of the move because the property developer’s business was on the verge of collapse. It was therefore possible that the money would be used to pay off debts rather than build the tower block, for example. Why did the municipality take that risk? Were there deals with political parties that were in power in Rotterdam? If so, who benefited? And was the land actually worth thirty million euros?
Such questions were never answered. Frissen explained that although he was not aware of the details of the Calypso case, it would be fair to say that land value estimates tend to vary considerably, not only in Rotterdam.
Frissen added that private individuals also manipulate values. The value of a house is a good example in this regard. “In the context of property tax, many people specify the lowest possible value in order to pay less tax, whereas they specify a higher value when obtaining a mortgage from a bank.”
During construction, it emerged that the property developer had a deficit of sixty million euros relative to the total building cost originally calculated. The property developer therefore saved on the kitchens and bathrooms, as a result of which the apartments were finished to a lower standard and generated less income. In addition, because of the collapse of the housing market, the yield of the development as a whole was thirty percent less than had originally been estimated.
The construction company went bankrupt and suppliers advanced a total of fifty million euros.
If the housing market had recovered
Frissen does not get excited about the case. “If the housing market had recovered before the sale of the apartments and they had been sold for the original price, no one would have noticed the property developer’s financial problems.”
The problems only came to light during the lawsuits brought by the creditors. Similarly, had the housing market recovered, no one would have closely examined the municipality’s loan in the form of ground rent. “Chances are that no one would have cared.”
A co-operation between Erasmus Magazine and Vers Beton.
In 2016 Rotterdam celebrates the 550th birth date of the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. In this series, Vers Beton explores the meaning of Erasmus’ thinking for the city of Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Vers Beton is a journal for people in Rotterdam who like to reflect on their city.
This series has been made possible by a financial contribution by the city of Rotterdam.
Translation: Melissa van Amerongen.