The participating candidates are all in their twenties. They represent the ten largest parties nationwide – apart from PVV, which decided against sending someone. They’re a motley crew. Only one of the nine panel members is in an eligible place on his party’s list of candidates: Daan de Kort, no. 28 on the VVD roll. Other candidates will only become an MP if their party manages to outperform the polls: Harmen Krul (CDA, no. 21), Freek Jansen (FvD, no. 7), Eva Akerboom (PvdD, no. 7) and Kavish Bisseswar (PvdA, no. 14). The candidates representing ChristenUnie, D66, GroenLinks and SP have no prospects of landing a seat.
Each of the candidates is given several minutes to introduce him- or herself. An enthusiastic Harmen Krul (CDA) remarks that he only got 15 seconds at a previous debate that same afternoon. It becomes clear from the candidates’ preambles that most of them are already politically active. Their experience ranges from local party group chair or political staffer in the House of Representatives to LSVb board member. This political savvy, combined with the lack of public interaction inherent to an online debate, makes it hard to get down to brass tacks. Since the candidates are unable to gauge their audience’s existing political knowledge or play the room, they tend to stick to platitudes and generalisations.
After introductions, the candidates are invited to discuss four different themes. Each of these discussions leaves you feeling less than satisfied – albeit for different reasons.
Four candidates start by discussing the student loan system introduced a few years ago. The representatives of PvdD, FvD and PvdA tell us that they would like to scrap this arrangement. PvdA and PvdD stress that they would like to compensate students for the years that they had to make do without a base grant. Daan de Kort (VVD) is the only one in favour of keeping the scheme. No one questions whether the other parties’ promises are actually realistic: by the looks of it, De Kort’s position will be vindicated, since the Netherlands’ budget deficit is taking on stupendous forms in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Right now, radical changes to the student finance system – let alone room for extra compensation – don’t seem on the cards. Nor does anyone point out that it’s particularly easy for FvD and PvdD to make expensive promises, since they won’t be participating in any formation negotiations.
The second discussion focuses on the climate. Freek Jansen (FvD) has no time for a dedicated climate policy. Still, this is good news for the evening’s debate, since it highlights a number of different political positions. PvdA and PvdD want to invest further in climate change mitigation, for example, and have all sorts of ideas and proposals on offer. VVD isn’t too wild about these suggestions – although the party does want to take some measures in response: build a new nuclear power plant, for example. Usually, when it comes to climate policy, VVD can be found on the more sceptical end of the spectrum. But with Forum also contributing to today’s debate, the liberal conservatives seem a beacon of nuanced – indeed centrist – thought on these issues. Still, this is due to the composition of the panel more than anything.
More 'gezellige' student houses
The other candidates get to discuss the EU. All of a sudden, talk veers towards a ‘Nexit’. Rather surprising, since apart from PVV and Forum, none of the parties present is in favour of a Dutch withdrawal. This means that this proposal has no chance of being included on the agenda in the years ahead. While the EU does come in for considerable criticism, almost none of the candidates have European experience. As a result, the debate quickly shifts toward ideas like elected European Commissioners and the introduction of more qualified majorities. These proposals require treaty amendments that won’t be initiated any time soon – meaning that over the next few years, they won’t be appearing on the House agenda either.
The evening concludes with the housing market. Everyone’s in favour of more homes – after all, it would be foolish to say otherwise. The candidates all have their own spin on the matter though: CDA wants more gezellige student houses, D66 seems enthusiastic about converting vacant office buildings and SP wants to do something about speculators and rack-rent. It’s safe to assume that none of the participating parties objects to these kinds of proposals: meaning there’s not much meat to this debate. So the discussion eventually drifts toward a blame game, with the opposition parties taking the coalition members to task. While SP is justifiably critical of CDA’s track record in this area, it all feels a bit facile, since the socialists have never taken part in government.
If there’s one thing this debate does make clear, it’s how complicated everything has become for voters in this age of political fragmentation. Nowadays, we have a glut of medium-sized parties, and the organisers didn’t want to leave anyone out. There are too many candidates on the dais, each of whom can only participate in half of the discussions. And they keep referring to political hobbyhorses of a questionable significance. Time and again, you wonder whether the candidates’ ideas are truly distinctive – or are actually comparable, by and large, with those bandied about by their colleagues. Who have their own hobbyhorses to ride, or limit themselves to pointing out their rivals’ failure to realise a commonly-held ambition at some point in the past. And whether a proposal is actually feasible is hardly ever debated.
In this confounding mishmash of opinions, aspects of personality and image almost certainly carry more weight than substantive points. And judging the responses, the debate also has a clear winner: Harmen Krul (CDA), who manages to stay friendly throughout and is one of the few participants who seems able to divert from the script every now and then. But is this enough for students to vote CDA? As it stands, Krul is too far down the list to be considered eligible.
Chris Aalberts is a Political Communication lecturer and researcher and works as a journalist. He strives to report on political developments from an unbiased and non-partisan perspective. Aalberts recently published a book about Forum voor Democratie (FvD), De partij dat ben ik. De politieke beweging van Thierry Baudet.