V.Roman or red?

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Just before the German invasion the catholics had finally relented and accepted a coalition with the social-democrats. After the war, they continued this policy, even though (or maybe exactly because) the social-democrats merged their party with two smaller ones. From 1946 to 1958 the so-called Roman-Red coalition of catholics and social-democrats ruled the country.

As we’ll see, this exact coalition was a vital necessity to the catholics. However, circumstances changed in the late 1950s, and the catholics, who by now thoroughly dominated protestant ARP and CHU, shifted to the right in a coalition with the VVD; a coalition that basically remained intact until 1989.

It seemed nothing could stop a total catholic take-over of state power — if the left wing could be kept safely roman instead of becoming red.


Just after the liberation it seemed that the Dutch party system would undergo a radical transformation, the so-called Breakthrough, which was supposed to lead to a progressive majority in parliament. In order to understand this episode we first have to take a look at political activity during the occupation.

Nederlandsche Unie

As a reaction to the threatening nazification of the country, the Nederlandsche Unie (Dutch Union) was formed in 1940. It aimed at coming to an accomodation with the changed circumstances in Europe without falling into outright nazism.

The Union was an instant success. People from all denominations hurried to apply for membership, and the Union flag became a common sight throughout the country. The main reason for this success was that the Union was not the NSB. In the spirit of unity the Union was led by a catholic (future prime minister De Quay), a right-wing liberal, and a partyless man.

Initially the occupiers withheld judgement; it was clear that the NSB was very impopular, and the Union might become a tool for mobilising the Dutch for Germany. When the Union leaders refused to remove all Jewish members and did not enthousiastically support the German invasion of Russia, the nazis had had enough and disbanded the Union in 1941.


Still, the Union had shown that the various denominations could work together towards a common goal, and this lesson was not forgotten, especially not among the younger party members.

The Germans took several high-ranking politicians hostage and interned them in camp St.-Michielsgestel, where they were treated decently. During their enforced stay they took to talking to each other and create plans for a new post-war political system that would do away with denominational segregation.

Especially among progressive politicians there was much talk of a breakthrough after the war. Progressives of all denominations would finally come together into one party, which would conquer the majority and change Dutch politics forever — or so it was imagined.

Ambitious plans were drawn up, and SDAP party leader and future prime minister Drees, especially, started to work towards a new party that would include progressives from all four denominations — or so he hoped.


When liberation came nearer, people started to become more enthusiastic about doing away with the old denominational segregation, and creating a new political order. This sentiment was especially strong among members of the resistance, from communists to anti-revolutionaries.

They were supported in their wishes by Queen Wilhelmina in London. She, whom Churchill called “the only man in Dutch government in exile,” had also become disgusted by partisanship and bickering, and wanted to restart the country with a clean slate.

However, the geography of liberation intervened. In September 1944 the south was liberated, but the Allied armies stopped at the Rhine, and the north had to wait nine more months, As a result, the catholics were able to reinstate their iron grip and work on keeping the left wing, which might be interested in the planned Breakthrough, in hand.


Thus the catholics stayed wholly outside the Breakthrough. However, among liberals and protestants there was some support for the idea, and the SDAP, the VDB, and small, left-wing christian CDU decided to merge into the PvdA.

Together, the three parties had held 31 seats in the last pre-war parliament. In the 1946 elections the PvdA won 29, a loss of two. However, communist CPN went from three to ten seats, buoyed as they were by their role in the resistance.

In the protestant camp there was some talk of a merger between ARP and CHU. Especially the anti-revolutionary resistance was in favour, but most CHU leaders, as well as some old-guard ARP leaders when they returned from German captivity, did not like the idea. The christian-historians were afraid of being overshadowed by the anti-revolutionaries, and the pro-union resistance leaders were too left-wing in the eyes of the returned party leaders. Thus ARP and CHU remained separate parties for thirty more years.

The Breakthrough made some inroads into the protestant camp. About four seats’ worth of left-wing protestant voters did go over to the socialist camp, never to return. Still, the originators of the Breakthrough line of thought had hoped for more. They had especially hoped for the same to happen to the catholic left.

The catholics, however, retained their unity. They kept the left wing on board succesfully. Still, there was a price to be paid. That price was cooperation with the left instead of the right.

The party landscape

Thus the number of major parties had gone down from six to five. Let’s briefly review them all before continuing with political history.


Portrait of Carl Romme

Carl Romme (1896-1980), minister of social affairs 1937-1939, KVP party leader 1946-1961.

Romme entered the Amsterdam city council in 1921, became local party leader in 1925, and created his first Roman-Red coalition on a local scale in 1929, closely cooperating with SDAP alderman Wibaut.

His political theory was heavily influenced by corporatist theories that called for parliamentary representation of companies and unions instead of private persons. This very catholic way of thinking was popular in the thirties, not only with catholics but also with fascists (Mussolini implemented a variation of it in Italy). Romme also supported a strong and independent Queen.

In 1937 he was made minister of social affairs in the middle of the Great Depression. Although he tried to alleviate the problems of the unemployed, his catholic way of thinking, as well as the money he spent, caused concerns with the protestants, and it was one of Romme’s proposals that caused the fall of the Colijn IV government.

During World War II Romme was fairly passive, although he was involved as a lawyer in several Dutch companies that were sold to German ones.

After the war, the combination of his ideas and his war history caused the PvdA to veto his entry into government. Romme remained in parliament during his tenure as KVP leader, and he planned most of the Roman-Red period, including the KVP’s move to the right in 1958. He resigned unexpectedly in 1961.

Romme was an autocratic leader, and this fact plays a role in the subsequent catholic disarray. When the strong man retired nobody was ready to fill the gap, and this was one of the reasons the KVP ran into problems before too many years had passed.

He was called The Sphinx for his use of vague language that allowed all hearers to hear whatever they liked. This was quite important to the KVP, which united all kinds of pressure groups whose only common denominator was their catholic faith.

After the war, the RKSP changed its name to KVP (Katholieke Volkspartij; Catholic Popular Party). It was supposed to symbolise that henceforth the catholics would take better care of their left wing.

In 1946, with the first post-war government to be formed, the KVP allied with the social-democrats in the PvdA to form the Roman-Red coalitions. In 1958 they exchanged the PvdA for the VVD. In the end, these moves can be traced back to keeping the catholic left wing on board: vital just after the war, but less immediately pressing at the end of the fifties.

In the sixties many catholics decided that their faith wasn’t the all-encompassing sum of their lives, and that they weren’t required to vote KVP. The left wing started to defect to the PvdA, the right wing to the VVD. Before the sad and sorry end the once-proud KVP lost about half its voters, and with them its absolute power.

The party leadership responded to this disaster with a stroke of genius: the KVP should merge with its long-time protestant allies. This led to the creation of the CDA, which succesfully re-conquered the KVP’s centre position in Dutch politics.

Dutch political history is largely the history of the catholics’ hegemony, downfall, and reincarnation. This series of articles will discuss it in detail.


The merger of SDAP, VDB, and CDU into the PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid; Labour party) took place just before the 1946 elections. It was hoped that this new party would attract left-leaning catholics and anti-revolutionaries in addition to loyal SDAP and VDB voters, but that didn’t materialise.

Simultaneously the CPN, still the thorn in the PvdA’s left flank, grew hugely from three to ten seats. Although the socialist denomination occupied a record number of seats, the PvdA was unable to force a true breakthrough, and entered the Roman-Red coalition with the KVP.

For the first time, the social-democrats participated in government for an extended period of time, and were transformed from an opposition party into a governmental party. The party leadership enthusiastically embraced the change, and accepted the fact that the party became responsible for a not-very-leftist austerity programme. This programme was clearly necessary just after the war, but remained in place for much of the fifties, even when the economy had recovered and started to boom.

The fourth and final Drees government (1956-1958) featured increasing tension between the social-democrats and their allies; notably the catholics. In the end Drees resigned over a relatively minor issue, and Roman-Red came to an end.

Afterwards the PvdA slowly slid down because it had lost part of its appeal to the lower classes, and there were fewer lower class voters, anyway, with the growth of the middle class. Besides, the PvdA had not shown itself to be a true left-wing party when it ruled (which was admittedly hard in a coalition with catholics and protestants), and it lost part of its appeal.

The PvdA had to reinvent itself, and succeeded in doing so in the late sixties. We’ll discuss this period at length, too.


Portrait of Jelle Zijlstra

Jelle Zijlstra (1918-2001), economics minister 1952-1959, finance minister 1958-1963 and 1966-1967, prime minister 1966-1967, ARP party leader 1956-1963, director of the Dutch Bank 1967-1981.

Zijlstra was a gifted economist who became the first economics professor at the Gereformeerde Free University. He supported the PvdA’s 1951 economic plans, and therefore he was a natural choice for the economics department when the ARP re-entered the PvdA-led government in 1952. He remained in government for the next eleven years, and became known as a left wing man.

He led the ARP in the 1956 and 1959 elections, and because after 1958 government as a whole shifted from centre-left to centre-right, Zijlstra’s leftism became more pronounced. It turned out that this was what common ARP members were waiting for, despite hesitations in the more conservative parliamentary fraction.

In 1960 Zijlstra refused to execute an ARP-sponsored motion that he found financially untenable, and although the break was mended, Zijlstra became disenchanted with politics. He rejected an offer to lead the party in the 1963 elections, too, and returned to university.

Because of his popularity Zijlstra was chosen to head the KVP+ARP caretaker government after Schmelzer’s Night, and the ARP’s gain in the 1967 elections can be attributed to his personal appeal, despite not being a candidate.

In 1967 he resigned from politics, becoming director of the Dutch Bank. He refused the prime ministership in 1977 and 1981, as well as offers to become IMF director and chairman of the European Council.

As to the two protestant parties, they remained what they had been, down to the party name, but had lost their central position in Dutch politics. The ARP, especially, was hard pressed to deal with the heritage of the 1930s, when it had been hard-right, and in addition it opposed Indonesian independence as the single of the five major parties. This caused an unusual spell in the opposition. It took until 1952 before it was re-admitted into the halls of power.

Directly after the war the ARP lost a lot of voters to the PvdA, and from 1952 to 1963 it again lost about a third of its voters. I have not been able to find an explanation for this atypical ARP pattern.

However, the tide turned with the 1967 elections, when the party stabilised. This was partly caused by prime minister Zijlstra’s personal popularity, but the ARP remained more-or-less stable in the next ten years, when KVP and CHU folded. Apparently its mix of christian values and centrist-to-left politics continued to appeal to a lot of voters.


As to the CHU, it was maybe the least-changed of all five parties. It continued to represent the classes it had historically represented, and became even more of a pragmatic, though protestant-right-wing, party.

Despite an invitation to merge with the ARP, the CHU entered the 1946 elections alone, and it retained its pre-war score. Obviously, there was still demand for a christian-historian party distinct from an anti-revolutionary one.

The CHU remains by far the most obscure of the five major parties, and it’s hard to avoid the impression that this was exactly what the christian-historians wanted. They remained right wing as ever, but cooperated constructively with the other four parties.

Like the KVP, it slid down during the late sixties, because its peculiar brand of politics had definitively become outdated and its following started to defect to the VVD, which the CHU had always resembled economically.


The VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie; Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy) has occupied the moderate secular right wing of Dutch politics since 1948 as the successor of the pre-war VB.

Initially the old VB had transformed itself into the PvdV (Partij van de Vrijheid; Freedom Party; this is the same name Wilders is currently using, and that is no coincidence). In 1948 former VDB leader Oud left the PvdA and took a large group of adherents with him. This Group Oud merged with the PvdV into the VVD, and promptly won two seats from the PvdA in the next elections.

The VVD was a party for the secular upper middle class, and held about the same amount of seats as the CHU that represented the protestant upper middle class. However, the VVD also appealed to the lower middle class, and as the fifties progressed, increasing prosperity made more and more lower class people make the jump to the middle class — and to the VVD in political matters.

The 1959 elections, when this trend first manifested itself, were the breakpoint for the VVD. It went from 13 to 19 seats, and that was a major victory back then. As a result the christian parties decided to ally with the liberals instead of the social-democrats, and thus started the period of centre-right governments that lasted for thirty years with only two breaks.

The VVD entered the sixties with an extended electoral base. Although its number of seats dropped slightly from the 19 of 1959, it was clear that the liberals had conquered a right-wing block of voters from the christians.

The centre-right coalition was ousted from power in the 1972 elections, even though the VVD made another historical jump to 22 seats. That was quite a lot for the early seventies, but nowadays this score is regarded as a minimum. When a VVD party leader gains only 22 seats he can expect quite a bit of criticism.

We’ll get back to the VVD later; we’ll take a look both at the new voters it acquired in the seventies, and to its role in the three-party system that forms the backbone of Dutch politics.

Roman-red (1945-1958)

Portrait of Willem Drees

Willem Drees (1886-1988), SDAP/PvdA party leader 1939-1958, social affairs minister 1945-1948, prime minister 1948-1958.

Originally Gereformeerd, Drees left his church and became an SDAP member in 1904. He moved to Den Haag, where he became a parliament stenographer and an active party member.

In 1919 he became alderman of Den Haag, and even his liberal opponents conceded he was a good one. Here Drees learned to cooperate with other parties and to distance himself from the social-revolutionary part of the SDAP.

He became MP in 1933 and party leader in 1939. After the war he became minister of social affairs, and as such he pushed an emergency law for the state pensions through parliament. This made him very popular in the country, especially among the elderly, and earned him the nickname “Father Drees.”

In 1948 he became prime minister, and for ten years he led the roman-red coalition, with full support from the KVP, which considered him a moderate to the hilt. He left the daily party leadership more and more to others.

After his resignation he still came to party congress, and in the sixties he denounced the New Left, who wanted to work towards a progressive majority, just like the Breakthrough had. However, by this time Drees had lost his natural authority; the youngsters didn’t particularly like an old man pointing out that the 1928 party convention had tried to do the same as them, and had failed. In 1971 Drees resigned from the PvdA.

In the 1946 elections Dutch politics seemed to pick up much where it had left affairs in 1940. This was a deception especially to the newly-created PvdA, which had hoped for a true breakthrough. It aimed for the christian, especially the catholic workers, which had until now voted safely along church lines. This movement did not materialise.

In fact, the very party that was most vulnerable to such a breakthrough, the KVP, succesfully grasped the hegemony in Dutch politics. In a brilliant series of moves, the catholics both neutralised the socialist danger and grasped the leadership of the christian block from the ARP’s hands.

In order to appreciate the brilliant work of KVP leader Romme, we first have to concentrate on the dilemma the party found itself in.

The KVP’s dilemma

Alone among the Dutch political parties, the KVP straddled the entire spectrum from moderate left to moderate right. Protestants had centrist ARP and right-wing CHU to choose from, the seculars left-wing PvdA and right-wing VVD. For the catholics, however, there was only the KVP.

If the KVP wasn’t social enough, working class catholics might defect en masse to the PvdA. If, on the other hand, the KVP became too left-wing, it might lose its (more affluent and influential) right wing.

Finally, although the KVP was the largest party in the country and could take the initiative in coalition negotiations, it was so only by a small margin, and the second-largest party was the PvdA. If things went wrong on the left, it would lose voters exactly to its most serious national competitor.

The KVP couldn’t move left, it couldn’t move right, and any false move would mean slow death by electoral bleeding. Still, it was the largest party and it was forced to make a move.

The only real move was to co-opt the PvdA into government.

Move to the left

This resulted in twelve years of roman-red coalitions. By making the PvdA responsible for government policy, the KVP neutralised the danger it was in. Sure, left wing catholics might be unhappy with government policy, but their obvious political alternative was also responsible for that policy.

Furthermore, by agreeing to a coalition with only the PvdA, the KVP sent its old protestant allies a message. Welcome the new era, or get left out of government. No more hard-right policies or complaints about embassies (which, incidentally, had been restored in 1944).

As to the PvdA, it was eager to finally gain admittance to the halls of power, and party leaders understood that a very moderate course was called for, and never mind what the party rank and file thought.

Indonesian independence

The major political issue of the late forties was the independence of Indonesia. During the confused situation just after World War II had ended Indonesian nationalists had taken power, and a vicious and bitter colonial war raged from 1945 to 1949.

Although the PvdA hurriedly revised its moderate anti-colonial policies and sprang to the defense of our prized possesions in the East, the hopelessness of the Dutch position was eventually recognised.

Still, no party wanted to take responsibility for signing away the East on its own. Because the constitution had to be amended in order to grant Indonesia its independence new elections were called in 1948. The KVP remained stable, the PvdA lost two seats. That was reassuring to the KVP.

The new government consisted of KVP, PvdA, CHU, and VVD. This government was broad enough to safely handle all tricky problems that might ensue from decolonisation. The ARP was left out because it would never agree to Indonesia’s independence. Besides, the KVP reinforced the message that it, and it alone, could bring any of the other parties into government.

In 1948 Queen Wilhelmina abdicated and was succeeded by her daughter Juliana.

Rebuilding the country

The 1952 elections are the single elections since 1918 in which no new parties appeared in and no old parties disappeared from parliament. All other elections have at least one newcomer or one victim.

In order to rebuild the country, it was deemed essential to keep social unrest to a minimum. Wage increases, demands, and strikes could not be tolerated. The KVP found it comforting that a PvdA prime minister enforced all these rules.

Still, in the 1952 elections the KVP lost two seats and the PvdA won three, bringing both to 30 seats. The KVP still had more votes, but this was a nasty surprise. The PvdA had to be even more tightly implicated in government.

The VVD was exchanged for the ARP. This was partly an economic move; the VVD was not enchanted by increasing state interference with the economy, and the ARP might be easier to work with in that regard.


When the 1956 elections loomed near, it became less and less clear whether KVP would remain the largest party in the country. To stem the tide, the bishops in 1954 threatened any catholic who was a member of a socialist organisation with excommunication; a move that was felt would return the straying left-wing sheep to the flock.

Instead, the move backfired. Obviously the socialists protested this unwarranted intrusion of the church into politics. Less expected was that the moderate opinion among protestants and liberals also turned against the catholics. The KVP leadership had to backtrack a bit, and lost some face in the process.

The 1956 campaign was especially heated in the south, where prime minister Drees was threatened by catholic youngsters at one meeting. When the results came in, the PvdA had become the largest party. It had gained 50 seats in parliament (which had been enlarged to 150 seats), while the KVP held 49.

The PvdA had won. Breakthrough had come.

... or had it? Now that the PvdA was the largest party, it had to form a government. But the only viable coalition partner was ... the KVP, which of course insisted on the participation of its by now thoroughly tamed wing lieutenants ARP and CHU.

Move to the right

Thus nothing changed. A few catholic workers had made the crossing to the PvdA, and it didn’t matter one bit. The same coalition ruled on, with only the VVD in opposition.

As the economy improved, the government did not loosen the purse strings. Wages were kept low, the better to increase industrial output. Although that made some sense in a macro-economic context, the wishes of the workers were mostly disregarded. Until now, KVP and PvdA had been in this together.

However, tension between KVP and PvdA grew, and the KVP started to attack the economic policy of the PvdA. the socialists became more and more annoyed with their coalition partner, until finally prime minister Drees resigned after one attack too many on a (relatively unimportant) part of the PvdA’s economic plans.

Evidently, the alliance had ended. It was the KVP that emerged strongest from this fight, with its main competitor on the defense and its voters eager for a bit less state control of economy. Maybe it was time to move to the right.

Twelve years of roman-red ended in 1958, and new elections were called. Until these elections, a caretaker government of the three christian parties showed that ruling the country does not require the PvdA.

Centre-right (1958-1967)

Portrait of PJ Oud

Pieter Jacobus Oud (1886-1968), VDB party leader 1935-1938, finance minister 1933-1937, mayor of Rotterdam 1938-1941 and 1945-1952, VVD party leader 1948-1963.

Oud entered parliament in 1917 and left it in 1963, though his tenure was not continuous. He quickly became VDB party leader Marchant’s right-hand man. He was a noted financial specialist, and one of the reasons ARP leader Colijn asked the VDB to participate in his government was to get Oud to become finance minister. As such, Oud had to take harsh decisions in the midst of the crisis of the 1930s.

When Marchant secretly became a catholic, Oud succeeded him as party leader. He resigned in 1938 to become mayor of Rotterdam, but refused to cooperate with the German occupiers and resigned in 1941.

He used his enforced leisure time to write a massive six-volume history of Dutch politics from 1918 to 1940, as well as a much shorter Dutch political history primer from 1840 to 1940. The latter work is still in print. It is my main source for pre-war political history in this article series.

After the war he initially entered the PvdA, as so many former VDB members did. The old socialists remembered his work during the crisis, and didn’t exactly welcome him with open arms. The feeling was mutual; Oud quickly became disgusted and led the so-called Group Oud from PvdA to VVD, of which party he became the leader.

Afterwards, Oud was violently opposed to cooperation with the PvdA. Just before the 1959 election he compared it to “collaborating with alcoholics to combat alcoholism,” and can thus be described as the inventor of the polarisation between the two parties. The VVD victory of 1959 was the crown on his political career.

In the 1959 elections the VVD won 6 seats, which was a major victory in those days. The coalition parties lost a few seats, except the KVP, which remained stable at 49. Because the PvdA had lost two, the KVP was once more the largest party in the country. It celebrated this fact by forming a centre-right government of the three christian parties and the VVD.

Because the economy boomed, the new government could afford to loosen its own purse strings as well as those of companies, and the trade unions finally got a substantial increase in wages. This also served to boost the purchasing power of the Dutch themselves and internal demand; something that had been sorely lacking during the roman-red period.

A centre-left government being very stingy to workers and a centre-right one giving away higher wages was an odd sight, and it didn’t do the PvdA much good.

The 1963 elections

In the 1963 elections, the KVP won its best score ever of 50 seats, while the PvdA lost five. The centre-right coalition as a whole kept its majority, and a continuation of the coalition seemed logical.

Still, its very position as the natural leader of the centre-right was a danger to the KVP. As usual, it worried about the left wing; even though the PvdA was sliding down, catholic workers might still defect to it and give it a new boost.

Thus, the PvdA initially had to be considered as a coalition partner, and ideally it had to resign from the negotiations by itself. Thus started a long and complicated game between the five parties, in which the KVP tried and failed to get the PvdA to break off negotiations. In the end, the KVP leader sent a short note to the PvdA leader, thanking him for his constructive work but announcing that a centre-right government would be formed anyway.

This was not an auspicious start. It would become worse before the end of this parliament.

The broadcast question

The Dutch broadcasting system was still roughly the same as in the early 1930s, with a catholic, a protestant, a socialist, and a “general” broadcasting corporation. The first three were tightly bound to the KVP, ARP, and PvdA, respectively, while the fourth had no political ties.

The big question in the mid-sixties was whether commercial (i.e. non-segregated) broadcasters should be allowed to enter the system. VVD and CHU, who didn’t have their own broadcasters to worry about and supported free entrepeneurship anyway, were in favour.

KVP and ARP were against: the position of the catholic and protestant broadcasters would become too tenuous in a semi-commercial system. Eventually government fell over this question, with VVD and CHU leaving the coalition and the broadcast question more pressing than ever.

The obvious solution to the problem was a coalition of KVP and ARP with the PvdA, which could be relied upon to protect the interests of the socialist broadcasters. Thus the KVP exchanged centre-right for centre-left, and commercial television was postponed for twenty years.

Schmelzer’s night

Portrait of Norbert Schmelzer

Norbert Schmelzer (1921-2008), KVP party leader 1963-1971, foreign minister 1971-1973.

A son of German parents, Schmelzer was active in the resistance agains the nazis. After the war KVP leader Romme invited him to enter politics, and he was a secretary of state from 1956 to 1963. In 1963 he became KVP party leader in parliament.

To this day, “Schmelzer’s night” (13-14 October 1966) remains the prime example of the dramatic fall of a government. This was the first parliamentary debate to be televised live, and Schmelzer’s actions entered Dutch national memory.

Schmelzer personally was generally considered the culpable party, and his reputation never quite recovered. He was foreign minister for a while before resigning from active politics.

With the broadcast question solved, the KVP wouldn’t cry many tears over a break with the PvdA. It wanted to enter the 1967 elections free from all expectations, and wanted to keep both the centre-left and the centre-right options open.

Besides, the differences between the KVP’s left and right wings became more pronounced. Prime minister Cals, a left-winger himself, readily agreed with the PvdA’s financial plans, which the right wing of the KVP opposed.

Thus party leader Schmelzer was in a tight position. He wanted to break with the PvdA, which would give him support of the right wing, but would upset the left wing. He tried to keep both sides happy by asking pointed questions of prime minister Cals, but refrained from the ultimate action: proposing a vote of no confidence, after which government would have to step down.

Prime minister Cals as well as the PvdA explicitly asked for parliamentary support for the coalition’s plans. Thus the ante was upped; and the KVP was forced to declare itself instead of sticking to its usual centrist woolly non sequiturs.

Still hoping to keep both left and right wing happy, Schmelzer produced a somewhat sharper motion that invited government to reconsider the financial situation, but hastened to add that this should in no way be viewed as a motion of no-confidence, and was not aimed against government’s composition (i.e. whether the KVP was In or Out).

Opposition parties VVD and CHU immediately announced their support for the motion; they wouldn’t mind the fall of government and new elections.

The PvdA was thinking along similar lines. It insinuated that the motion’s meaning was clear: the KVP distrusted government. It hoped to put Schmelzer in a position where he had to choose between retracting his motion, losing face and possibly the right wing of his party, or take it to its logical conclusion and abandon his party members in government. Either way, the KVP lost and the PvdA won.

Schmelzer’s motion passed. VVD, CHU, the small right-wing parties and the vast majority of the KVP voted for the motion and against government, while PvdA, ARP, the small left-wing parties and four KVP MPs supported government and voted against Schmelzer. Cals was forced to resign.

Distrust between KVP and PvdA became rampant after this night, and it took the parties twenty-five years before they could discuss a possible coalition normally.


A caretaker government of KVP and ARP was formed to lead the country until the next elections. Still, a lot was changing in Dutch politics, and all this came to a head in the 1967 elections.

Because the political system, and especially the KVP, had been so cynical in its handling of coalitions, a general sense of distrust was growing. The 1967 elections were the end of an era and the start of a new one.

The KVP lost eight seats, and it was hardly a consolation that the PvdA also lost six. Big winners were D66, a new party that succesfully occupied the old VDB niche, and protest party BP. Times were about to change.

Power to the parties

The ancien regime in action. Prime minister Drees receives the leaders of the five parties. From left to right: Romme (KVP), Zijlstra (ARP), Drees, Oud (VVD), Burger (PvdA), Tilanus (CHU).

These men took the real decisions in Dutch politics, and they forced their parties, and thus their voters, to follow them.

The entire political system we just saw in action can only exist by the grace of party power.

All political moves and counter-moves we’ve discussed, as well as most of the ones that still lie in the future, are executed by the party leaders and their close cohorts, who know themselves supported by their MPs in parliament, and their voters throughout the country through the medium of the political party.

The parties are the glue that connects voters with similarly-minded professional politicians, and these politicians with a small group of leaders.

The problem is that the glue is opaque.

Voters have no idea how they came to be represented by mr. X or mrs. Y; and even some party leaders (notably future prime minister Balkenende; CDA) were completely unknown to the general public at the time of their election.

The party leaders’ main job is to talk to each other and connect one group of voters and MPs to another. The problem is that while talking to each other they lose contact with their base (or are perceived to do so, which amounts to the same in politics).

Voter-MP contact

At the tail end of the ancien regime a group of intellectuals, most of them liberal but left-leaning, produced an Appeal to the Dutch People (in Dutch; PDF, 2MB) that admirably summarised this problem and some possible solutions. In forty years it has lost nothing of its force as a thumbnail sketch of the party system; we’d just have to replace a few party names before re-publishing it.

Here follows a summary of the problems they encountered, and some possible solutions.

Ironically, the writers of the Appeal found no better way of putting their ideas into practice than forming yet another political party, D66. We’ll treat this party in full later, and it took them until 1994 to really change something in Dutch politics, when the christians were finally forced out of government. Dutch politics still have to recuperate from this revolution.

There’s little contact between individual Dutch voters and MPs; a result of the party-list system in which the political parties decide which persons will represent the people in parliament. Thus, no Dutch voter has his own MP to contact if he wants something done.

Members of parliament have their party to thank for their seat; and a party that has been generous enough to put them highly enough on the party list to get elected is to be repaid with loyalty. Once the party decides to go one way, few individual MPs will disagree.

An individual MP has little legitimacy; most of them won a few hundred; or at best a few thousand votes personally and were elected on the coat-tails of their well-known national party leaders.

District system

The most obvious way of changing this state of affairs is returning to the district system that was abolished in 1918. There, actual persons would have to compete for votes from other actual persons they’d meet frequently during election time. The MP would be the true representative of a group of voters.

Even CDA and PvdA, who as largest parties stand most to gain, have always resisted a district system staunchly; probably more for the breakdown of party power it would bring than in solidarity with the smaller parties. After forty years of discussion it’s clear we’re not going back to the district system.


A consequence of the lack of legitimacy of individual MPs is that government and parliament are tightly bound together, even though theory says they should form the two opposite poles of the political system.

Ministers frequently apply pressure to the MPs of their party in order to get their votes for measures and policies that are not quite in agreement with the party’s stated goals and platform. Because MPs have little personal legitimacy and are totally dependent on their party for their future career, they’ll give in easily.

As a result, most power lies with government, or rather, with the decisions of the leaders of the coalition parties.


In the 2006 elections the SP won enourmously; far more than anyone had expected. These new voters were disappointed when party leader Marijnissen only feebly tried to form a coalition with PvdA and CDA and quickly allowed negotiations to break down.

We’ll see later that Marijnissen’s decision was likely to be tactically correct, but still this sort of voter dissatisfaction is endemic in Dutch politics.

While Dutch voters can vote for a party, they cannot vote for the coalition(s) they want that party to participate in. Only before 1918 was there a clear distinction between the christian and the secular blocks; afterwards there were many coalition possibilities.

Some right-wing PvdA voters will want a CDA coalition, while left-wingers would prefer cooperation with the left. However, both groups can only vote PvdA and hope for the best. Then the party leaders will come together and decide who’s going to rule the country.

Elected prime minister

Within the framework of proportional representation, some popular influence on the coalition could be provided by an elected prime minister. Being chosen by popular vote, this individual would have enough democratic legitimacy to form the government best suited to execute his platform, and search for a majority in parliament only later.

This idea, obviously taken from the US constitution, would allow voters to elect the executive and separate the legislative and executive branches better.


When this criticism of the political system as a whole was combined with exasperation about the cynical and power-hungry politics of especially KVP and PvdA, and the opening up of especially the catholic denomination, the net result was that voters began to float. Old certainties, such as the denomination you belonged to by birth, made place for a new, more ideologically-driven kind of politics. Thus the times of trouble started.