It’s more than rye that’s skimpy. The CDA seems affected by what a former party star like Jan de Koning, who was raised on the Bible, would probably have called ‘the ten plagues of Egypt’.
The party has barely recovered from the commercial activities of the young party member Sywert van Lienden, or Pieter Omtzigt, the voice gun from Twente, closes the door behind him. With such a strong wave that people start to wonder what the party culture actually is. How do Christian Democrats treat each other? Are the finances properly arranged? Can you also buy influence there? In between all the vicissitudes, one of the CDA patriarchs, Dries van Agt, also resigns from his party membership.
The CDA, once the dominant governing party at the center of national politics, is imploding. After the disappointing election results of March 17, things are going downhill fast. The party makes a rudderless impression, plaything of centrifugal forces: the party chairman is an interim, the party leader does not want to make an impression and the second popular man resigns. Moreover, a hefty internal opposition is forming and an ‘accountability conference’ is casting threatening shadows ahead.
The Christian Democratic misery is more than a combination of unfortunate circumstances. The CDA has been trying to maneuver itself into a hopeless impasse for some time now. Partly it happens to the party, partly it inflicts it upon itself.
It begins, inevitably, with the natural decline. As a result of all kinds of structural developments – de-ideologising, secularisation, deconfessionalisation, individualisation – the Christian Democrats gradually lost their self-evident supporters from the mid-1960s onwards. As with another popular party, the PvdA, the traditional reservoir has become smaller. And what still calls itself a Christian no longer automatically votes for the CDA.
This structural trend even prompted the transformation of KVP, ARP and CHU into a joint CDA in the 1970s. Successful party leaders such as Lubbers (eighties) and Balkenende (eighties) could temporarily halt that decline.
Also read: Mud and tears in the torn CDA
But after ten years it seems to be unstoppable. Certainly with retroactive effect, 2010 seems to be a tipping point. After long, fierce and bitter debates, the CDA took a right turn. It entered into a form of cooperation with open eyes with the right-wing populist, xenophobic, polarizing party of Geert Wilders. That decision tore apart Christian democracy, a rift that left deep marks. More than ever it became clear that there were two camps: a Christian-social and a conservative wing. That tension has always been there. You could even say it belonged to Christian Democracy. But never before has a camp been so dominant.
After the experiment with Wilders, party leaders such as Sybrand van Haarsma Buma, without much concern for the marginalized minority, took a stand against the rhetoric of populism. It was the “angry, concerned citizen” who became the measure of things. Pleas for a more Christian-Democratic tone quickly disappeared in the bottom desk drawer.
The CDA, once the dominant governing party, is imploding
Electorally, that exit did not have the desired effect. Even the miserable result of 2010 (21 seats) turned out to be unattainable. Three times in a row the CDA had to lose out to the VVD, the party with which it sometimes competed with, sometimes against Mark Rutte. The defeat of this year’s parliamentary elections underlined the impasse in which Christian democracy had also found itself under Wopke Hoekstra. Was it more than a VVDlight? Or was there mostly emptiness?
Also read: He never really felt at home in the CDA faction
In that vacuum, a phenomenon like Pieter Omtzigt could draw tens of thousands of votes. Although a member of the House of Representatives on behalf of the CDA for almost twenty years, Omtzigt turned out to be a surprising outsider, a self-made man who works his way up – against the party establishment – for the benefit of ‘ordinary people’. Initially a militant loner from the region, he grew into a politician of national renown. His almost legendary tenacity around the child benefits affair confirmed what he had already shown after the MH17 disaster and in Malta.
In the bleeding CDA, Omtzigt’s performance among the supporters was particularly successful. Of course because he was one of the few within party and faction to have a clear, appealing story, the story of the poor citizen who is in danger of being crushed by bureaucratic powers.
New social pact
That alone gave him wings. The fact that he could fly with it also had to do with the fact that he struck the right tone within the CDA. Omtzigt’s plea for a new social pact transcended the almost classic, slightly jaded contradiction within the divided Christian democracy. On the one hand he appealed to Christian-social pleas for a government as a shield for the weak, while on the other he was sufficiently critical of Europe and immigration to appeal to the conservative wing. His story also fitted perfectly with the zeitgeist, it had just enough populist sound – against the elite in the banana monarchy who make it difficult for ordinary people – to generate many preferential votes from outside the CDA as well.
The CDA, the worn-out Christian democracy, does not know what to do with it. It may continue on the path it took ten years ago. Then it will end just like Egypt after the ten plagues. Better is that it tries to rediscover itself with the help of what Pieter Omtzigt has provided. That starts with taking him seriously.