When the election campaign kicked off at the beginning of this year, all parties still had the pressing question: can we campaign in full again this year? The Netherlands was still in lockdown due to Covid-19. Many New Year’s drinks, where national party leaders presented themselves with a pep talk for local chapters, still went through the screen. Only thirty people were allowed to attend the GroenLinks election conference in Ahoy in mid-February. Most of the corona measures were not released until the end of February. And then Russia invaded Ukraine.
The shock caused by the war in the world has had an unmistakable effect on the elections in the Netherlands, which were held this Wednesday in 334 municipalities. Not so much on the substantive themes – there was a debate about dog tax, housing locations, greening, sports facilities – as on the course of the campaign.
Campaign not canceled
In March 2018, (almost) all political parties decided to suspend the campaign for the Provincial Council elections with immediate effect and until further notice, including a televised debate with eight national party leaders. Two days before election day, there had been an attack on a tram in Utrecht; four dead, six injured. The gunman was on the run for hours. Only Forum for Democracy decided to let the party meeting planned for that evening go ahead.
After the nighttime invasion of Ukraine on February 24, this time there was no consultation between the campaign leaders of different parties. Each party, each local branch made its own decision to adapt the campaign. In some congregations, scheduled festive gatherings were canceled that day. The tone of campaign messages, online and on the street, became a bit more modest here and there. Party leaders advised their local party members to listen to voters who wanted to talk about the war on the European continent. But there was no question of collectively canceling the campaign.
The political leaders did not think that necessary either. “Certainly not!” said GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver after an election meeting in Utrecht on Sunday evening. “The attack on Ukraine is also an attack on democracy, on our way of life. That is why we must continue to celebrate that democracy and let the election campaign continue.”
Almost all political leaders convert this attitude into general voting advice: go and vote! Also in the knowledge that a high turnout is beneficial for many established parties.
Party leaders struggled with their own role. The VVD soon decided to let party leader Mark Rutte mainly be Prime Minister and no longer use it for campaign activities. Except for a few TV interviews. Rutte is well aware that a prime minister generates votes in times of crisis.
CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra did not do anything about the campaign after the attack on Ukraine. No time for that, was his excuse as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Unlike Rutte and D66 leader Sigrid Kaag, Hoekstra did participate in the final debate at the NOS on Tuesday evening. In that debate about the municipal elections, the first twenty minutes focused exclusively on the war in Ukraine. There was also a block about refugees.
Sigrid Kaag had previously described wartime campaigning as “very uncomfortable” and “a little inappropriate”. Nevertheless, she still went out a few times with leaflets, especially in cities where it is exciting for D66.
In terms of content, local, typical municipal themes continued to predominate, but voters still had a number of questions about the Ukraine crisis. Why, a critical member asked Klaver on Sunday, “does GroenLinks support arms supplies to Kiev?” Venita Dada-Anthonij, campaign manager for D66 in Utrecht, says that she received questions in the street about refugee reception and the municipality’s gas contract with the Russian Gazprom.
Purchasing power recovery
Apart from gas and refugees, the war affected the Dutch economy and politics much more directly. There was a loud and wide call – from citizens, interest groups, from opposition and coalition parties – to do something about the immense inflation, fueled by the war in Ukraine.
The cabinet postponed a decision on this for a long time. The consultations on the current budget and the ‘purchasing power pictures’ would start soon, but would take several weeks.
Last Friday, the cabinet nevertheless came out with what it calls “damping” measures, including a temporary reduction in excise duties on fuel.
Visually, the governing parties did not immediately turn it into a political number. The news about the tax cut of 2.8 billion euros was not brought out by one of the three party leaders from the cabinet, but by Minister Karien van Gennip (Social Affairs, CDA). But in its considerations to take ‘exceptional measures in exceptional times’, in the words of Minister Kaag of Finance, the cabinet must have looked at the election calendar.
Election debate page 12Weesp merges page 13
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of March 16, 2022