Political experiences from a leaderless (!!) Social Liberal party in Corona times

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First a revelation that will startle you: in strict formal, statutory terms, my government coalition social liberal party D66 has been leaderless since 10 October 2018. That’s when our long-standing leader Alexander Pechtold, who since becoming leader in our nadir days in 2006 (3 out of 150 Commons seats in a proportional system!) had brought us back up to 19 seats at the 2017 elections, and who brought us back in the sitting government coalition, suddenly stepped back and started doing other things in quango and semi-governmental circles.

The parliamentary party immediately appointed a new, 31-years old MP, Rob Jetten as parliamentary party leader; and in the D66 Standing Orders it says that in those circumstances, the parliamentary party leader becomes acting party leader.

To really be party leader, you have to have been our “Lijsttrekker” (party list frontman, political campaign leader) in a general election. The “parliamentary party leader but not party leader” construction has happened a couple of times in the 54-year D66 history; the parliamentary party leader in 1982-’86 refused to apply to become Lijsttrekker in 1986 because our party founder and first leader, Hans van Mierlo, wanted to lead us again to regain lost seats (with success; in 1986 we went from 6 to 9, and in 1986-1994 he led us to conquer 24 seats).

Not having a formal party leader doesn’t hinder in any way the normal functioning of the party organisation and parliamentary parties. In 1982-86 we prepared some groundbreaking legislative initiatives. The two main ones were: the first law legalizing and strictly regulating euthanasia in the whole world; and a law liberalizing opening hours for shops (giving opportunities to moms to return to work; giving students and school dropouts jobs).

The other parliamentary parties and government ministers treated our parliamentary party leaders in those intermezzos totally as equals. The only institution that could have rocked the boat was our half-yearly Party Conference; but there too everybody always remained focused on the policy matters at hand (which should be the main task of political parties in any case); nobody ever suggested otherwise.

We will have a severely curtailed Spring Party Conference on 18 April next: no resolutions from the party executive or (as far as possible) the members; just speeches and situation updates from our party president, our national and European parliamentary parties, and our Cabinet ministers. All national party functionaries (all are elected by conference) remain in their posts. This conference will be streamed online to the members; no members are let in the building.

The strict Dutch distancing rules between non-family members make any physical party meeting of any importance practically impossible, even if we Dutch use the “1 meter 50 centimetre” instead of 2 meters norm. All meetings of the parliamentary parties, national, local, and other executives and committees are conducted online; and the Whatsapp and email traffic has exploded.

D66 thus operates as any other type of association. Sports clubs and most social associations have closed down for the duration. There are no church or mosque services open to the public anywhere in the Netherlands (although an article in our Constitution opens a theoretical possibility). Those too are streamed, even with Ramadan coming up.

And reading the American press you see that people have very serious doubts about further conducting the Democratic Primaries; many states have cancelled them already. Even the big party conventions aren’t certain – something unheard of in American history.

All normal politics has to wait until a trustworthy vaccine has been introduced. Like the rest of society.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Laurence Cox 9th Apr '20 - 3:31pm

    I like your virtual Spring Party Conference. Do you think that you will continue with this and the other online meetings once the lockdown is over? Do you have any lessons to share with us on remote communication; for example, how do you deal with non-techies?

  • Bernard Aris 11th Apr '20 - 3:21pm

    @ Laurencce Cox

    Non-techies? Boy you hit the ab-so-lute jackpot; I’m hopeless with online gadgets.

    The party Executive and its Rules & Decisionmaking Observation Committee sent out a membership mail where every member got a ten-digit voting number and presented the members with
    a) some organisational resolutions about how we’ll go about (debating and) amending our 2021 General Election Platform via e-voting; and
    b) an electronic vote about candidatesor important party oranisational committees (disputes arbitrage; financial control & accounting, that kind of thing).

    You had to click to get the profile of every candidate for those commissions and then click back to vote on them; and the same with the organizational proposals/resolutions. Boy what a hassle that was; i was busy for half an hour clicking back and forth and everytime confirming my vote.

    I suppose these things will go in a similar way in all other Dutch parties sitting in parliament; so I guess some wiseguy will design software to make this less cumbersome. The oldfashioned way with paper ballots and you being phisically present in the Conference venue usually dit take about five minutes.

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