A change of fortune?

24th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

Democrat D66 was forced to suddenly shift its focus this week as democratic reform was soundly kicked off the political agenda. This about face could be the very act that ensures its survival — and its seat in government. Aaron Gray-Block reports.

Thom de Graaf wasn't smiling when his reform agenda ran aground in the Senate

Political fortunes can change overnight or in some cases it might take 40 years.

D66, a left-leaning liberal democratic party, can testify to both — having witnessed the sudden demise of Thom de Graaf. He started the week as the minister for government reform hoping to win Senate approval for the introduction of direct mayoral elections.

But shot down by the opposition Labour PvdA — which rejected an essential constitutional amendment on Tuesday night — De Graaf's resignation the following night catapulted the Dutch government into crisis mode.

It also prompted some pundits to raise the spectre of the death knell for a party that was established in 1966 on a ticket of radical democratic reform.

D66 has dedicated itself to breaking up the dominance of the main parties and establishing a pragmatic, rather than ideologically-driven system.

But amid accusations that the D66 had achieved little of what it had set out to do some 40 years ago, the lack of political interest in democratic reform had become obvious — and not least of all to the D66.

In fact, the party jettisoned two important reforms in favour of other policy concessions as D66 parliamentary leader Boris Dittrich held the coalition government to ransom on Thursday.

Leaders of the D66 and its coalition partners the Christian Democrat CDA and Liberal VVD are now in talks in a bid to resolve the crisis. Sources have told Dutch media that the talks are expected to conclude sometime next week.

D66 officials insisted the party was not bent on breaking the coalition up. Instead, its last remaining senior minister, Laurens Jan Brinkhorst — who had also considered resigning — would stay on if the party gained sufficient compensation in return.

Earlier in the day, party leader Dittrich refused to nominate a replacement for De Graaf until coalition discussions reached a satisfactory conclusion.

Should the talks end in agreement, it has been suggested that Dittrich will replace De Graaf and be given extra duties such as tackling stifling bureaucracy.

Brinkhorst could be elevated as the nation's other deputy prime minister, alongside the VVD's Gerrit Zalm.

The D66 entered the coalition government on the proviso that direct mayoral elections would be introduced. But with that and its uninspiring proposal to reform the national electorate system left stranded, the party subsequently demanded CDA and VVD concessions on other policy areas.

Education, the knowledge economy, sustainable energy and a reform of the public broadcast system were considered as key areas in which the D66 would fight for concessions over the next few days.

Its democratic reform packages have been pushed aside, with party sources saying the D66 was not prepared to let its reform agenda topple the government.

Erasmus University political analyst Arthur Ringeling was confident that the crisis could be resolved. He said recent polls indicated that the government would lose the next election, contributing to a will to resolve the current dispute.

The public administration professor said the crisis was a combination of several factors, starting with a surprising PvdA turnaround in the Senate.

The party's 'no vote' was in contrast to previous promised support for abolishing the practice in which mayors are appointed by the Dutch monarch. It also raised talk that PvdA parliamentary leader Wouter Bos could not control his senators.

But Ringeling indicated that De Graaf had made mistakes in preparing the mayoral election proposal. He also said the CDA and VVD had given him little leeway in developing his policy, implying that D66 had now earned some vital bargaining ground.

Casting aside the issue of blame though, he said it was too easy to point accusing fingers over the mayoral election fiasco and that it was a logical step for D66 to demand new policy concessions.

He also said D66 needed t

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