How do you oppose the cabinet in times of crisis? It is a question that the opposition parties in the House have been struggling with for months. At the beginning of the corona crisis, support for the policy pursued was strong among them, but now the parties also want to turn their backs on the cabinet.
The fact that there will be elections at the beginning of next year certainly plays a role. Because the VVD is profiting greatly from Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s crisis approach. The party is now in the polls at 40 to 46 seats in the House of Representatives, 9 more than in March.
“I see that there is enormous appreciation for Rutte as prime minister, and I understand that. It is great how he leads the Netherlands through this crisis,” says GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver. “But we will see that the political debate will become sharper again in the near future.”
With one hand on the back
Due to the corona outbreak, politics largely stalled in March. The debate agenda was cleared out, leaving only a handful of debates on how to deal with the crisis. Only two parties, the PVV and Forum for Democracy, openly voiced criticism of the measures taken in those debates.
Opposition parties are looking for space to control the cabinet in the sparse debates, but that turns out to be complicated in a crisis. The cabinet works with emergency regulations and emergency laws, centralizes healthcare purchases and presents aid packages worth tens of billions of euros.
“There are many things that happen under the heading of crisis,” says Lilian Marijnissen of the SP. “As a representative, you always have less information and knowledge than the experts with whom the cabinet is now consulting. It is our job to control the power, but sometimes it feels like we have to do that with one hand on the back.”
All parties feel the pressure not to cause unnecessary political controversy or to send a minister away in this crisis.
And that feeling is broader in the opposition. SGP group chairman Kees van der Staaij is concerned about current developments. “As far as politics are concerned, I don’t want a ‘new normal’, but just the old normal. In which we check the cabinet for the things they do and have a debate if we want to.”
According to Van der Staaij, the opposition is limited because there are now fewer debates. “But there is also a pressure that hangs over it like a cloud. The pressure not to cause unnecessary political strife or to send a minister away. That does not really fit in this crisis.”
GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver is one of the strongest critics of the cabinet. But he has also changed his tone in recent months in debates about the corona crisis, he says, because showing unity is now important.
“Our task is to help the Netherlands further. Sometimes by stiffly opposing it. But in a crisis like this, you stand shoulder to shoulder.
Advice from the Council of State
The government has taken on unprecedented power in the fight against the corona virus. According to the Lower House, fundamental rights and democratic control are curtailed. The entire House of Representatives, including the coalition parties, has asked the Council of State for advice.
“We are now governed by emergency regulations,” says Van der Staaij. “And they do not have normal due diligence when it comes to advice and there are no parliamentary discussions with supporters and opponents of certain measures.”
He continues: “Certainly when it comes to long-term restrictions on freedom rights, you need more firmness, the royal way of a law. That is why I think it is good that we get information from the Council of State.”
VVD big in the polls
The coronavirus approach has another effect, which is political. Because just under a year before the elections, the VVD is growing rapidly in all polls. Rutte’s party is profiting greatly from the Prime Minister’s bonus. Other parties have it checked.
According to Marijnissen, this happens more often during a crisis. “Then you see that people seek refuge in the incumbent power. And the feeling of the shoulders together prevails. But soon there will be more room for political debates. The time of the opposition will come.”
Klaver says that he is not very concerned with who is successful in the polls. “Of course we want GroenLinks to become much bigger in the next elections and we want to beat Rutte. But I don’t do that by focusing on a poll or talking about the political game.”
Reporter Arjan Noorlander walked through the houses of the House to find out how the corona crisis has turned politics on its head: