This is where debate expert Roderik van Zwitserland pays attention during the General Discussions


Asscher speaks in 2019. Van Greeks: ‘Asscher is good at describing what Rutte does, but too often only does it for his inner circle.’ Image ANP

After 12 years, can you still look forward to two endless days of talking politicians?

‘I think it’s a party every year. The General Reflections are somewhat of the high mass of the political debate, although the election debates are also spectacular. I also like to spend two days in that cocoon in The Hague. I do this in a room in the House of Representatives, close to the plenary room.

‘I am doing this on behalf of the Netherlands Debate Institute, Jaap de Jong on behalf of Leiden University. He has 45 students who take the subject of political debate with him. Viewing assignments have been prepared for them, such as: what are the figures of speech that a politician uses to make his point of view clear? What was his strongest or weakest interruptions? Now and then I just walk into the plenary room. But I mostly watch TV, because that’s how most people will follow the debate. ‘

How do you prepare for two days of endless debate?

‘Like a football player prepares for a match. I try to start rested and look for a quiet place to sit. I follow the political news, but with some distance. A political reporter pays more attention to the political details. I mainly try to look like the average Dutch person: what does a party stand for? What does a politician think are the most important themes and how does he seek the debate with the other parties? Those are the main criteria. The political sharpening on a detailed level escapes the average Dutch person. ‘ The winner of the Debate Prize will be announced on Thursday between 6.30 pm and 7.00 pm in the NPO Radio 1 program This is the day.’

Are you still surprised after so many years of General Considerations?

‘Last year: because of the mild tone of the debate. In general, things are going quite fast in politics now, but last year the atmosphere was suddenly very constructive. Jesse Klaver thought that the ‘scoreboard politics’ should be over, everyone agreed. What sometimes surprises me is a clever find. A sentence that is so good that you think: has the politician prepared it completely or does this occur to him or her on the spot? ‘

What examples do you think of?

Wilders manages to come up with something coarse or far-reaching every year using the same technique. But he does that very well, he also won the Debate Prize in 2015. Large flows of asylum seekers came here that year. He then went painfully slowly down the list of municipalities that were going to house asylum seekers. You felt an icy silence in the House of Representatives. And when he was done, he started on another list – that of congregations planning the housing. That was a clever way to clarify which subject was very socially relevant.

Pechtold had the great one-liner over the staple in 2009. The Balkenende IV cabinet did not reach any decisions, the opposition did not like that at all. Pechtold then came up with a stack of files and asked CDA party chairman Pieter van Geel whether the cabinet would take further action. Van Geel then said that separate reports were of no use to him and wanted a coherent story. To which Pechtold interrupted and said, “Shall I punch a staple through it?” That was so powerful, because in a matter of seconds he expressed the feeling that everyone in that cabinet had. If something like that succeeds, you hand out a knockout. By the way, Pechtold always said that he came up with that staple on the spot. ‘

Rutte won the prize three times, Asscher the last two years. Will Rutte leave or will Asscher come right this time?

Rutte is a strong debater. It is not for nothing that he is always in the top three. A number of things are unique and specific to him. He is a master of dictating the atmosphere and the pace of the debate. With a joke on a serious topic, he can disrupt the whole debate and keep people incredibly close. He might say, “Gosh, that’s an interesting question, but you’re actually asking two questions.” And he can also hit back hard in a friendly atmosphere.

Rutte has been there for ten years, of course. You have to come from a good family to handle him. Asscher can do that, it has been around for a long time. He is good at describing what Rutte does, but too often does it for himself inner circle. The trick is to make this clear to the general public. ‘

What are you curious about today?

‘To who will position themselves on the left as the challenger for the elections. If you have to predict it now, you say, we’re going into a recession, so the economy is going to be a big issue. Strangely enough, there is a right-wing cabinet that is doing something on the left: spending a lot of money. But there has to be someone on the left who opposes that. On the right it will be Wilders versus Baudet, where Wilders is better off in the polls. Baudet is still looking for a theme to profile itself with. And Wilders is simply a better debater. ‘

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