So, since the local elections earlier this month:
- Socialist Party leader Agnes Kant resigned and announced she would quit politics. She was immediately replaced by Emile Roemer.
- Labour Party leader Wouter Bos, who was Deputy Prime Minister in the now defunct government, resigned, and was instantly replaced by Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen.
- Camiel Eurlings, a rising star of the Christian-Democrats who was seen to be one of two politicians vying for the #2 position in the party (and a chance to succeed Prime Minister Balkenende as the party's leader if the elections go badly), quit politics too.
Boring it's not.
Kant's resignation, although not quite expected so soon and a surprise to her peers, wasn't all too great a shock, considering the party's disastrous results and polling. Nevertheless it leaves the party rudderless; Kant herself had only succeeded the long-time, charismatic party leader Jan Marijnissen less than two years ago, and her successor is fairly unknown.
The news about the other two quitting, especially Bos of course, was a different story.
Both Bos and Eurlings, who quit on two consecutive days, gave as reason that they wanted to spend more time with their family - and for once, the argument seems to be sincere.
Bos seemed, after all, to only just have found the way back up for his party, putting in a combative performance during the local elections campaign. It's true that Labour is still polling at a painful historic low - if elections were held today, Labour would still get its second worst result since World War 2 - but just a month ago, Labour was 8% behind the Christian-Democrats. On the eve of Wouter's resignation they were tied, with the trend for Labour going back up and for the Christian-Dems going down. So it doesn't seem to be a rats/sinking ship kind of thing.
Post-resignation reporting traced back the long backstory. Bos has three kids, who are now, IIRC, six, three and one year old. He was already telling colleagues about how much he wanted kids a decade ago, apparently, and drew attention when, a couple years ago, he missed an important Cabinet meeting to celebrate his daughter's birthday. (He was also apparently much pissed-off when Christian-Democratic politician Maxime Verhagen turned that into an occasion to disparage him.)
On a more substantive note, it turns out that Bos had been preparing this out for years. Already in the 2006 campaign, the question had, naturally, come up whether Bos, as party leader, would also be Labour's candidate for Prime Minister if it were to win the elections. In a surprise move, the party responded by presenting Cohen as its PM candidate. Bos wasn't particularly looking forward to the job, and his wife had pressured him not to go for it.
Not long after the elections and becoming Deputy PM in the new government, Bos told Cohen that he wasn't planning to stay for the long run, and would Cohen be prepared to take over when the time came? Over the next four years, they met up discretely every half a year or so, with Bos every time asking Cohen if he was still available. This way, they prepared Bos passing on the baton after the local elections too, with only a few fellow party leaders knowing about it.
As for Eurlings, he also seems to have left at a moment when opportunities were actually approaching. If the Christian Democrats fare as badly in the elections under Balkenende as it appears, they would likely be looking for a new leader afterwards, and Eurlings would have stood a very good chance. But he left anyway.
Eurlings is 36; Bos is 46. It sure seems that they mean it about wanting a less demanding job that would leave them more time with their family, and so there's a lot of talk about whether this is all a sign of generational change, a different perspective on work and career among a new generation of men, etc. Public opinion approves. However, Bos did state unequivocally that he would keep going on during the local elections campaign, so he also stands exposed as someone who, well, lied.
His luck is that Cohen has high favourability numbers, and the announcement of him taking over as Labour leader seems to only be strengthening the party's rebound. A poll out this weekend actually has Labour leading the pack as largest party, if still at a desultory 18%.
Cohen also shows up in the poll as easily the most popular pick for Prime Minister. The current PM, Balkenende, is still moderately popular among his own Christian-Dems, but is disliked by most voters of the rightwing liberals and especially the far right Freedom Party. Firebrand Geert Wilders, meanwhile, is hugely popular among his own Freedom Party voters, but doesn't meet with much love among rightwing liberal and especially Christian-Democratic voters. Cohen, on the other hand, is liked by voters across the left-wing spectrum, as well as by a fair chunk of the people planning to vote for the rightwing liberals. And so, 54% of the voters would prefer Cohen as PM, 26% Balkenende, and 17% Wilders.
Whether this lasts, remains to be seen. As mayors in the Netherlands are appointed, Cohen has practically no campaigning experience - how will he fare in the sharp to and fro of the debates?
Wilders is probably not unhappy with facing Cohen as opponent either. Whereas Bos had incorporated some of the more strident rhetorics about integration and law and order that has become fashionable, Cohen is something of a figurehead of the traditional Dutch "poldermodel" of politics, all focused on "keeping everyone together" - and he's from liberal, intellectual Amsterdam and everything. He will make for a convenient lightning rod for Wilders' railing against the self-satisfied Dutch political elites, always muddling on and "out of touch" with the rampant excesses of multiculturalism... I predict an especially good score for the Freedom Party in the workers' city of Rotterdam, where there are few things they dislike as much as Amsterdammers.
For Balkenende, a campaign focusing largely on the sharp contrast between Cohen and Wilders, however, could be bad news, as it might make him look relatively irrelevant, and might rob him of his share of media attention. With new party leaders popping up around the place, he also gets to look even more like yesterday's, worn-out news.
If - and that remains an if - Cohen becomes a hit on the campaign trail, that might also spell trouble for the Green Left and especially the Democrats, who are riding high in the polls now. In polarized elections, the Labour Party has a habit of sucking the votes out of the other left of center parties: when there's a clear left vs right fight for dominance, many leftwing voters feel the need to rally behind the largest party on their side (see: 1986, 1977). We'll have to see whether that happens now too, though: with Balkenende, Wilders and the rightwing liberal's Mark Rutte still competing for dominance on the right it's not sure whether that dynamic will play out. The bright side would be that the party landscape wouldn't end up as fragmented as it looks now, making it easier to create a new government. Wait and see!