Health Minister Hugo de Jonge has won an unexpectedly close election for the leadership of the Netherlands’ ruling Christian Democratic party.
De Jonge, a centrist who was backed by the party establishment, won 50.7 percent support against 49.3 for backbencher Pieter Omtzigt, a difference of 258 votes.
The Christian Democrats are the second-largest party in Mark Rutte’s government with nineteen out of 150 seats in parliament. Recent surveys give them 9 to 11 percent support, not enough to become the largest party but enough to play a role in the formation of the next government.
The Christian Democrats have been in all but three of the last fifteen Dutch governments.
Omtzigt’s popular candidacy may reflect unease among members about their party’s willingness to do deals with the left and right. The Christian Democrats have long been hobbled by accusations that they prize power over principle.
Omtzigt has been willing to go against his party, for example when he spoke out against an EU treaty with Turkey that regulates relatively free trade and allows Turks to work in the bloc. Or when he teamed up with the opposition Socialists to unearth a scandal in the Dutch tax agency while his own party is in power.
Hundreds of parents, many of migrant backgrounds, were falsely accused of drawing child subsidies they did not deserve. The government forced them to pay back thousands of euros they had in fact been entitled to. An independent commission has ruled in the parents’ favor and demanded restitution. It may not have come so far without Omtzigt’s persistence.
De Jonge and Omtzigt also represent different wings of the party.
The first is a Protestant from Rotterdam, who argues the Christian Democrats should appeal to middle-of-the-road voters in the urban western half of the Netherlands, where two-thirds of the population lives.
Omtzigt is a Catholic from the rural east, where a more left-leaning economic program combined with a conservative social policy, including on immigration, could peel away voters from the far right.
Omtzigt will take second place on the list of candidates for the 2021 election.