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Dutch Backbencher Mounts Strong Challenge to Presumptive Party Leader

Pieter Omtzigt is giving establishment favorite Hugo de Jonge a run for his money.

Nick Ottens

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Nick Ottens
Pieter Omtzigt
Dutch Christian Democratic lawmaker Pieter Omtzigt speaks in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, January 27, 2017 (Council of Europe/Cathérine Monfils)

Dutch health minister Hugo de Jonge faces unexpected competition from parliamentary backbencher Pieter Omtzigt in his bid for the leadership of the ruling Christian Democratic party.

Omtzigt won nearly 40 percent support from the party’s 40,000 members in a first voting round against 49 percent for De Jonge.

Monica Keijzer, the undersecretary for economic affairs and climate policy, and the only woman in the race, was eliminated after winning 11 percent.

A second voting round concludes on Wednesday.

Region versus city

Keijzer, a prominent Catholic politician from the traditional fishing town of Volendam, north of Amsterdam, has called on her supporters to back Omtzigt, a fellow Catholic from the eastern region of Twente. Both are on the right of the party on social issues. Omtzigt is arguably more left-wing on economic policy. Neither has completely ruled out doing a deal with the far right.

De Jonge, a Protestant from Rotterdam, who has the support of the party establishment, argues Christian Democrats need to become more competitive in the urban western half of the Netherlands, where two-thirds of the population lives. He is a centrist and does rule out forming a coalition with the far right.

Fusion

The Christian Democratic Appeal is a fusion of Catholic and Protestant parties. The first lean to the right and are comfortable with the label “conservative”. The second argue for a broad party of the center.

This tension last came to a head in 2010, when the then-dominant Catholic faction made a pact with the anti-Islamic Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. Prominent centrists, including two former prime ministers, spoke out against the deal, which fell apart two years later.

In the election of 2012, the Christian Democrats posted their worst result ever, placing fifth with a mere thirteen out of 150 seats. They went up to nineteen seats in 2017.

Difficult

Omtzigt is considered one of the most effective parliamentarians by his colleagues and the press, but one who isn’t always easy to work with.

In 2012, the Dutch parliament appointed him as rapporteur on pension policy. His resistance to EU involvement in pensions forced the Dutch government to use its veto against it.

He has been more critical of the EU than many in his party, which groups with Angela Merkel’s in Brussels. He spoke out against the EU’s association treaty with Turkey, which regulates relatively free trade and allows Turks to work in the EU, and now argues for a smaller coronavirus recovery fund than the €750 billion the European Commission has proposed.

He has also been willing to cross party lines. In the last few years, Omtzigt worked closely with the far-left Socialist Party to unearth a scandal in the Dutch tax agency. 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, pushing some into bankruptcy. An independent commission has since ruled in the parents’ favor and demanded restitution. It may not have come that far without Omtzigt’s persistence.

Omtzigt defended his record in an interview on Saturday, arguing that,

If you’re never difficult in The Hague, you’re either the perfect diplomat or you never get anything into the open.

Prime minister

Unlike De Jonge, Omtzigt does not envisage himself as prime minister:

I see no reason to appoint candidates for prime minister at this time.

The Christian Democrats poll at 9-11 percent support, which would make them the third- or fourth-largest party with 13-17 out of 150 seats, far behind Mark Rutte’s liberals at 38-42.

But they will almost certainly be needed for a majority in the next parliament, which is due to be elected no later than March.

The Christian Democrats have been part of all but three of the last fifteen governments.

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