People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)

People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The VVD has historically been identified as the Netherlands’ largest liberal party.

Yet, in reality, it might be more accurate to describe the VVD as the representative of the secular middle classes. The VVD was the party of the ‘liberal pillar’, which officially rejected pillarisation but which was left pillarised by default (as those who did not join pillars were left in a pillar by default, the liberal pillar was hence sometimes called the ‘neutral pillar’ was a result).

This pillar was primarily composed of relatively affluent, well-educated secular sorts. Hence the party is primarily centre-right economically liberal, and has a certain progressive edge on religious issues, and was an early supporter of gay rights, and similar socially liberal issues.

In truth, however, the VVD combines both conservative and liberal political ideas, and as such the party is often referred to as ‘conservative-liberal’. The party takes a conservative stance on law and order, immigration and integration issues, and the conservative and liberal factions of the party seem to be around equally sized.

Although the party has tended to be the Dutch third party the party has historically tended to be the CDA’s preferred partner for power and hence tends to wield power beyond its size. There are a significant number of centre-right voters who move between the CDA and VVD as they see fit, and so coalitions also prevent ‘leaking’ of such voters in opposition.

The decision to form the Purple government with the PvdA and D66 in 1994 seriously harmed the VVD, leaving it significantly diminished as a force and prone to infighting between its liberal and conservative wings over the current stance on immigration. These bouts of infighting led to splits (one of which resulted in Geert Wilders’ PVV) and questions over the VVD’s leadership, as party leader, Mark Rutte, sought to keep his only barely vanquished competitor, the hard-line popular former immigration minister Rita Verdonk, in line. Verdonk would later leave the party, and form her own party, which failed to win a seat, as Wilders successfully defeated Verdonk for the battle of the right-populist vote.

The unpopularity of CDA premier Balkenende worked in Rutte’s favour, however. The right block in the Netherlands has significantly fewer parties than the left block. With the CDA discredited, and Wilders far too extreme for most right-wing voters, the VVD was left the best choice for many right-of-centre voters almost by default.

Rutte’s VVD won the 2010 and he became the first liberal premier since before universal suffrage in 1918 on the back of an unstable minority coalition with the CDA, with the PVV providing support.

While the government itself was unpopular, Rutte was a popular premier due to his relaxed, honest style. Rutte’s first session in the Dutch equivalent of Westminster’s Prime Ministers Questions was notably for a jokey atmosphere in which he and opposition leaders spoke in a friendly, collegiate way and in which opposition leaders complemented him for providing honest answers to questions.

In the 2012 election, Rutte’s party won the best performance of any Dutch liberal party since the introduction of universal suffrage and proportional representation in 1918.

The party’s ideology is increasingly conservative in recent years, however. Rutte’s ideology is perhaps more comparable to David Cameron’s than Nick Clegg’s; though he is personally close to both.

Like other major Dutch parties the VVD has become more Eurosceptic in recent years, arguably drifting from pro-European to soft Euroscepticism. Rutte’s increasingly Eurosceptic positions and personal and ideological closeness to Britain’s David Cameron led the Dutch press to talk of ‘Camerutte’ as a potential soft Eurosceptic axis to challenge the then dominant ‘Merkozy’ in 2011. However the loss of the French presidency by Sarkozy, Cameron’s refusal to sign up to the European Stability Mechanism and the VVD’s entry into a coalition with the Labour Party have served to cool the relationship somewhat.

The VVD is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Due to its more conservative positions it is the more disloyal of the two ALDE members in the Netherlands, at 93.8% loyalty, though it is around average loyalty for an ALDE member.

There is increasing speculation that the VVD may switch to the European Conservatives and Reformists after the 2014 elections. The party has dropped references to ALDE from its election campaign, and is running the Belgian MEP, Derk Jan Eppink, who sits in the ECR, for election. The VVD also seems to be ideologically closer to the Britain’s Conservatives, who lead the group, than its fellow liberals these days.