It is not unusual to see political parties struggle in an election after a tense coalition. It is common to see minority coalition parties failing in the polls to implode with inner conflict, leadership or credibility crises. But it is uncommon to see a party recover after a failure and gradually get back on track to increase their vote share yearly. That is the case of D66 (Democraten 66) in the Netherlands. A party that, until 2006, was a minority coalition partner in the Second cabinet of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.
D66 was, since its foundation, a party with stable credibility and consistency, sharing on average 8-10% of the Dutch vote. A respectable number in a multi-pluralistic democracy. Yet, after playing a significant role in the Dutch government’s dissolution in 2006, D66 got their worst result yet, obtaining a 2% of vote in the 2006 general election. D66 left the coalition with the Balkenende cabinet after a nation-shaking political scandal which led the party to support a non-confidence vote against its coalition.
Yet, the party rose from this failure, gradually gaining the credibility and trust they lost with voters and making a remarkable comeback in 2009 for the European elections rising from the dreadful 2% to a competitive 11.32%. Of course, one cannot compare the vote share in a national election with the result in a European election. Yet, the 2010 election showed a 6.9% result which solidified the party’s recovery.
Today, D66 is a coalition partner and has been in government since 2019. In 2021, the party got a remarkable 15% of the vote.
Returning to this article’s opening, such a recovery is not usual in politics. Only a few political parties get to recover the way D66 did. Let’s explore what D66 got right and allowed them to recover to increase their vote share gradually!
- Wake-up call from its roots: D66’s co-founder Hans van Mierlo was, since the beginning, a promising figure in Dutch politics. He led many founders of his party to their first victory in 1967. He retired from politics in 1972, feeling that his political stances did not impact the Dutch parliament. Yet, he came back twice to save D66, the first time in 1986 when he led vital reforms in D66, which allowed the party to increase their share vote from 6.1% when he took over, to 15,5% when he left in 1994 (the best D66 result to date in national elections). The second time he came back to save the party was in 2006 when on the occasion of the 40th Congress of the party. Van Mierlo questioned openly if D66 still had credibility and started a process of reflection to internally recognise and process the mistakes that led to the 2% result. Not many founders remain active in their parties while being critical. Wake-up calls are often feared in politics as they can alienate or even kill the career of a political figure. Yet, without this wake-up call, D66 would not have started the recovery process.
- Change of Leadership: Normally, after a failure, fractures in a party are more visible and can break the community. In polarising times, unitarian figures are needed. For D66 that was Alexander Pechtold. D66 understood they needed a leader willing to rebrand the party and focus on translating its message to the voter. Different times need different types of leadership. In times of failure, parties need a reflective figure that wants to shake the machine up. Leaders who keep running the show as it is after a failure often lead their parties to extinction. Pechtold answered the message of reflection that van Mierlo gave and delivered a recovery path for D66.
- Identity renewal: While in government, many of the mistakes of D66 came from gave mixed messages to the voters. Policy stances were sometimes shifted, and many compromises were made. This created an identity crisis for D66. Parties go through identity crises all the time. It is perfectly normal. Yet, only a handful of parties tackle the issue of identity seriously. Opposition parties often build an identity around rejecting an idea (we see that today in parties opposing populists or corruption only). However, a party needs a clear identity to appeal to the voter. If the party doesn’t know what it stands for, the voter would not either. Pechtold took the issue of clarifying the party’s identity head-on. When the party started focusing on democratic reforms and sustainability, the voter responded positively. D66 was founded with a clear identity and lost it along the way. By focusing on dialogue among members to find and foster a renewed identity, D66 became more appealing to voters. Remarkably, this was done in less than three years. Many parties take even longer to find their initial identity.
- A turn to grassroots campaigning: Building up the process of reflection and identity, D66 understood that to regain the voter’s trust, the party needed to speak directly to the people and make them part of the recovery. Until 2006, grassroots campaigning was not the usual or preferred method in the Netherlands or Europe. Today, even governing parties in power for over three terms use grassroots campaigning (VVD in the Netherlands, Reform Party in Estonia, Fidesz in Hungary). Parties in recovery often think that grassroots campaigning and community building require a large workforce. That is a myth. In politics, it is true that “it takes a village.” A handful of people can build a force of thousands. I’ve witnessed that even one person in a small community can gather hundreds of people to identify local problems and look for solutions. By turning to grassroots, D66 not only increased their voter share, but they also increased their membership and activist numbers.
- Building credibility by example: The last visible factor in a long-term plan to regain trust was understanding the power of leaving a good record when governing. The voter’s memory is often underestimated, and politicians, when elected, take decisions in a rush without considering the implication on the voter’s mind. Moreover, often politicians, once elected, see the fraction in the parliament as a separate entity from their party. This is a formula for failure. D66, under the Pechtold leadership, saw it as a goal to unite the party and the fraction and to use any policy advancement as a branding opportunity to show that the party’s political actions were aligned with their identity. An important lesson to remember is that the voter remembers what parties say, and they remember what they do.
In every political reality, context matter. Of course, the Dutch voter’s preferences to support parties focusing on green issues or education increased in the recovery of D66. It matters that after 2010, there was a decline in support of other more traditional parties like the Christian Democrats or the Labour Party. Yet, many parties do not capitalise on the context as D66 did.
If your party is in a similar situation as D66 was in 2006, consider the above and welcome the idea of learning from failure. If your party is not in such a situation, be careful when stating: “This is the XYZ party’s death sentence.” It is true that not many parties come back to life. Yet, parties understanding their faults and willing to shake themselves up have always a redemption path!