On Friday around noon, Room for Discussion had the honour of talking to none other than Alexander Pechtold, leader of the Democrats Party, better known as D66. Although undoubtedly invited to come and talk about the upcoming provincial elections, the conversation spanned a much wider range of subjects — as per usual. A report.
Not much sleep
The last few years has seen the Dutch political landscape become increasingly fragmented. Not only have voters become more and more divided between the major parties operating at a national level, we’ve also seen a significant increase in smaller parties fighting for the rights of specific groups, primarily during municipal elections and provincial elections, the latter of which are just around the corner. As a result of this, the big boys have had to put in some real effort to achieve half-decent results, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to stumble upon a D66 promotion team when I got to the E-hall of the faculty. Unfortunately, I couldn’t avoid the obligatory flyer (or maybe I’m just too kind), but if I’m going to be handed over a piece of promotional paper, I said to myself, I’m not just going to let that happen without putting this guy to the test. So I started asking some critical questions about his party’s policy proposals, not lastly because I still had to make up my own mind about this anyway. After pointing out to me that he’s actually on the candidates list himself, I figured that it was about time to enter the E-hall — that is, if I wanted to sit. But that usually helps if you’re going to take notes.
As Pechtold walks in under a huge round of applause and sits down on one of the by now iconic Chesterfield sofas, I feel excited. And no, I don’t suffer from celebrity worship syndrome, but this could be our future prime minister! Or could he? That’s exactly what I want to find out today — whether I think of him as competent enough to one day be just that. I snap out of my little daydream. “Raise your hand if you plan on voting for D66 in the upcoming elections.” To Pechtold’s own surprise, a great number of students do, allowing him to breathe a bit of a sigh of relief. At the same time, he says that he would’ve liked to convince more people than the situation now allows him. Either way, times of political campaigns are tough times, as is illustrated by Pechtold’s remark about going to bed at three in the morning after yet another big televised debate. At this point, I can’t help but feel a bit guilty; I sometimes go to bed around that time, having done nothing much all night. I hope you all know the feeling…
The politics behind the arts
As the topic shifts to Pechtold’s early years, we learn some interesting things about his long since passed youth. Most of us already knew that he studied art history, but who of you knew that he also studied archaeology as part of the same programme? And who of you knew that he spent a few months studying law before realising that it wasn’t exactly his thing? Well, now you do! Despite his failed attempt at studying law, he shares with us that he has always felt very strongly about justice and injustice. Some people start to laugh — at him, I should add. This probably goes back to the fact that he provided support for a law that allows the government to fine students who take too long to complete their studies, when he was enrolled for more than 10 years himself. No wonder he enjoyed his student life so much! Considering this fact, it does seem a bit ironic, but Pechtold explains that he really ‘only’ studied for six or seven years, after which he got his first job and couldn’t be bothered to finish his thesis. Others eventually encouraged him to do so anyway (something he says he’s delighted with in retrospect), after which he finally picked up his diploma. Tut tut!
Pechtold has been active in The Hague for 10 years now, nine of which he spent as the party’s leader. He shares with us that part of the reason he still enjoys his work so much is that every year sees new challenges. No two years have been the same so far, he says. Another thing that not everyone might know is that he started out as a minister rather than as a party leader; it wasn’t until 2006 that he made that move. Needless to say, a lot has changed ever since. One of the main differences, he explains, is that the opposition in the current political landscape can exert much more influence compared to, say, a few decades ago. You only have to look at the results of some of the recent elections to understand why. And because of this louder voice, his party indirectly has a lot to say about important decisions — perhaps more so because they are not part of the coalition, Pechtold argues. “It has only made my job more challenging.”
Close, but no cigar
You can also tell that he has learned a great deal about economics in The Hague. He confidently answers the interviewers’ questions, as well as that of people who’ve dropped by for the session. When one student cleverly points out that research conducted by the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB) shows that Pechtold’s plans of introducing a new tax system with lower payroll taxes would not result in that many extra jobs, Pechtold talks his way out of the situation even more cleverly by saying that his party has read the full report — as opposed to the student, who has only read the press release. Is that a satisfying answer? Far from, of course, but it is a sign of great confidence. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that this is not the future prime minister paying a visit to our faculty today. I wish I could explain in full detail what makes me say this, but that’s easier said than done. It’s not a lack of knowledge, it’s not a lack of confidence, hell, it’s probably not even a lack of competence, but there’s something about the idea of him running the country that makes me cringe a little bit. Maybe it’s just his voice. And don’t get me wrong: I do actually think of him as a good politician, but simply not in that way. My sincerest apologies, Alexander!
As the conversation comes to a close, Pechtold is asked whether he’ll be sitting on the same sofa in a few years time, except by that time as the prime minister. “I’ll leave that to you.” And that’s the only wise response.