A difficult choice in the voting booth

In the Netherlands it’s time to make a difficult decision again: who to vote for in the national elections? It’s never an easy choice, with so many issues going on and so many parties to choose from. And the fact that this election was somewhat unexpected due to the government’s collapse a few months ago does not help either. And when you’re not too enthusiastic or informed about the machinations of politics, the dilemma seems complete.

But vote I will. It’s a right, but also a duty. So the choice is not if I’ll vote, but for whom. And that’s the problem. I’m Catholic (there’s a surprise) and a try to live according to Catholic social teachings, so that is why I try to see reflected in the party programs. And many parties (although some would hate to admit it) agree with what the Church has to say about many topics, but none do so for the full 100 %. In the Netherlands, a Catholic vote is not possible.

So the choice becomes negative. What party is the least divergent? Many Catholics vote left. PvdA, SP and GreenLeft (Labour, Socialists and Greens respectively) are popular. Others vote right: VVD (Liberals) mainly. And traditionally Catholics find a political home among the Christian Democrats of the CDA. And there is the PVV of madman Geert Wilders of course: a one-issue party that looks to be getting many votes out of spite. Will Catholics vote for him? Hard to say.

All these options can be defended (even the PVV, to an extent). But when it comes to combining certain specifically Christian issues (life and the role of religion in society, but also health care and education) and recent events in the media (the abuse issue and demonstrations about the ‘right’ to receive Communion), the choice becomes limited.

There it boils down to those parties who call themselves Christian: CDA, ChristenUnie (Christian Union) and SGP (Politically Reformed Party). CDA and ChristenUnie have been in government, while the SGP has always been a small opposition party, but nonetheless the most consistently Christian. They’re all chiefly or totally Protestant though, with the SGP being openly anti-Catholic.

Comparing the three, I conclude that the ChristenUnie is the best choice. Although solidly Protestant, they have been actively trying to involve Catholics in their party. Originally fully pro-life they did succumb to compromise, but that is the nature of Dutch politics. I don agree, but I understand. CDA is Christian in name only and SGP, as I said, is openly anti-Catholic. Despite the party’s qualities that is a major stumbling block for me.

What will we be getting? Perhaps a Liberal/Left combination? VVD, PvdA, GreenLeft? Maybe the PVV will get too involved (something I hope for: it may mean they´ll collapse within the year because they suddenly have responsibility). CDA will likely end up in opposition. D66 (possibly the most anti-Catholic choice we have) may turn out to be instrumental when it comes to forming a coalition, and perhaps, in a smaller way, the ChristenUnie will be as well. Chances of the end result being good are slim though. The major leftwing parties are openly antagonistic to the Church: the PvdA called for the Communion protests during Mass and GreenLeft  head Femke Halsema called the Church part of an axis of evil… Nice, that :$

But even the best options are not amazing. Dutch politics, like the country itself, is much secularised, and issues of faith, ethics and morality do not play a major part or are openly attacked or ridiculed. We will have to struggle on.

Church and politics

Johannes Cardinal de Jong (1885-1955) was chairman of the Dutch bishops'conference when the mandate of 1954 was published.

Since the counterproductive reception of the episcopal mandate of 1954 – which, among rather a lot else, forbade Catholics to be members of socialist parties and unions – the Dutch bishops have refrained from giving any advice on how to vote. An understandable thing to do, perhaps, certainly considering the climate of the decades to follow: Vatican II and the minor storm of iconoclasm that followed, and the general distrust of anything organised, including religion, in the 1960s. But at the same time, it is at odds with the bishops’ duties as shepherds. They are tasked to lead Christ’s flock, after all, in all things faith-related. Deciding on who to vote for may certainly be influenced by a person’s beliefs, so an episcopal declaration on what parties are more in line with Catholic thought and which are not would not be too strange.

Before the good old ‘separation of Church and State’ is dragged out again, it would be good to realise that no such thing actually exists in the Dutch constitution. As Tom Zwitser points out, the constitution speaks of a much more diffuse relation between Church and State. The concept of freedom of religion – which is a constitutional right – is much more applicable here. Of course, Church and State should not be at odds with one another, but in certain cases the relation between can certainly be mutually beneficial. And as for the individual voter: he or she gets inundated with all manner of advice on who to vote for anyway…

That said, the bishops’ conference maintains their position of not officially indicating parties that Catholics should not vote for, although they can certainly offer their own personal opinions. Bishop Gerard de Korte did so quite recently, and while he did warn against the trend of populism in politics (as he has done since 2007), no party is to be expressly excluded, he says.

Fr. Harm Schilder

Although the bishops reiterated their position in 2006, saying that it is not up to the Church to recommend specific parties,  “but to put forward those issues that the Church considers important”, individual priests do sometimes speak out against specific parties. Recently, Father Harm Schilder, parish priest in Tilburg and focus of a long-running conflict about his church bells and the volume they are said to produce before early morning Mass, did so in his homily on Sunday:

“The parties who were expressly against the ringing of the church bells were the PvdA, Greenleft and the SP [left wing parties all]. They are also against the Church. They are allowed to. But it is desireable that churchgoers do not fall for that at the upcoming elections. As the old saying goes: do not kiss the hand of he who hits you.”

Although this is clearly an advice based on a specific local issue, it’s no less valid for it. Local politics will slightly differ per city and from national politics, but they do affect each other. The PvdA leading the call for protests at Mass in ‘s Hertogenbosch, for example, is in my opinion a clear indication that I can’t in good conscience vote for them in tomorrow’s municipal elections (if I was thinking of doing that, I might add).

The importance of politics and elections is for me a natural reason to look for advice and guidance from the corners that also help me in other situations. The Church in her teachings and personified in priests and bishops is one of those. I believe there is much to be gained with a bishops’ conference that is not afraid to speak out clearly and publically on matters, to offer advice when needed. That will certainly lead to much resentment initially, both within and without the Church. After all, we are a people that does not like being told what to do. But sometimes we need it. We needed it as children, and since we never stop growing up and learning, we will always need it.

In the temple in Jerusalem, old Simeon warned the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph that Jesus would be “a sign that is opposed” (Luke 2, 34). The same will be true for anyone who chooses to follow Him.

Elections: weighing the options

Next week I will be casting my vote for the city council of Groningen. I have yet to decide which party will be getting my red-pencilled ballot paper, so some research into the various parties is in order. The question I am trying to answer is: what party best represents my own views as a Catholic, and which party has the best chance – via strategic coalitions, for example – to turn those ideas into policy?

I have a choice between eleven parties, or twelve if I count the option to cast a blank vote. But I’ll only do that if I draw the conclusion that I have no confidence in any party (or if I really don’t care, but that’s unlikely). Some parties are not really options for me, of course: some of the local or one-issue parties don’t speak for me, for example. Neither do the liberal parties VVD and D66. My choice is between the left and the conservative, to simplistically delineate them. PvdA (social-democrats), SP (socialists), GreenLeft, CDA (Christian democrats) and ChristianUnion (social Christian democrats). The first three and the last two have connected lists, which means they’ll form and speak as a block in the council together. All have extensive social programs, with the left focussing on the individual and the conservatives on society as a whole.

The Christian point of view is an important one for me, and I think it should be heard in politics. Of the five parties above, only the ChristianUnion is outspokenly Christian. The CDA is as well in name, but reading through their program their Christianity is far less clear. I also don’t really like their overly blunt approach towards beggars and addicts in the city. But they are a major and thus influential party, having had  many seats in the past and they’ll probably continue to have a significant number after the elections as well.

The downside of the ChristianUnion is that they are very much Protestant, which leads to a limited approach and relation to the faith. Their founding documents which consider the Catholic faith idolatry is also an obstacle. Their advantage is stability. The ChristianUnion does not water down its beliefs, but is also not limited by them, and I think that such clarity can do much good.

There are no clear Catholic choices in these elections. Is the ‘least bad’ option good enough? Voting is always better than not voting. And perhaps a vote for any Christian party will open the door for more openly Catholic politicians in the future… I am still undecided. Online election guides keep directing me to the CDA or the SP, so until 3 March I’ll probably keep weighing the options.

A cabinet has fallen. Now what?

I’m no politician, and I’m not really interested in politics and I don’t know a lot about politics. I knew that the cabinet had been discussing a possible extension of the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan and that the PvdA (social democrats) had been against that. Last night the cabinet fell over the issue, as the socialist cabinet ministers collectively quit.

Below is the statement made by Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende:

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“Later today I will offer Her Majesty the resignation of the ministers and state secretaries of the PvdA.  I will place the portfolio’s, the office and the functions of these ministers and state secretaries at her disposal. As chairman of the council of minister I have sadly had to conclude that there is no fruitful means by which this cabinet of CDA, PvdA and Christen Unie could continue.

In the past days you have been able to see that the unity was tarnished by established facts. By statements that are contrary to recent decisions as made by the cabinet and reported to the House. Those statements put a political mortgage on amicable debate. They got in the way of diligence. Towards our men and women in Afghanistan, but also in our relationship with our NATO partners.

Today we have tried to see in the council of ministers if trust could be re-established. A reaffirmation of the agreements we made ten days ago in the Treves Hall and which were published in the letter of notice to the House would have laid a foundation for a continued cooperation. The ministers responsible would have been able to propose an option that was satisfactory to the cabinet – if possible before 1 March.

For a minority in the cabinet this was a bridge too far. When trust is lacking, an attempt to agree on content is doomed to fail. At most it would mean the start of a new controversy in the future. Especially concerning the challenger facing the Netherlands: they don’t require the easy way, but decisiveness.

The continued existence of a cabinet can never be a goal in itself. It should be about work and welfare in the Netherlands – now and in the future. And about the influence that the Netherlands can reasonable have on a better world. That is the intention of my colleagues and me when we started three years ago. Collectively and individually we experience the defeat of having failed in this. But that does not change the facts and the conclusion we have had to draw.

Now is not the time to delve deeper into the question of blame – let alone to provide a definite answer. I trust that you will respect this.”

Source 

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Law dictates that national elections must be held within three months. And with the public opinion polls heavily favouring populist and right-wing tendencies, I fear the result. While the Christian democrats of the CDA still take the highest share in prospective votes, Geert Wilders’ populist PVV is a very close second. It’s a scary prospect, although there is always the example of earlier populist parties: Pim Fortuyn’s LPF or Rita Verdonk’s TON. They started out with a bright future, but soon imploded.

Judging by the media, the general trend would be towards the right, with both D66 and the VVD likely to win seats. The left-wing has already started to block off options, with Green Left leader Agnes Kant axing any possible coalition with D66, whom she accuses of being to right.

So, we don’t just have municipal elections to look forward to on 3 March, but also national elections between now and May. No idea yet who I will vote for, so I guess some studying of programs is in order.