Politics, as Unusual

By Robert van Schaik 

A classic remark made around election times like these is that politicians “never keep their word”. Sometimes, election promises are simply implausible. Take Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s statement made in 1987: “by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty”.  But more probable promises are bound to be broken, too. Coalition governments blend their stances into agreements that involve some promise-breaking for every party involved. Even when big majoritarian parties rule the floor – as in the US or, until recently, the UK – politicians have to compromise. In the heat of the campaign, they promise an impossible combination of tax cuts and increased spending; these plans inevitably end up in the dustbin as soon as citizens have cast their vote. Once in power, ruling parties are forced to make choices– and the opposition is most happy to point this out. This periodic theatre-piece leaves the disillusioned voters with anything but trust in their government.

More than ever, the recent Dutch election campaign revolved around fact and fiction. It is due to a uniquely Dutch phenomenon that deserves a place among the clogs, windmills and stroopwafels: the election program calculation. Each time Dutch parliamentary elections are held, an estimation of all party programs’ impact on the economy and the environment is made. This is then presented by an independent government agency with a name reminiscent of the heydays of the Soviet Union – the ‘Central Planning Office’ (CPB). An agency that could hardly sound less sexy – but interestingly enough, politicians, media, and voters listen to its verdicts. No other country has such an influential referee in the campaign arena.

So during the previous elections, the Liberal Party (VVD) scored an A for deficit reduction, the Socialist Party (SP) turned out to be the champion of short-term purchasing power, and two-thirds of the traffic jams would have disappeared by 2020 if the Green Party (GroenLinks) had won the elections. 456 pages of tables and graphs seem to leave no doubt – the CPB’s judgment is rock-solid. Any politician who dares to be overly optimistic is instantaneously attacked by their opponents pointing to the almighty CPB. Are we witnessing the end of fact-free politics in the Netherlands?

Of course the verdicts are not necessarily stable. Some critics argue that they are soft as butter. Predicting next semester’s level of economic growth has proven to be as difficult as forecasting next week’s weather – how can any agency tell how the unemployment, the demand for health care, or train usage will develop by 2040? The margins of error of these predictions are large, and although the CPB is the first to admit this, media and politicians take it for hard evidence that the Democratic Party (D66) “causes” 0.25 percentage point more unemployment by 2040 compared to the Labour Party. Is this what campaigning should be about? Instead of competing grand visions on the country’s future, election debates risk becoming a technical exercise of pointing at a book based on vague predictions.

Nevertheless, most commentators agree that such an ultimate fact check is beneficial for the debate. Although the model might be inaccurate at times, the election program calculations at least allow for some comparison. Parties are forced to stay within reasonable limits. Promising more spending and fewer taxes is no longer an option; neither is promising the abolition of child poverty within three years. Perhaps other countries might benefit from introducing such a referee to guide their own campaigns as well. However, it will require quite some courage from politicians to voluntarily put fact and fiction to such scrutiny.

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