Edition 22 March 2018, by Johannes Visser
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has a problem on his hands. His liberal VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democraty) party has made number one committing the most and most serious criminal and ethical offenses of the year. Again. For the sixth time in a row, ever since counting began six years ago. This is the result of the Political Integrity Index (PII) 2017, published by the monthly paper Vrij Nederland (VN).
Over the past twelve months, VVD’s ‘integrity incidents’ not only topped in numbers and gravity, but also in political visibility. Last month freshly minted State Secretary and former VVD-parliamentary leader Halbe Zijlstra stepped down for lying about a meeting with Vladimir Putin he said he had (he didn’t). Zijlstra had been Minister of Foreign Affairs for less than four months. In October last year Defense minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert threw in the towel after a report about a deadly military incident in Mali involving defunct grenades put the blame squarely with the army.
Since Mark Rutte became Prime Minister in 2007, a whopping seven of his cabinet members have been forced to leave, five of which from his party. In 2014 his Finance State Secretary Frans Weekers was kicked out due to problems with the payment of rent and care allowances at the Exchequer. And who remembers the 2015 ‘bonnetjesaffaire’ (receipt scandal)? Two ministers and one state secretary of Security and Justice; Ivo Opstelten, Ard van der Steur and Fred Teeven respectively, had to throw in the towel because of a criminal case gone bad. They were caught red-handed lying about the repayment of 4,7 million guilders to a drug criminal following the seizure of his account in the nineties. The case itself wasn’t even the worst of it, but the image of a coverup by a VVD ménage à trois consisting of the executive, legislative ánd civil service servant rocked politics in The Hague. These cases were undoubtedly the most damaging for the VVD in terms of public image. But they were far from the only incidents, which points to a pattern that has existed for decades. The VVD has been responsible for eleven national and local ethical offenses in 2017, out of 39 in total. Of the convictions of all Dutch politicians since 1980, one in five belonged to the VVD. Since 2007, twenty-five of Rutte’s party members in national and local politics have been convicted of crimes, mostly consisting of fraud. Ironically, some of those convicted were at an earlier time in charge of prosecuting fraud crimes or introducing anti-fraud legislation. They downplayed the charges brought against them in court, denied any wrongdoing or stated they were a victim in a conspiracy. Some said they didn’t understand the law. In a hilarious turn of events, Matthieu van Sint Truiden who was a company lawyer and former Advocate General responsible for fighting fraud cases stated that ‘I really don’t get any of that tax law stuff.’ The judge gave him a six months suspended sentence for tax evasion. In another case last year, former State Secretary for Social Affairs and a crown member of the Social-Economic Council (SER) Robin Linschoten, when asked by court about not paying half a million euro in VAT back taxes, answered that ‘bookkeeping is not really my thing’, blaming his accountant for the tax evasion.
Harry Keizer, until last year the Prime Minister’s lieutenant as well as his party’s chairman, had ostensibly introduced zero tolerance measures on naughty behavior, as part of his job to end the endless series of transgressions within the VVD. “You cannot be a bit honest”, he said on radio, “you are either honest or you aren’t.” That was before reporters’ collective ‘Follow the Money’ discovered that Keizer himself had duped a cremation association by advising it to sell its management company ‘De Facultatieve’ to his own company. By moving around loans and dividends Keizer and his three business partners ended up paying 30.000 euro for Facultatieve, which had a net worth of 31 million euro. After the ensuing uproar, Keizer’s leadership position at the VVD became untenable and he stepped down in May 2017. The party that has been in power for the past 11 years in three different coalition governments had always presented itself as tough on crime but now cannot shake its image of being in on it. All Dutch political parties have a few scandals to deal with every once in a while, but in the VVD the rot goes deep. At first the party’s numerous stumbles was explained by the fact that it is the largest in parliament. And for a party that has traditionally been close to business, the liberal democrats are never far away from the cookie jar. But as the gaps with the other traditional parties in recent years have closed in terms of membership numbers and business proximity, this argument no longer flies. There seems to be a lack of moral awareness happening with the VVD.
Christianne van der Wal, the new party chairwoman has made it her priority to end the long cycle of VVDparty members appearing in court – as had her predecessor Keizer. To achieve this, she proposes that party members be more critical with each other. She might have a point there, since all the scandals had in common that VVD’ers tried to get things done in the informal ol’ boys club atmosphere. A healthy dose of criticism was often lacking and party members were covering for each other. On the local level, transgressions with the law are often forgiven, as politicians convicted of fraud can make a comeback as elected city councilor or selected alderman. In The Hague however, a punishable offense usually spells the end of a political career for the VVD or any other party.
And this then might be the silver lining of the PII research: the Dutch are willing to really go after their politicians who’ve crossed the line. Once ensnared in a scandal, it is always a matter of time before the politician or civil servant has to leave. Even if they may or may not be convicted in the court of law, the bad apples never get away with it in politics. In comparison to the rest of the world, the misbehaviors are also relatively minor usually: statesmen have gone down for embezzling less than 1000 euros, speaking white lies in public or leaking internal memos; local politicians got the boot for drunk driving, grabbing women or watching porn in their office. Most misdemeanors have been mostly white-collar embezzlements and their numbers are relatively small: a total of 505 scandals since 1980. As for 2017, except for the VVD (11), CDA (6) and PvdA (4), the other national parties were remarkably clean. Local politics was responsible for a total of fifteen misdeeds. Even better: the trend for ethics and criminal cases over the past years has been downward, not up. In the international Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of least corrupt countries in the world, The Netherlands shares 8th position with Canada and Luxembourg. And who knows, if only the VVD gets its act together, the country might even notch up a few. Written by Johannes Visser Political scandals index: VVD again on to.