When will 50PLUS finally wise up?

Edition 28 December, by Johannes Visser

Wisdom comes with age? Not when it comes to politics, it turns out. The Netherlands has a rich story of political parties solely focusing on and made up of the elderly, that seem unable to grow up and mature. Senior citizens’ parties often lack the discipline, cohesion and fl exibility that are needed for political parties to be successful.

The latest twist in a long saga of aging politicos battling it out amongst themselves occurred at the end of last month, when almost half of the 50Plus party leadership resigned in protest. Two weeks earlier, party president Geert Dales had called for his party members to ‘dismiss one or more board members’. Dales himself was appointed in June this year and instructed to make sweeping changes within the party, after seven out of eight board members resigned due to confl icting management styles. The man Dales succeeded, Jan Zoetelief, complained of ‘being stabbed in the back not with a knife but with a full set of kitchen knives.’

50Plus, like all political parties for the elderly on the local and national levels, has been known for its internal confl icts for years. In 2014 things got so heated during a party congress in Overijssel that an actual brawl broke out between some of its members. That same year, the two-member 50Plus group in the Lower House of Parliament (Tweede Kamer) split, after chairman Norbert Klein unilaterally expelled his fellow MP Martine Baay-Timmerman. The party at large, however, chose Baay’s side, resulting in two parties ‘representing the elderly’. And to further cement the party’s image of infi ghting in that year, bickering within 50Plus in the province of Flevoland splintered the party there too, with the deserters starting or joining new parties.

Ancient history?

Political parties for the elderly are not a new phenomenon. In 1994 the Algemeen Ouderen Verbond (General Elderly Alliance, or AOV) pulled off an electoral surprise by gaining six seats in the Tweede Kamer, only to break up into three parties shortly thereafter. At the next elections in 1998 the party was wiped away. Many parties that focus on and are made up of senior citizens have come and gone during the rowdy 90s of the last century: the Elderly Party, Unie 55+, Party for the Elderly, Elderly Unity, United Seniors, the Elderly Union, Senior Citizens 2000 and the General Party for Senior Citizens. All these parties have two things in common: they claim to represent the elderly and they’re constantly quarreling amongst themselves.

Why is this the case?

One indication is that the bickering is almost never about policy substance, as party members usually agree on supporting measures that benefi t pensioners. Quarrelsome politicos of advanced age seem to disagree most strongly about procedures, regulations and bylaws, as well as each other’s personal communication style. Going at it alone, being infl exible and (passive-) aggressive posturing are some of the recriminations that often fl y around in these groups and parties. Then things get hot, they get personal and they get very public.

Boulevard of broken dreams

Many of these political groups and parties attract characters that have already had something of a public or political career, although not always very successfully. Some of them were expelled or left their party or administrative unit, disillusioned. Then, joining an elderly party in the autumn of their lives is something of a final opportunity for political glory or making a difference. But to be successful as a politician, discipline and the ability to compromise are required. If you don’t always get exactly what you want and how you want it, it’s no use throwing a tantrum and name-calling. A certain kind of self-awareness and fl exibility is required in the public arena.

As for the future of 50Plus, the party’s undisputed leader in The Hague, Henk Krol, wants the country to know that all of the infi ghting is past and gone. He emphasizes that it is important for a party to have many diverging and strong opinions. His party president Geert Dales agrees, as both of them want to rid their party of its controversial image. As former mayor of Leeuwarden and alderman of Amsterdam, Dales does have a successful political career behind him, with lots of administrative experience. His main job now will be to enforce party discipline and make sure everybody toes the party line, even if that means expelling one, two or three board members.