Ask a silly question

Wouter Bos thinks journalists should know better than to accuse politicians of breaking election promises.

It was as if the cock crowed seven times. Seven times Halbe Zijlstra’s interviewers accused him of breaking election promises in this newspaper’s edition of May 25. And seven times he failed to deny the accusation. On the very same day, in a cynical twist of fate, the VVD party congress decided the formation negotiating results didn’t have to be put before the party membership for approval.


Unlikely as it may seem these two events are related in more ways than one.


It is a sad misunderstanding to think an election programme contains promises to voters. It is a summing-up of ambitions you would like to realise should you come out on top after the elections. A wise politician stipulates these promises are not iron-clad, that this is a country of coalition governments, that compromises will have to be made and it is impossible to predict which issues will survive and which will perish.




This is why, in a multi-party system such as ours, politicians often take recourse to disclaimers such as ‘if we have anything to do with it’ or ‘I will certainly do my best’ or ‘If you make us strong enough’. Parties take care not to phrase an election programme issue in such a way as to make it appear an unequivocal promise to voters.


The fact that a party can’t make good on certain election issues is not in itself a reason for accusing it of breaking its promises and deceiving the voters. Strictly speaking the same would hold true for parties who choose to become part of the opposition and hence are not in a position to keep any of their election promises at all.


All things considered it is curious that Zijlstra should have been so tolerant towards his interviewers. Had the negotiating results of the formation been approved by his party membership he could have dealt with them even more effectively. Like Samsom, he could have maintained that far from breaking promises he is executing an accord approved by the membership. A missed opportunity for the VVD, it seems to me.




But what really got my goat weren’t Zijlstra’s silly answers but the journalists’ silly questions. Parties accusing each other of breaking their promises is business as usual, a way of fighting over votes that is as old as politics. But how can it be that journalists, who are supposed to know the workings of a parliamentary democracy and its inevitable compromises, take this approach?


My impression is that this particular stylistic device – accusing politicians of breaking their promises – has become increasingly popular among journalists in the last decade. I wonder if it has anything to do with Pim Fortuyn’s ‘I say what I think and I do what I say’.


Not only did it make Fortuyn look like an honest and upright politician but it made his colleagues look positively dishonest and shifty.


The search for compromises, the failure to accomplish campaign points and the administrative floundering in the middle of the political spectrum became effectively discredited. It’s not for nothing that populism often coincides with a shift of voter allegiance towards the uncompromising flanks of the political spectrum.




Again, politicians accusing each other of deceiving voters is part of the political game. But journalists? Aren’t they supposed to inform, and perhaps educate, people about how democracy works and how valuable it is that politicians who are at each other’s throats during campaign time should still be able to find common ground and work together? Isn’t that the true value of democracy and compromise?


There are probably plenty of reasons to criticise the compromises Zijlstra is defending. They are too left-wing, too right-wing, too vague, too unrealistic, inpracticable, inhuman, too expensive, unnecessary, counter productive or perhaps all of the above. But broken promises they are not. A journalist who says that is not up to the job.


Wouter Bos is an economist and a political scientist.




This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant

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