Internal party democracy and the power of resolutions

10 juni 2018

Foto: Dirk Hol

Last Monday my phone flooded with messages concerning a certain congress ‘resolution’ about the Hungarian party Fidesz. As leader of the delegation of the CDA South-Holland I was in charge of the team that produced that resolution. On Saturday the resolution was passed at the congress by the members of the CDA. That Monday an angry letter had been sent by the vice-president of Fidesz to our party leader, calling the resolution ‘a lie’ (9 times) and suspending contacts with the CDA until apologies were made. Our party chairman wrote in response a letter back, explaining that the resolution was the outcome of members speaking their mind and that they were bound to respect internal party democracy. She was right, as I hope to show here, but chances are that she will not be believed. From my trainings across Europe I know that an internal party democracy like ours is not everywhere to be found or understood. Even the weekend before the congress I was explaining to a group of young talents what I was so busy with, and they listened with wonderment. I thought I should write a blog about it, not imagining I would write it so soon. The Fidesz resolution is a-typical, in the sense that it has a message beyond the Dutch setting. For that reason, a resolution literally closer to home is also discussed. 

What is a resolution and why is it effective?

A resolution is a short statement by members of our party advising the party leadership, most of our representatives in the parliaments, on which course to take. It is not binding, in contrast to the only other instrument the members have, the amendments. Amendments are changes to the electoral platform of the part. These are binding. In practice both are binding – I cannot remember a single resolution that was willingly and explicitly put aside by the CDA party leadership, but it also must be said that it is usual that we keep on arguing till we somehow agree. And there are good reasons for that.

Take the resolutions that we put in as South-Holland. This is time we had four resolutions in play (out of 19). Two is usual for us, but this was a congress without an election to look forward to and quite a lot of unresolved issues. We had one resolution on a tax issue. Highly controversial, but I save you the details (even so, it was accepted). We had two resolutions on Europe. One on the issue of ‘Spitzenkandidaten’: we want to see the candidates before our representatives vote on them (accepted too). Then we had the resolution ‘on the rights and duties of EPP parties (‘Fidesz’), more on this later. But I want you to pay some attention first to a resolution that is very particular to our province and a few others.

Why we take it seriously

It concerns the for the reader probably esoteric issue of ‘peat soil subsidence’. Due to the heating of the earth the level of water is rising everywhere. Most of our province is beneath sea level, so in order to prevent flooding we are spending billions of euros to raise the dikes high enough. We have a big program for that. However, at the same time we have the problem of our soil getting lower. My city for instance, Gouda, sinks every year 1 to 3 centimeter or so, and its at places already something like 5 meters below sea level. There is no program for that yet, as it is such a slow process and we have so many other priorities (and it will cost so much: 16-22 billion is a rough estimate). Yet, we think we can wait no longer. Because of this, we have formulated a resolution pressuring our representative to push for pilots and priorities. And here’s the thing: the parliamentarian responsible for this in the CDA does not see this as censorship. We know he cares for the issue. Yet he can use the resolution in his negotiations with the other parties: ‘Look, I have this resolution that I cannot ignore. It’s not just my opinion. It’s what my party members think of it as well.’ In this way more than half of all resolutions were there to speed things up. The rest were there to point another direction then where the party leadership seems to be going or were just new issues.

In this way, resolutions may both help and hinder the party leadership. I am totally convinced our representatives are true democrats, but as a member I also know they have reason enough to take resolutions seriously.

Leading the debate

A resolution can be part of the deliberations of our congress when it is supported by at least 25 members or a recognized body of the party. Our delegation of South-Holland represents the largest part of the membership, but there are many other bodies that can let their voice be heard. The CDJA, the youth organization, makes even more noise than South-Holland (there is no better way to learn national politics than by trying your hand at a resolution, is my conviction). Together we usually lead the debate, but there are always other with their themes and priorities. Voting by the way, takes place on a ‘one (wo)man, one vote’ base. We lead by example and some use of WhatsApp, but cannot bind anyone to our voting preference.

To speak out

Now back to the question ‘What is a resolution?’. You see, there is a little technique involved in order to get a resolution accepted. The fourth resolution, on ‘Fidesz, will be used here as an example and I will continue to do so, if only for the reason that it shows the mechanics of how a resolution goes through congress.

A classic resolution consists of three main parts:

I - a ‘statements of observations’ (literally: ‘Constateert dat’ = ‘Observes the following’). In three to five lines, factual statements are given on the issue. In the case of the Fidesz resolution, we bound ourselves strictly to reports and statements made by recognized institutes like the OSCE and the European Parliament and included a line on the fact that Fidesz was a respected member of the EPP.

II – a ‘statement of considerations’ (literally: ‘Overweegt dat’ = ‘Considers the following’). In a limited number of lines, observations are connected to the political context and a need for action is described. In the case of Fidesz we again stayed very close to authorative statements by others, mostly that of the EPP itself.

III – a so-called ‘dictum’ (literally: ‘Spreekt uit’ = ‘Speaks out’). The dictum is the most important part of the resolution and usually the shortest. It states what is asked from the party leadership. In the case of the ‘peat soil subsidence’ we basically asked for action and money. In the case of Fidesz, we pressed the need for a monitored ‘dialogue’, comparable to what has been done in other instances. As we do not believe in dialogue as a goal in itself (something that goes for other issues just as well), we stated that this dialogue at some time must lead to a conclusion about the membership of Fidesz in EPP. As logical as this may sound to outsiders, it does go a step further then until now. A columnist from the Dutch national daily ‘De Volkskrant’ thought this was just too soft: we should have kicked Fidesz out long ago and not be so pussy footed about it (Makes me wonder how they deal with internal conflict at her newspaper). Diplomats may think our text was not careful enough: why should the CDA go further then already internally debated? But you have to remember that this is a resolution formulated in such a way that above all it can convince the members of the CDA. I will get back to that, but first more on the road a resolution must travel to get accepted.

The order of the day

Every resolution, after the threefold argumentation, ends with the same sentence: ‘And goes back to the order of the day’. Nobody ever asks what that ‘order of the day’ is, but it sounds good. More interesting is what happens before we go back to the order of the day. This is what happened with the Fidesz resolution.

We have a custom of having a brainstorm some two months before the congress. This produces a long list of possible resolutions. In South-Holland we use two questions to weigh which resolution we should select to defend before congress.

The first question: is the resolution relevant enough? This question is easily answered when the subject concerns our own province, like the resolution on soil subsidence, but can be harder to answer when it is something close to the news of the day. We prefer resolutions that are relevant to the course the party is taking above resolutions that are comments on the political problems of the day. We usually leave that to the media, but it is nice when you can do both.

The second question: does the resolution lead to debate? This question is important because we believe the CDA should be a party of debate. As a party we have had our periods when every debate was stifled because of political ‘management’ considerations. In the end that is deadly for a political party.

This second question also comes with a clear benchmark: if possible the resolution should make it to the afternoon, to the main stage. There is always a session in the morning of the congress in which all resolutions will be discussed, alongside other sessions. In order not to make the congress too long, the only resolutions that will move on to the plenary debate in the afternoon are those that have had a so-called ‘negative pre-advice’ from the party presidency. So, only those resolutions pass that are contentious. It usually means that these are the resolutions that lead to meaningful and often exciting debate. It is nice to bring in this kind of resolution. We don’t have many (boring) speeches to listen to at our congresses. Instead we have fast debates where the ones who have written the resolution get first and last speaking rights on stage, and the party leadership - party leader and party chairman are together on stage – get the opportunity to give their view on the resolutions and then the members can have their say: each for a maximum of 30 seconds. And this is important, when you are thinking of doing the same in your party: every member is equal. Even if, say, you are the minister for employment, you cannot speak as minister. You announce yourself as ‘the member of Gouda’, or wherever you live. After each resolution has been discussed in this way, a vote is taken on a ‘one man, one vote’ base. later the party will tells us what has come of the different resolutions. That’s internal democracy.

Judging a resolution

At least in theory. But how to deal in practice with a resolution censoring a fellow party within the EPP?

When Bart van Horck, a valued member of our delegation and with great credentials when it comes to European affairs, came up with his concept for a resolution ‘The rights and duties of Fidesz as EPP-party’, my first reaction was downright critical. I will not deny that part of me did not want a confrontation with my Hungarian friends, but I pushed that aside for more elementary considerations. Could the two questions be answered in a positive way? On first appearance a resolution on Fidesz is of relevance to us, as we want to speak out on Europe on the way to the European election and the behavior of the Fidesz leadership is not only contentious to us, but also detrimental to our CDA position. Yet, not too long ago we had a resolution on the Visigrad countries, which had been supported by congress, but did nothing in terms of furthering the debate. This also touched the second question of debating power. The resolution on the Visigrad countries had not reached the main stage, as everyone agreed with it, including the political leadership. Would not the same happen with this resolution? I also had technical objection: the resolution was too long. It appeared to be more a policy paper than a resolution. A good resolution is only one page long, with an 11-point size letter. This one was more than 2,5 pages long. You just cannot count on the members to read all of the resolutions, let alone long ones (the same goes for blogs like these, I know. Sorry).

With a bit of a sigh – also because I received it in the middle of a holiday – I set about reviewing and editing it. There was much to edit, but during the editing process I also came to appreciate the resolution more. In its consistent build-up of authoritive statements and documents it provides an inescapable image of a party sliding away from its own original values and those of the European family of parties to which Fidesz rightfully belonged. Even so, it stays away from a too easy condemnation. Instead it provides a monitoring process that was already used on another occasion. The only necessity is for Fidesz is to take a ‘dialogue’ seriously. That can never be too much to ask.

In editing, I emphasized the Christian democratic roots of Fidesz, of which they are rightfully proud. I also suggested taking out any reference to the university founded by Soros, as just mentioning the name seems has such symbolic significance that it effectively ends all dialogue. At the same time, I came to share Bart’s conclusion that it is only through specific resolutions like these that we can hope to get further in the debate with Fidesz and to resolve it one way or the other.

Getting a resolution accepted

Writing and editing a resolution is one thing, getting it accepted another. After getting the consent of our own chairman and small board of South-Holland for the resolution just before the deadline, we then had to wait for the reaction of the national board. Would they support it or not? They would but did seek changes to the text. In particular they would rather have us delete the last part of the dictum, formulating the consequence for not taking part in the dialogue. We considered it seriously but thought it too much a watering down of the resolution. To me it was clear that without any mentioning of consequences the members would not take it seriously and it certainly would not lead to any debate worth mentioning. In terms of our own criteria, the resolution would fail the test. Even so, the resolution got accepted by the party leadership. Glad of this, I turned my attention to more contentious resolutions.

After this, there was another hurdle to take: the ‘special general assembly’ of South-Holland. It prepares for the congress, also deciding what position to take on the resolutions that are not ours. As far as the resolution on Fidesz was concerned, there was a bit more debate than anticipated. It was in favor of Fidesz, coming from admiration for its migration policy, including a wall. When we explained that this resolution did not mention the wall but focused on the way Fidesz deals with its own constitution, there was only agreement.

Finally, the congress itself. More particular: the morning session on resolutions. Again, there was more debate than anticipated, but this time coming from the other side; any sign of sympathy for the position Fidesz was taking was censored by the members (leading me to think we think that on balance we had it about right concerning our members). As the resolution stood at ‘acceptance’ and the members wanted, if anything, only a stronger resolution, it stood as it was. It would not be debated in the main session in the afternoon. Only the dictum would be read by that day’s chairman, with the proposal to ‘adopt it by acclamation’. An applause came, and so it was adopted.

Not the end of it: afterword

I am always glad when a resolution by us gets adopted, as were all other resolutions by South-Holland that day. Especially the resolution on ‘peat soil subsidence’ led to a further sharpening of the resolution in the morning session. Yet, I was disappointed in the sense that we had not been capable to have any debate in the afternoon. Especially the brazen youth, with resolutions that aimed straight for our position in the government, had more success in that respect (as dangerous this is otherwise). We had emotional debates on a number of issues. Internal democracy within our party is not pure democracy, with you have sharp checks and balances. You meet each other all the time. You talk, you persuade. But on the whole we respect each other’s role and responsibility when it comes to de bating resolutions. So we had another congress where emotions ran high and a debate led to another outcome than expected. But this I just fine, as long as we keep on respecting each other.

With regard to the Fidesz resolution, knowing it had not survived the morning, I thought that was the end of that. Yet early Monday morning there was a text in a newsletter by Politico and soon other media picked it up. Anyway, I got a few calls and explained in short how we work, just like I do now (though longer). And that is it. Though two things bug me.

The first thing is this: why bother? The resolution was accepted in the morning, there was no debate. Ignoring it would have been the logical course of action if you wanted the resolution to go away. Then why the sharp letter by Fidesz? Maybe someone misjudged the way our internal democracy works.

The second thing is: why get angry at all? I did not let this play a role in my decision to have the resolution, but I do have my own feelings about the issue and here I express them freely.

I have been coming to Hungary now for about ten years or so. I don’t think I have ever even spoken with someone who is a socialist or ‘liberal’. I have come to know them as hardworking, very competent people. This compliment includes the Hungarians in Rumania. I also respect that Orban and the people from Fidesz took back control of the country after the socialists made a true mess of it. The people from Fidesz did this by getting in touch with the local communities and expressing their needs. That’s how it should be done. I do have serious doubts about the migration policy, including the wall, because I think it only delays things and is too unilateral in a legal sense. Even so, I respect that Orban took action when others stayed lame.

Yet I really, really do not understand this drift towards authoritarian rule. Democracy is not only about voting rights, it is so much more and here it seems to go wrong according to all authoritive reports. And even if I were to have doubts about these reports, which I cannot, there is this: in Budapest I went to the ‘House of Horrors’. It depicts the Communist regime in Hungary in all its gruesome details. That made a deep impression on me. The idea that Hungary, like other Central Eastern European countries, is in all appearances embracing communist style leadership is abhorrent to me. In a way I think I understand it: many countries are young democracies and in times of crisis and disillusionment the temptation is there to fall back on the old strongman culture of before. But understanding it is not the same as accepting it, if only in memory of Christian democrats like Wim van Velzen who worked so hard to get Hungary back in the European family. It has to be fought in the only way that history shows will last: through democratic dialogue. If there has to come an answer to an outcome of internal democratic debate, do not show weakness by Trumpian accusations of lies, but engage in true democratic debate. Argue, disagree, try to convince, and most of all: show us all what you are really made of.

Peter Noordhoek

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