How to run TV debates in a multi-party system

Today, the people of the Netherlands vote for their provincial governments.  On face value, the Dutch middle legislative tier has limited powers.  However, the results of these elections will also determine the composition of the Eerste Kamer, the Netherlands’ legislative upper house.  Elections are also simultaneously held for the Water Board, arguably the most important institution in the Netherlands given its responsibility for water levels, dyke planning and maintenance and other such responsibilities that keep the population’s feet dry.  All in all, it’s an important day at the polls.

According to modern conventions, important elections require a TV debate between party leaders, but this is easier said than done in a political system where eleven parties (plus an assortment of regional parties and independents) are represented in the political system.  The Dutch have arrived at an innovative solution, running a series of one-on-one mini debates featuring two party leaders at a time.

Last night’s ‘TV debate’ featured nine debates in total, each discussing a different topic, and each lasting a little less than ten minutes.  The leaders of the six ‘main’ parties (VVD, PvdA, CDA, D66, SP and PVV) each had two opportunities to debate, while the leaders of the six ‘small’ parties (Green Left, Christian Union, 50+, Party for the Animals, Reformed Political Party and Independents) each had the chance to debate once.  Topics debated ranged from energy policy to health insurance.

The format was interesting to watch, being much more focussed on the topics themselves than the ‘ya boo’ point scoring that often dominates debates in two-party systems.  The format made it possible to get a good feel for all twelve party leaders without being confusing or cluttered.  That, in itself, is no mean feat.  The main down-side is that each leader only had the chance to debate two topics.

At the time of writing, the United Kingdom, increasingly a multi-party system, is wrestling with competing ideas about how to organise the leaders’ debate in advance of the May 2015 election.  While the Dutch formula is eminently fair, David Cameron would surely be alarmed to see how Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, was relegated to a bit-part player.  Such an outcome is consistent with Dutch political culture, where the PM’s job is to bring about consensus, but is out of step with the winner-takes all culture that has traditionally dominated in Westminster.