Televised election debate cancelled after Wilders and PM Rutte refused to participate

rutte and wilders
Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Russavia)Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Russavia)

VVD leader Mark Rutte and PVV leader Geert Wilders both decided to withdraw from the "premier debate" scheduled to air on RTL on February 26th. Both blame the broadcaster for their withdrawal, saying that RTL broke the agreements by inviting five parties to the debate instead of four.

On Sunday Wilders was the first to announce that he will not be participating in the debate. "RTL breaks agreements for debate 26 February by inviting more than the agreed parties. Sorry. Participation canceled. Now I can go to carnival!" he said on Twitter. A short time later there was a message on behalf of Mark Rutte: "RTL is not adhering to the agreement for a debate with four parties. The VVD will therefore refuse the invitation."

Shortly after Wilders and Rutte announced that they would not participate, RTL announced that the debate was canceled. Before the previous parliamentary debate in 2012 the "premiere debate" was something of a game changer, according to the Volkskrant. A massive 1.2 million people watched the debate.

In November RTL arranged the debate with four participants, which would be selected based on the Peilingwijzer - a platform that combines the polls of I&O Research, Ipsos, Kantar Public, and EenVandaag in an effort to get a more rounded view of what the polls have to say. This turned out to be easier said than done. The differences between the CDA, D66 and GroenLinks kept shrinking and are now so statistically insignificant that RTL felt compelled to invite all three. This brought the number of participants up to five - the two largest parties in the polls PVV and VVD and the other three. Rutte and Wilders announced two weeks ago already that they don't intend to participate in a debate with more than four participants. 

According to the Volkskrant, it is not surprising that it's the two largest parties in the polls that are clinging to the original agreement. Wilders and Rutte have little need of a "game changer". And neither of them want to risk repeating what happened to Emile Roemer in 2012 - the SP leader's popularity started slipping after a poor performance in the premier debate. 

Wilders will now only appear in three debates, two of which are scheduled for the final days of the campaign. If the PVV holds its position in the polls, Wilders will participate in the EenVandaag debate with only Rutte, scheduled for the Monday before the election. According to the Volkskrant, that's the only fight Wilders has eyes for.

The VVD is also hesitant to participate in too many debates. The liberals don't want to risk GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver or D66 leader Alexander Pechtold being set up as Wilders' natural opponents. A study by the University of Amsterdam and the Volkskrant, published this weekend, showed that many D66, CDA and to a lesser extent GroenLinks and PvdA voters will vote for the VVD if it means keeping Wilders off the Prime Minister seat. And that is a position the VVD would like to keep.

The other parties are furious at the VVD and PVV for withdrawing from the debate. GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver was quick to accuse the two parties of cowardice and going into hiding. CDA leader Sybrand Buma accused Rutte and Wilders of "messing with the ball behind the scenes".