Organisation - August 30, 2012

A bright jacket and a friendly word for everyone

They'll be out on the streets from now until 12 September. Liberally handing out friendly smiles, flyers, roses, pens or other freebies. Dauntlessly approaching shoppers who try to duck out of their way or mutter something about money-grubbers, but who occasionally allow themselves to be drawn into a discussion. The campaigners don't make any money out of it. A few politically active Wageningen UR staff talk about what drives them.

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A political career? 'Not at all' what he is aiming at. 'That is definitely not what drives me', says Peter van Beveren, PhD researcher at the Farm Technology chair group. The question makes him laugh, in fact. Yet there he stands at the info fair for first-years, representing the Christian Democratic party CDA, putting up posters and handing out flyers. He is a voluntary CDA board member, something he does because he enjoys it but also as a way of networking. Van Beveren: 'Something like putting up posters is not very exciting in itself but the nice thing is you are doing something together with other members.' Volunteers from other parties are full of praise for the social side of it too. Nico Bijl, project manager at Facilities and Services and Socialist Party (SP) board member in Wageningen, always enjoys going to the kick-off of the campaign. Members from all sorts of different departments have a chat and the volunteers are thanked by the MPs. 'Anyway it's just very nice to campaign', says Bijl. 'Especially the discussions with people at the market or the supermarket.' This year he can be found plying local markets and events - armed with unique tomato cookies. The campaigners clearly enjoy engaging in discussion about party politics and regularly go into campaigning mode. Bijl almost continuously runs off the compelling reasons why students should vote SP. Another real political animal is Sina Salim, PhD researcher in Bioprocess Technology and number 28 on the list of liberal-democratic party D66. Salim is an eloquent speaker who talks nineteen to the dozen both about his PhD research on algae and about D66's reform agenda. 'Just interrupt me if I don't stop talking', he says quickly. 'You will notice that politicians don't usually stop of their own accord.'
Devil's party
'Convincing people', says Salim, 'is the best thing about campaigning. It starts to get interesting when you don't agree. Certainly when you try to convince other people on the basis of the facts.' In his view, discussion is always helpful, even when people are not willing to be convinced. A few years ago, for example, he got chatting to a woman from a reformed church who asked him if he was of the devil's party. In view of their stands on abortion and euthanasia, that was how she saw D66. Salim: 'I couldn't convince her but she did gain some understanding of our positions.' After that she will never again tell a D66 member that "you are from the devil's party".' All the volunteers agree that you must stay open to differences of opinion and that discussion is important for its own sake. They all urge voters to vote, whatever party they choose to support. Once they are at the market place the party members do not spent much time explaining the party's policies. People have usually already picked those up from the television and the newspapers. Voters mainly come along to have a chat, to raise local political issues or to ask a specific question. Campaigners therefore see their role as being the human face of the party and of politics. The important thing is for voters to look back on their conversation with a good feeling. 'To contribute to a good campaign we want to reach as many people as possible locally', says Karin Horsman policymaker at Corporate Education and Research and chair of the labour party PvdA in Wageningen. 'We hope to be able to communicate a clear PvdA position but at the very least we want to get the message across that the elections are coming up. We also choose a couple of neighbourhoods for door-to-door canvassing. Then you get more personal conversations, often about the neighbourhood.'
Twitter
Bastiaan Meerburg, head of department at the Animal Sciences Group and conservative party VVD representative in Gelderland, will soon be out and about at the market, sporting his VVD scarf. But with his political post, he is effectively campaigning nonstop. On his website he writes about his academic and his political work and he can be contacted directly on Twitter. Meerburg: 'That way anyone who is interested can follow what I am doing. What is more, I cannot be accused of a lack of accountability. You often get told at the market, 'We never see you and then when campaign time comes around, there you are again.' The local branches of other parties are scrambling to open Facebook pages and Twitter accounts too. Yet they all still swear by a good face-to-face discussion, where you can look the voter in the eye. 'The basics of campaigning have hardly changed in 30 years', says Bijl. 'Perhaps people nowadays are better informed about the parties' positions and the media play a bigger role. But the main thing is still discussion and talking. It is still person-to-person work.'
In spite of the political differences, the interests and motives of volunteers from different parties seem similar. They are courteous towards each other and see debate as a bit of a sport. In Wageningen at least, there are no attempts to bug each other by covering up each other's posters, says Bijl. 'We get on fine', Horsman agrees. 'There are clear political differences but at a personal level relations are good.' SP member Bijl notices that it is even tempting to talk mainly with other political parties. After all, they are far more interested in politics than the casual passer-by. And it can be fun to argue the toss with VVD members, for instance. Bijl: 'They are so far from your position. So you start with, "Market forces working well? Great postal services, cheap healthcare, reliable railways..." That's fun.'
Hardening
Not all voters are so friendly in 2012. That is something PvdA campaigners find out the hard way, says Horsman, who is regularly subjected to verbal abuse. She blames the tirades on rightwing PVV party leader Wilders, who often uses the PvdA as a bogeyman. Horsman: 'If you cross the market square in Ede in a red jacket, you get it in the neck. If you invite those people to come and have a chat, they just abuse you all over again.' These sorts of reactions are much rarer in Wageningen, but Horsman does detect a general hardening of the battle lines. 'It's OK for people to be negative but I do dislike it when they are unreasonable. In order to prevent it from escalating you have to stay reasonable yourself, but that is not always easy.' The weather can spoil a day's campaigning too. If it rains, even hardened campaigners go home an hour earlier. VVD member Meerburg: 'Once your toes start freezing off it's not much fun anymore.' How the party is doing also affects how enjoyable it is. 'During the massive duel between Rutte and Verdonk, campaigning was a very different matter', says Meerburg. 'People have no time at all for one of the two and they come and tell you soon: "Rita is a rogue".
Campaigning can be very enjoyable, by contrast, when there is a resounding victory in the offing, as there is now for the SP. 'It is nice for me as well that we are getting more and more seats. That makes you feel you are with the right party', says Bijl. 'I sometimes feel sorry for the members of parties that just keep on shrinking. Now that it's going so well before the elections, there is going to be another kind of tension. You have to keep impressing on people that they should stick to their guns and not finish up by voting for another party after all.' 

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