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Politics of the Netherlands

The politics of the Netherlands take place within the framework of a parliamentary representative democracy, a constitutional monarchy and a decentralised unitary state. The Netherlands is described as a consociational state. Dutch politics and governance are characterised by a common strife for broad consensus on important issues, within both the political community and society as a whole.

Constitution

The constitution lists the basic civil and social rights of the Dutch citizens and it describes the position and function of the institutions that have executive, legislative and judiciary power.

It should be noted that the constitution of the Netherlands is only applicable in the European part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Kingdom as a whole has its own Statute, describing its federate political system which also includes the Caribbean islands of Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.

The Netherlands do not have a Constitutional Court and judges do not have the authority to review laws on their constitutionality. International treaties and the Statute of the Kingdom, however, overrule Dutch law and the constitution and judges are allowed to review laws against these in a particular court case. Furthermore all legislation that is not a law in the strict sense of the word (such as policy guidelines or laws proposed by provincial or municipal government) can be tested on their constitutionality.

Amendments to the constitution must be approved by both Houses of the States-General twice. The first time around, this requires a simple majority of fifty percent plus one vote. After parliament has been dissolved and general elections are held, both Houses must approve the proposed amendments with a two thirds majority.

Political Institutions

Major political institutions are the monarchy, the cabinet, the States General (parliament) and the judicial system. There are three other High Colleges of state, which stand on equal foot with parliament but have a less political role, of which the Council of State is the most important. Other levels of government are the municipalities, the waterboards and the provinces. Although not mentioned in the constitution, political parties and the social partners organised in the Social Economic Council are important political institutions as well.

It is important to realise that the Netherlands does not have a traditional separation of powers: according to the States-General and the government (the Queen and cabinet) share the legislative power. All legislation has to pass through the Raad van State and the social-economic council advises the government on most social-economic legislation. The executive power is reserved for government. Note however that the Social-Economic Council has the special right to make and enforce legislation on several sectors, mostly in agriculture. The judicial power is divided into two separate systems of courts. For criminal law the independent Hoge Raad is the highest court. For administrative law the Raad van State is the highest court, which is ex officio chaired by the Queen.

Monarchy

The Netherlands have been a monarchy since March 16, 1815, and have been governed by members of the House of Orange-Nassau ever since.

The present monarchy was originally founded in 1813. After the expulsion of the French, the Prince of Orange was proclaimed Sovereign Prince of The Netherlands. The new monarchy was confirmed in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna as part of the re-arrangement of Europe after the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. The House of Orange-Nassau were given the present day Netherlands and Belgium to govern as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Between 1815 and 1890, the King of the Netherlands was also Grand Duke of Luxembourg.

The current monarch is Queen Beatrix. The heir apparent is Willem-Alexander, her son.

Constitutionally, the Queen is head of state and has a role in the formation of government and in the legislative process. She has to co-sign every law to make it valid. The monarch is also ex officio chair of the Council of State, which advises the cabinet on every piece of legislation and is the final court for administrative law. Although the Queen takes these functions seriously, she refrains from exerting her power in these positions. The Queen also plays a central role in the formation of a cabinet after general elections or a cabinet crisis. Since coalition cabinets of two or more parties are the rule, this process has influence on government policy for years to come. She appoints the (in)formateur, who chairs the formation talks, after consulting the leaders of all parties represented in parliament. When the formation talks have been concluded the Queen appoints the cabinet. Because this advice is a matter of public record, the Queen can not easily take a direction which is contrary to the advice of a majority in parliament. On the other hand, what is actually talked about behind the closed doors of the palace is not known. When a cabinet falls, the prime minister has to request the Queen to dismiss the cabinet.

Cabinet

The government of the Netherlands constitutionally consists of the Queen and the cabinet ministers. The Queen's role is limited to the formation of government and she does not actively interfere in daily decision-making. The ministers together form the Council of Ministers. This executive council initiates laws and policy. It meets every Friday in the Trêveszaal at the Binnenhof. While most of the ministers head government ministries, since 1939 it has been permissible to appoint ministers without portfolio.

The Cabinet is composed of all cabinet ministers and junior ministers, the staatssecretarissen. Junior ministers take over part of responsibilities of minister. They only attend the meetings of the Council of Ministers if the Council invites them regarding a specific subject.

The Council of Ministers makes decisions by means of collegiate governance. All ministers, including the Prime Minister, are (theoretically) equal. Behind the closed doors of the Trêveszaal, ministers can freely debate proposed decisions and express their opinion on any aspect of cabinet policy. Once a decision is made by the council, all individual members are bound by it and are obliged to support it publicly. If a member of the cabinet does not agree with a particular decision he will have to step down. Generally much effort is put into reaching relative consensus on any decision. A process of voting within the Council does exist, but is hardly ever used.

The cabinet is collectively responsible to Parliament, and must enjoy its confidence. It is not possible to for a minister to be a member of parliament, although many ministers are selected from parliament and have to give up their seat as a result. Ministers or junior ministers who are no longer supported by a parliamentary majority are expected by convention to step down.

As a result of the electoral system and the lack of dominating parties, coalition cabinets, composed out of two or three parties, are the norm.

The current cabinet of the Netherlands has the following composition:

Prime Minister

The official task of the Prime Minister is to coordinate government policy. He is chairman of the Council of Ministers and as such has the power to set the agenda of its meetings. In addition, the Prime minister is also Minister of General Affairs. The task of this small department is basically supporting the Prime Minister in his tasks as described above and organizing publicity around government proposals and decisions. The position of the Prime Minister has become more important since the Second World War.

States-General

Main articles: States-General of the Netherlands and Elections in the Netherlands

The Dutch Parliament or States-General consists of a Lower House or Second Chamber and an Upper House or First Chamber, also referred to as the Senate. Both houses of Parliament discuss proposed legislation and review of the actions of the cabinet. The Second Chamber also has the right to propose or amend legislation.

Members of the Second Chamber, generally considered the more important House, are elected directly every four years with a list proportional representation. Members are chosen on personal title, so in the relatively rare case that a member no longer agrees with his (or her) party, the member can decide to stay in the chamber, either as an independent representative, or connected to another parliamentary party. If a member decides to resign, the empty seat falls to the original party collecting the votes, and can be filled by a member of that party. Coalition governments may fall before their term ends, which usually results in early dissolution of the Second Chamber and new elections.

Members of the First Chamber are elected indirectly by provincial councillors, again every four years, just after the elections of the provincial councils, via a system of proportional representation. This election method reflects the historical roots of the First Chamber as a representative body of the different regional entities that formed the Netherlands. Nowadays, the Senate is mainly considered to be a body of elderly statesmen reconsidering legislation at ease, away from the pressure of daily political and media hypes.

Parties Political Leader Votes (2006) Tweede Kamer seats Eerste Kamer seats
Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) Jan Peter Balkenende* 2,608,573 41 21
Labour Party (PvdA) Wouter Bos* 2,085,077 33 14
Socialist Party (SP) Agnes Kant 1,630,803 25 12
People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) Mark Rutte 1,443,312 22 14
Party for Freedom (PVV) Geert Wilders 579,490 9 0
Green Left (GroenLinks) Femke Halsema 453,054 7 4
Christian Union (CU) André Rouvoet* 390,969 6 4
Democrats 66 (D66) Alexander Pechtold 193,232 3 2
Party for Animals (PvdD) Marianne Thieme 179,988 2 1
Political Reformed Party (SGP) Bas van der Vlies 153,266 2 1
Independent Senate Fraction (OSF) Hendrik ten Hoeve* did not compete 0 1
Total (turnout 80.0%) 9,654,475 150 75
*: These political leaders are not chair of Second Chamber parliamentary parties

Political Parties

The system of proportional representation, combined with the historical social division between Catholics, Protestants, Socialists and Liberals has resulted in a multiparty system. The major political parties are CDA, PvdA, SP and VVD. The parties currently represented in the Dutch Second Chamber are:

  • CDA is a centre-right Christian Democratic party. It holds to the principle that government activity should supplement but not supplant communal action by citizens. The CDA sees its philosophy as standing between the "individualism" of the VVD and the "statism" of the PvdA.
  • PvdA is a social democratic, centre-left Labour party. Its programme is based on greater social, political, and economic equality for all citizens.
  • SP is a socialist party, which has evolved from a Maoist split from the Communist Party Netherlands into a much less radical socialist party. It remains more to the left than the PvdA on economic issues but at the same it has taken more conservative positions on issues like integration and national identity than the PvdA.
  • VVD is a conservative-liberal party. It attaches great importance to private enterprise and the freedom of the individual in political, social, and economic affairs.
  • PVV is an anti-Islam nationalist-conservative party. It has a platform based on free market economics and opposition to immigration and European integration.
  • GroenLinks combines, as its name implies green, environmentalist, ideals with leftwing ideals.
  • ChristenUnie is a Christian-democratic party made up by mostly orthodox Protestant Christians, with conservative stances on abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage. In other areas the party is considered centre-left, for instance on immigration, welfare state and the environment.
  • D66 is a social-liberal radical party. The party supports liberal policies on abortion and euthanasia and reform of the welfare state. The party is left-wing on immigration, the environment and foreign policy.
  • The Party for the Animals is a single-issue animal rights party with natural affinity with environmental issues. For general purposes, the party is considered left of centre.
  • SGP is an orthodox Protestant party with conservative policies and it sees government as unconditional servant of God.
  • Trots op Nederland is the proposed political movement associated with independent parliamentarian and former government minister Rita Verdonk.

Council of State

The Council of State is an advisory body of cabinet on constitutional and judicial aspects of legislature and policy. All laws proposed by the cabinet have to be sent to the Council of State for advice. Although the advice is not binding, the cabinet is required to react to the advice and it often plays a significant role in the ensuing debate in Parliament. In addition the Council is the highest administrative court.

The Council is ex officio chaired by the Queen. Currently the crown prince is member as well. The Queen however leaves daily affairs to the vice-chair of the Council, Herman Tjeenk Willink and the other councillors, who are mainly legal specialists, former ministers, members of parliament and judges or professors of law.

High Colleges of State

The Dutch political system has five so called the High Colleges of State, which are explicitly regarded as independent by the Constitution. Apart from the two Houses of Parliament and the Council of State, these are the Algemene Rekenkamer (Court of Audit) and the Nationale Ombudsman (National Ombudsman).

The Algemene Rekenkamer investigates whether public funds are collected and spent legitimately and effectively. The Nationale Ombudsman investigates complaints about the practices of government. As with the advice of the Council of State, the reports from these organizations are not easily put aside and often play a role in public and political debate.

The Nationale Ombudsman investigates complaints of citizens about the functioning of government.

Judicial System

The judiciary comprises 19 district courts, five courts of appeal, two administrative courts (Centrale Raad van Beroep and the College van beroep voor het bedrijfsleven) and a Supreme Court (Hoge Raad) which has 24 justices. All judicial appointments are made by the Government. Judges nominally are appointed for life but actually retire at age 70. The Council of State functions as the highest court in most administrative cases.

Social Economic Council

Both trade unions and employers’ organisations are consulted beforehand in policymaking in the financial, economic and social area’s. They meet regularly with government the Social-economic council (Sociaal Economische Raad, SER). This body advises government and its advice, just like the advice of the High Colleges of State, cannot be put aside easily. The SER heads a system of PBO's, self-regulatory organizations that can make laws for specific economic sectors.

The following organizations are represented in the Social Economic Council: the leftwing trade union FNV, the Christian trade union CNV and the trade union for managerial staff MHP, the employers' organizations VNO-NCW, the employers' organization for smaller companies MKB, and the employers' organization for farmers LTO. One third of the members of the council is appointed by the government. These include both professors of economy and related fields and representatives of the economic planning institute CPB and De Nederlandsche Bank. In the working groups of the SER representatives of environmental and consumers' organizations are also represented.

Subnational Government

Main articles: Provincial politics in the Netherlands and Municipal Politics of the Netherlands

Regional government in the Netherlands is formed by twelve provinces. Provinces are responsible for spatial planning, health policy and recreation, within the bounds prescribed by the national government. Furthermore they oversee the policy and finances of municipalities and waterboards. The executive power is in hands of the Queen's Commissioner and the College of the Gedeputeerde Staten. The Queen’s Commissioner is appointed by the national Cabinet and responsible to the minister of Internal Affairs. Members of the Gedeputeerde Staten are appointed by, and responsible to the provincial legislature, the States Provincial, which is elected by direct suffrage.

Local government in the Netherlands is formed by 458 municipalities. Municipalities are responsible for education, spatial planning and social security, within the bounds prescribed by the national and provincial government. They are governed by the College of Mayor and Aldermen. The Mayor is appointed by the national Cabinet and responsible to the minister of Internal Affairs. The Aldermen are appointed by, and responsible to the Municipal Council, which is elected by direct suffrage.

The major cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam are subdivided into administrative area’s (stadsdelen), which have their own (limited) responsibilities.

Furthermore there are waterboards which are responsible for the country’s polders, dikes and other waterworks. These bodies are elected in non-partisan elections and have the power to tax their residents.

Policy

Foreign policy

The foreign policy of the Netherlands is based on four basic commitments: to the atlantic cooperation, to European integration, to international development and to international law. While historically the Netherlands was a neutral state, since the Second World War the Netherlands became a member of a large number of international organisations. Most prominently the UN, NATO and the EU. The Dutch economy is very open and relies on international trade. One of the more controversial international issues surrounding the Netherlands is its liberal policy towards soft drugs and the position of the Netherlands one of the major exporters of hard drugs. Since the golden age, the Dutch built up a colonial empire, which fell apart after the Second World War.

Ethical issues

Dutch policies on recreational drugs, prostitution, same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia are among the most liberal in the world.

Political history

For an overview of the history of the most important political currents see Christian democracy in the Netherlands, Socialism in the Netherlands and Liberalism in the Netherlands

1800-1966

The Netherlands has been a constitutional monarchy since 1815 and a parliamentary democracy since 1848; before that it had been a republic from 1581 to 1806 and a kingdom between 1806 and 1810 (it was part of France between 1810 and 1813).

Before 1917, the Netherlands had a first past the post single seat system with census suffrage (per the constitution of 1814), in which only property-owning adult males had the right to vote. Under influence of the rising socialist movement the requirements were gradually reduced until in 1917 the present voting system of a representative democracy with male universal suffrage was instituted, expanded in 1919 to include women.

Until 1966, Dutch politics were characterised by pillarisation: society was separated in several segments (pillars) which lived separate from each other and there was only contact at the top levels, in government. These pillars had their own organisations, most importantly the political parties. There were four pillars, which provided the five most important parties, the socialist Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid; PvdA), the conservative-liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie; VVD), the Catholic Catholic People's Party (Katholieke Volkspartij; KVP) and the two conservative-Protestant parties, the Christian Historical Union (Chirstelijk Historische Unie; CHU) and the Anti Revolutionary Party (Anti-Revolutionaire Party; ARP). Since no party ever gained an absolute majority, these political parties had to work together in coalition governments. These alternated between a centre left, Rooms Rood, coalition of PvdA, KVP, ARP and CHU and a centre right coalition of VVD, KVP, ARP and CHU.

1966-1994

In the 1960s, new parties appeared, which were mostly popular with young voters, who felt less bound to the pillars. The post-war babyboom meant that there had been a demographic shift to lower ages. On top of that, the voting age was lowered, first from 23 to 21 years in 1963 and then to 18 years in 1972. The most successful new party was the progressive-liberal D66, which proposed democratisation to break down pillarisation. Pillarisation indeed declined, with the three Christian-democratic parties losing almost half of their votes. In 1977 they formed the Christian-democratic CDA, which became a major force in Dutch politics, participating in governments from 1977 until 1994. Meanwhile the conservative-liberal VVD and progressive-liberal D66 made large electoral gains.

The Dutch welfare state had become the most extensive social security system in the world by the early eighties. But the welfare state came into crisis when spending rose due to dramatic high unemployment rates and poor economic growth. The early eighties saw unemployment rise to over 11% and the budget deficit rose to 10.7% of the National Income. The centre-right and centre-left coalitions of CDA-VVD and CDA-PvdA reformed the Dutch welfare state to bring the budget deficit under control and to create jobs. Social benefits were reduced, taxes lowered and businesses deregulated. Gradually the economy recovered and the budget deficit and unemployment were reduced considerably.

When the far-left parties lost much electoral support in the 1986 elections, they decided to merge into the new GreenLeft (GroenLinks) in 1989, with considerable success.

1994-now

In the 1994 general election the Christian-democratic CDA lost nearly half its seats The social-liberal D66, on the other hand, doubled their size. For the first time in eighty years a coalition was formed without the Christian-democrats. The Purple Coalition was formed between PvdA, D66 and VVD. The colour purple symbolised the mixing of socialist red with liberal blue. During the Purple years, which lasted until 2002, the government introduced legislation on abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage. The Purple coalition also marked a period of remarkable economic prosperity.

The Purple coalition parties together lost their majority in the 2002 elections due to the rise of List Pim Fortuyn, the new political party led by the flamboyant populist Pim Fortuyn. He campaigned on an anti-immigration programme and spoke of the "Purple Chaos" (Dutch: "Puinhopen van Paars"). Fortuyn was shot dead a week before the elections took place. In the elections the LPF entered parliament with one sixth of the seats, while the PvdA (Labour) lost half its seats. A cabinet was formed by CDA, VVD and LPF, led by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. It proved short-lived: after only 87 days in power, the coalition fell apart as a result of consecutive conflicts within the LPF and between LPF ministers.

In the ensuing elections in January 2003, the LPF dropped to only five percent of the seats in the Second Chamber. The left-wing Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij; SP) led by Jan Marijnissen became the fourth party of the Netherlands. The centre-right Balkenende II cabinet was formed by the Christian-democratic CDA, the conservative-liberal VVD and the progressive-liberal D66. Against popular sentiment, the right-wing coalition initiated an ambitious programme of welfare state reforms, health care privatisation and stricter immigration policies. On June 1 2005, the Dutch electorate voted in a referendum against the proposed European Constitution by a majority of 62%, three days after the French had also rejected the treaty.

In June 2006 D66 withdrew its support for the coalition in the aftermath of the upheaval about the asylum procedure of Ayaan Hirsi Ali instigated by the Dutch immigration minister Verdonk. The coalition collapsed as a result and the Balkenende III caretaker cabinet was formed by CDA and VVD. The ensuing general elections that were held on 22 November 2006 saw a landslide victory for the Socialist Party, which almost tripled in size and became the third largest party with 17% of the seats, while the moderate PvdA (Labour Party) lost a quarter of its seats. At the other end of the spectrum LPF lost all its seats, while the new anti-immigrant PVV went from nothing to 6% of the seats, becoming the fifth biggest party. This polarisation of the Second Chamber, with an even distribution between left and right made the formation negotiations very difficult. The talks resulted in the formation of the social-Christian fourth cabinet Balkenende by the PvdA, the CDA and the ChristianUnion, this cabinet is oriented at solidarity, durability and normen en waarden.

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