The Netherlands has a long history of democratic governance. It has been a parliamentary constitutional monarchy since 1848. There has been a gradual transition from an absolute monarchy to a modern democracy, culminating in the 1946 Constitution that established the current form of government.
The Dutch socio-economic system is an example of the Rhineland Model. This model stands for a consultation culture emphasizing principles such as solidarity, trust and quality of life. The Rijnlandse model employs “stakeholder thinking”. This means that Rijnlanders take into account all those involved when making choices. This brings with it a high degree of solidarity, but as a result, decision-making often takes longer. The model is typically defined by higher levels of taxation, government intervention and social services. It is the basic model of the Benelux countries, Germany, Switzerland and France as well as Japan. In the Rijnlandse model, supporters believe that the operation of the free market must be controlled and corrected where necessary.
The Nordic countries have developed their own version of the Rhineland model capturing a unique combination of free-market capitalism and social benefits that have given rise to a society that enjoys a high living standard with low income-disparity and top-quality public services.
In comparison, the Anglo-Saxon model allows more space for the forces of the free market with less government intervention. Money is the major yardstick with more control in the hands of shareholders. This should lead to processes being managed as efficiently and cheaply as possible, while featuring low to moderate rates of taxation and lower social outlays. The Anglo-Saxon model emphasizes self-reliance, private initiative, market forces with limited social security.
One of the most defining characteristics of the Dutch version of the Rhineland system is its particular brand of consensus-oriented polder politics. This consensus-based system of decision-making is made possible by the social dialogue among unions, employers and other social partners. There is an important acknowledgement of the fact that we should all be willing to find a middle ground, cooperate and work together, in order to create a better society for everyone. This is something which has been instilled deeply into the Dutch national psyche during the decades of pillarisation. Nowadays, it fosters an atmosphere of openness, cooperation and acceptance that continues to attract people from all over the world. Its success has been credited with helping to increase employment and productivity and helped make it one of Europe’s most prosperous countries.
The Relationship with the EU
The Netherlands is one of the founding members of the EU and conducts three-quarters of its trade within the single market. It shares important values with its fellow EU member states such as democracy and equal rights for all. EU countries demonstrate these shared values in a variety of ways, including recently their support for Ukraine and taking in Ukrainian refugees. The Dutch government wants to preserve what has been achieved in Europe while looking to the future, to make the EU greener, safer and stronger in the world.
Major EU policy areas such as security, development cooperation, finance, transport and agriculture are very important to the Netherlands. Therefore the Dutch largely models its own policies in these areas on the established EU policies, emphasizing the Netherlands pro-EU stance.
Elections and Parliament
The Dutch parliamentary system dates from the 15th century, evolving through the Burgundian and Habsburg periods, suffering setbacks during the 17th century Spanish rule, the 18th-19th century Napoleonic annexation and the German occupation of 1940-45, but always recovering and evolving. The Dutch parliament took on its current form and size in 1956, comprising two chambers – an upper house called the Senate (de Eerste Kamer) and a lower House of Representatives (de Tweede Kamer).
General elections employ a system of proportional representation to elect the members of the House of Representatives for terms of 4 years. There are also direct elections for local councils (Gemeentes), the 12 provincial administrations, as well as the European Parliament. Voting is not compulsory in the Netherlands in contrast with for example Belgium. Candidates are proposed by the sitting parties or via an application to the Electoral Council (de Kiesraad), demonstrating sufficient support within the electorate. For example, to have a chance to be included on the ballot paper at national level, you would need around 600 documented supporters spread across the country.
The 150 seats of the House of Representatives are allocated via a party-list proportional representation system. There are currently (2023) 20 factions in the parliament with 4 parties needed for their 77 seat majority centre-right coalition government of VVD, D66, CDA and CU. The opposition has 73 seats divided across 16 factions including 3 independents. At the last general election the largest opposition parties were the PVV (17) of the right-wing populist Wilders, the Socialists (9), Labour (9) and the Greens (8).
The 150 seats equate to a quota of 69,485 votes per parliamentary seat, the so-called Hare quota. Since the election threshold is equal to the quota, it is therefore the number of votes required to get one seat in the House of Representatives.
In order to form a government the prospective coalition parties negotiate a “regeerakkoord”. This coalition agreement is always full of compromises and often contains very different policies than in the individual party manifestos. So even if your selected party wins an election, the implemented policies will almost certainly differ from what you thought you were voting for. On the other hand the achieved consensus leads to relatively stable policies between successive governments. This stability is an important feature of the political landscape in the Netherlands.
The senators of the upper house are indirectly elected by the directly-elected members of the provincial administrations, together with representatives of Caribbean administrations and non-resident nationals. The Senate must approve or reject proposed legislation from the lower house, however the ruling coalition is not guaranteed to have a majority in the upper house. Therefore sometimes there can be frustratingly slow progress with contentious bills until sufficient compromise is reached between the two chambers.
A Multitude of Political Parties
In the Netherlands there is a political party for (almost) every interest group.
The most significant ones are:
- The VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie) is a center-right party that supports conservative economic policies and market liberalization.
- The PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid) is a far-right, nationalist party that believes in traditional values and a strong national identity. In contrast,
- The Forum van Democracy is a radical right-wing populist party that also advocates a participatory democracy via referendums.
- D66 is a progressive liberal party that supports free market policies and promotes an open society. D66 takes a strong pro-European position, with a focus on environmentalism and sustainability.
- The Dutch Christian Democratic Appeal (Christen-Democratisch Appel or CDA) holds a centrist position and promotes socially conservative values.
- The Christian Union is an orthodox Protestant political party that emphasizes personal responsibility and Christian principles in political decision-making. The CU positions itself as Social-Christian and although small has recently been a key factor in coalition forming. De SGP holds even stronger Calvinistic views with a strong following in the Dutch “Bible Belt”.
- PVDA (Partij van de Arbeid) is a social democratic left-wing party that campaigns for social justice, workplace protection and equal opportunities.
- The Greens (Groen Links) today have very similar policies to the Labour Party (Party van de Arbeid), and therefore now work together closely in both chambers. There are even moves afoot for a merger in an attempt to revive the Left as an effective political force against the recent rise in Populism (Forum, Ja21, PVV, BBB).
- SP (Socialistische Partij) is a left-wing party that advocates for progressive policies such as greater government intervention in the economy, egalitarianism, wealth redistribution and worker’s rights and higher social welfare spending. They also have a strong environmental agenda.
- DENK is a party founded by Turkish-Dutch politicians to represent the interests of immigrant communities in the Netherlands.
- The Animal Party (Party voor de Dieren) are animal rights advocates seeking to protect animals from abuse and exploitation.
- VOLT is a new unique European-wide political movement, outspokenly pro-European and anti-populist. In only the Netherlands and Burgaria has VOLT managed to get candidates into the national parliaments.
- An example of the propensity for change in the Dutch political landscape is the Boeren Burger Beweging (BBB). This is a new movement that has shaken up the political climate with its conservative populist views. It draws support from rural areas, where it campaigns for farming interests, lower taxes and less regulation. As with D66’s success in the 2019 election, the rise of the BBB demonstrates how quickly public opinion can change, immediately affecting the political landscape. The Netherlands’ dynamic political system ensures that there is always potential for new ideas and perspectives to make their mark.
- The independents and smaller parties such as JA21 and BIJ1 are mostly created by the splintering of dissenting persons or groups from the more established party.
Ultimately all these parties represent different views, values and ideologies, but they exist in relative harmony within the Dutch system. Understanding the party differences is essential to understanding Dutch politics. Nevertheless the predominant culture of open debate and discussion make it a good example of democracy in action, with its combination of liberal democracy and social progressivism.
The Constitution and Pillarisation
The Dutch constitution places strong emphasis on human rights and freedom of speech. However the constitution also still supports the concept of pillarisation (verzuiling), which involves compartmentalizing society into different religious, cultural and ideological communities. There is a history of strong pillarisation in the Netherlands, as can also be found in Belgium and Northern Ireland.
Historically this often divided society into two main parts: catholic-oriented and protestant/reformed-oriented. Pillarisation was deeply rooted in the social, political and educational systems of the Netherlands, leading to a high degree of segregation and lack of integration between different communities. It was an important characteristic of Trade Unions, education (schools and universities), media (broadcasting and newspapers), sports clubs and even hospitals and the wartime resistance movements.
Pillarisation was largely dissolved in the 1960s, but its legacy remains in some parts of Dutch society today, most obviously in the names of some of the older institutions. Despite this history, modern-day Dutch society is mostly tolerant and welcoming to people from different backgrounds. The Netherlands is now a vibrant multicultural society, with many different religions and cultures living together in peace and relative harmony. The constitution still today facilitates this “freedom” making for instance Islamitic and Populist schools possible, but not without contention and public debate. These discussions can eventually lead to changes in the constitution. It has been regularly adapted over time to reflect the changing needs and values of society. However this a process requiring patience and large majorities in both chambers over more than a single parliamentary period.
Although the Netherlands has come a long way since the days of pillarisation, it is certainly not perfect as the next section clearly illustrates.
A long list of current challenges for the Dutch government
In recent years, the Dutch political system has been facing a variety of serious challenges, or crises. The various causes can be found in the seemingly perfect storm of geo-political developments, the near collapse of global financial systems, and an acutely overstressed planet. However the more neo-liberal policies and budget reductions of recent governments have at least exacerbated the situation in the Netherlands.
The current crises include low levels of public trust in government, structural discrimination by public institutions, high immigration, an aging population, a lack of sufficient housing, rising inequality, management of the energy transition, the nitrogen crisis and climate change in general. At the same time the Dutch government is also having to deal with an increasingly diverse electorate that is demanding better services and more transparency from their leaders.
The construction industry almost closed down in the years following the financial crisis of 2007-2008. With rising living costs and rapid population growth, today there are not enough homes in the Netherlands to meet demand. This shortage has led to price increases with far fewer people being able to afford rental apartments or mortgages, resulting in a shortage of available properties specially for those on lower incomes. While the Dutch government has taken steps to improve the situation through measures like rent control and a special cabinet minister, the solution must be more housing. However it will take many years to add the 2020 estimate of 400,000 new units.
Immigration policy has become a major focus of political discourse in the Netherlands. With an influx of immigrants and refugees, there is an increased demand for housing, jobs and public resources, with many arguing that these newcomers are taking away opportunities from native Dutch citizens. At the same time, some politicians have argued that allowing more immigration could strengthen the country’s economy since it would bring in much needed skill sets and talent from abroad. In recent years, this debate has intensified due to rising levels of populism and xenophobia around Europe. Consequently, immigration policy has become one of the most contentious issues amongst both government leaders and regular citizens in the Netherlands.
The Dutch nitrogen and CO2 crises are major environmental issues facing the Netherlands. This is the unforeseen result of the adoption of the mass farming methods several decades ago. The government has proposed radical plans to cut livestock numbers by almost a third in order to reduce nitrogen pollution from animal waste. Farmers have been protesting these measures, which could have a drastic effect on their livelihoods. The crisis has already caused delays to the building of new homes and roads, and has serious implications for public health and nature.
The Childcare Benefits Scandal and the Groningen Gasfield Earthquake scandal are the 2 most dramatic examples of how the Dutch government of the last decade has failed to protect its citizens’ interests, resulting in a loss of faith in its leaders and institutions. In both cases, the government has been responsible for poor lawmaking and incompetent implementation. Both scandals have resulted in hundreds of thousands of citizens becoming victims from false accusations of fraud to physically damaged homes and excruciatingly slow and inadequate compensation.
Jaap Woldendorp, The Polder Model: From Disease to Miracle? Dutch Neo-corporatism 1965–2000 (2005)
Post, Harry (1989), Pillarization: An Analysis of Dutch and Belgian Society