This is quite a long read. It’s also based on my opinion and how I look at things. Firstly, since I’m writing this in English, I will assume you are unfamiliar with the way Dutch government works so I will give some high-level primers first which are a tad simplified, but hopefully won’t detract from the flaws I’m pointing out.
As some of you know, I’m Dutch and I live and work in the Netherlands. You might have heard a bit about the Dutch government and its quirks. It’s a monarchist representative constitutional democracy on paper, but over the years, quite a few nasty kinks have crept into the system that made it quite less representative, and also a lot less democratic. EU involvement in our lawmaking hasn’t helped matters either.
The Netherlands is a strange country. The capital is Amsterdam, but the government resides in The Hague. We have a royal family that still sort of calls the shots since our King still has involvement with signing laws and he concerns himself with the formation of the government as well. Unlike Britain, our constitution has provisions for free speech. I think the Dutch constitution is a bit of an amalgamation of the British Magna Carta and the universal declaration of human rights, sprinkled with a bit of monarchy. A dude called Thorbecke contrived it.
Okay, so much for the introduction to Dutch governmental silliness. On to what corrupted the system.
2. The disconnect between citizens and government
The point of a democracy is that the demos should be ultimately the ones that call the shots. Understandably, to have everyone have a say is quite unwieldy with a large group of people. So, to solve this the Netherlands instituted a representative democracy, which means that people vote for representatives from groups of representatives (also called “parties”) every 4 years. So, every 4 years all the parties go into campaign mode. They try to convince the citizenry to vote for them, trying to lure them in with their party program. So, they listen to the citizen and promise them the world. They are going to fix all the problems currently present in society, they quip.
Sounds groovy, right? Yes, it is, but the problem is not during the campaign leading up to the elections. The problems occur after the parties are elected. Let’s clarify a bit more about Dutch governmental structure so you have a bit more context in what’s going on.
There are two big departments inside the lawmaking branch of the government. There is the so-called “second chamber”, which kinda equates to American Congress. And there is the “first chamber”, which is more like the American Senate. Laws are debated and created in the second chamber, and then voted into law by the first chamber. Both chambers have members which are all elected into office.
While important, the first chamber is a bit out of scope. We’ll focus on the second chamber because those are the people that campaign the hardest for their spot on the velvet seats. The second chamber is divided into two parts. There are the cabinet and the opposition. The cabinet assigns all the ministers and is usually comprised of the majority (although a minority cabinet is a possibility, albeit an unpopular one). When the elections are done, a cabinet must be formed. Usually, the most popular party will invite other parties to parlay about which parties to include into the cabinet (also called ‘the formation’). Usually, the largest parties will band together and form the cabinet, while the rest sits in opposition.
Now, here is where the disconnect happens between the citizenry and the government. In the formation phase, parties give up parts of their party program that got them into government in the first place. They are gunning for that ministry spot, and they will forsake their voters for it by compromising on some tenets or abolishing some altogether. They sell out, in fact. The majority party gets to form the cabinet and is more interested in filling seats to get a majority vote to push their laws through to the Senate, so they make other parties concede their election platform while granting them a few irrelevant platform points to keep them content. The last election had a really long formation phase because they didn’t want to deal with one of the larger populist parties.
Basically, what it comes down to is that the demos vote people in based on a program, and after the election, the programs that the citizens have voted for are ignored. The politiciancs themselves call it “making compromises to create a majority government”. I call it selling out. People aren’t stupid and see this, and lose confidence in the government. The voter turnout every election gets lower and lower because people become apathetic because whatever they vote, they will get screwed regardless.
3. Incompetent politicians
Another problem is that parties that are in the cabinet usually appoint ministers from their own parties. This is a traditional thing, and certainly not mandatory. But because they don' t look elsewhere for a capable minister other than in their own parties, it often happens that someone that lacks competence will take a minister spot. A good example is, for example, the ministry of defence. Lately, they’ve put people in that ministerial position that have no military experience whatsoever. There are quite a few ex-military politicians that would do a lot better there. But because they are not from the majority parties, or didn’t kiss enough arse, they won’t put them there.
There’s another problem. By far the majority of the people in Politics haven’t had a real job in decennia. They are completely disconnected from the citizenry. They usually come from academia (which also has a modicum of disconnect from reality) and went directly into politics. The few that came from the working class originally, haven’t worked in it for at least 10 years. They have no idea what the citizenry is thinking, and they have absolutely no regard for the demos' opinions. The abolition of the referendum that they are currently trying to push through is an example of this, especially because they didn’t like the outcome of the first referendum that was held with the latest referendum-law. They are perfectly willing to throw out the referendum after just one trial. This, of course, is met with disdain from the citizenry. But they don’t see it. If they haven’t lived through something, it simply doesn’t exist for them. They simply don’t know, because they don’t see, and they don’t believe the citizenry. Even worse, they want the demos to shut the hell up.
4. Cordon Sanitaire
Another wart has popped up in the latest years. The ‘Cordon Sanitaire’ against parties like the PVV and FvD that are growing fast, but are deemed populist and right wing.
noun: cordon sanitaire; plural noun: cordons sanitaires
a guarded line preventing anyone from leaving an area infected by a disease and thus spreading it: “inoculations replaced cordons sanitaires as a major medical intervention”
a measure designed to prevent communication or the spread of undesirable influences: “these rules help to reinforce the cordon sanitaire around Whitehall”
In practice it means that whatever motions those parties submit for voting, even if they are decent and well thought out ones, a large group of parties (usually those in the cabinet) will always vote against them, limiting their success to be voted into law.
This is inexcusable. An added wrinkle is that voting in parliament is not anonymous, since the name is called out, and the person exclaims if they are either for or against. A member of the party that breaks party doctrine will face serious reprecussions. It’s usually a big deal when someone from a large party is being called a rebel for deviating from the party line. So there is also social enforcement of the ‘cordon sanitaire’.
5. The solution
So, what can we do about this? I have some ideas, but many won’t like it. Especially if you’re left-leaning.
I do have to say that there are parties that have the right idea. Pretty much put experts on ministerial posts. And not from your own party, but anyone that can clearly demonstrate to have practical knowledge in the field. Put a military veteran (someone who has survived at least 2 tours) on the defense ministry spot for example. A retired teacher on education. Maybe a former lawyer or judge on Justice. Does that make any sense? It does, doesn’t it? But those ideas come from a so-called populist party, so the cordon sanitair will prevent any progress whatsoever.
Also, institute anonymous voting in parliament. It makes things fair. Let the people’s representatives vote what they want, instead of what they must. It will stop anyone from pointing fingers (which is done often) at people for voting a certain way. This will nullify stupid tactics like the cordon sanitair, because votes can not be traced to the voter. We vote anonymously, why shouldn’t politicians?
Another thing I would like to see disappear is half-pay (“wachtgeld”) when a politician leaves politics. The politicians should be subject to the same welfare facilities as the citizenry. The same pensions, the same stipends, everything. Maybe then they’ll think twice before messing with our social emergency insurances.
I would also like to see a fixed term for all politicians. Something like no politician will ‘serve’ for more than two terms. The benefits should be obvious.
A nice refresh of the current system wouldn’t go amiss. It’s currently not representative of the citizenry, it’s turned into a ruling elite which has little to do with a representative democratic state. There should be more transparency, and
I’ll continue and update this essay, but at least the start is in here.