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An introduction to the Dutch political system.

by Frank Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 06:22:15 PM EST

This is meant to be a layman's introduction to Dutch politics. It will give a brief description of the constitutional basis and the global workings of the parliamentary system.

A constitutional monarchy.

Dutch democracy in its current form came into existence with the constitution of 1848, which forced the king (Willem II) to give up most of the powers of a monarchy, and made the Kingdom of the Netherlands into a "constitutional monarchy", where the monarch is mainly just a figurehead.

The king (the official term used in the constitution, even though all monarchs since 1890 have been female; I will use it throughout) is officially part of the government, but plays no role whatsoever in policymaking, although (s)he is briefed on the deliberations and decisions of the government. Furthermore, the prime minister and his team of ministers bear the responsibility for the king's actions.

The two main processes in Dutch democracy where the king plays a role are signing bills into law, which is expected to be a rubberstamp. The other one is the appointment of people who deal with the negotiations towards a new coalition government. More on that later.

The government itself.

As mentioned above, the government consists of the prime minister and the council of ministers ("ministerraad"). The prime minister is the chairman of the council of ministers. The prime minister has no extra constitutional powers, but does function as a representative of the government. The ministers (with some exceptions I won't mention here) have their own department, and may have undersecretaries. Undersecretaries are not formally part of the government, meaning that they do not sit on the council of ministers.

Since no political party will normally gain a majority in parliament, the Dutch government is expected to consist of ministers representing a coalition of different political parties. The prime minister is usually the political leader of the biggest party in the coalition, but this is not a written rule.

The parliamentary chambers.

Dutch parliament consist of two chambers. "Houses" will be a more familiar term to many, but I'll stick to the word "chamber". The 2nd chamber, consisting of 150 seats, is the most visible one. The 2nd chamber has the power to approve or reject bills, to amend them, and to introduce legislation. The 1st chamber, consisting of 75 seats, has the power to approve or reject bills, but can't amend them or introduce its own legislation. The 1st chamber (sometimes called "senate") is generally expected to be more low-key, and usually doesn't reject a bill that has passed the 2nd chamber, although this has happened a number of times recently.


The members of the 2nd chamber are elected during the general elections. General elections will be held either after a 4-year term has finished, or earlier, if a general election is called because of the premature resignation of a government. Members of parliament are elected through direct proportional representation. Voters are presented with a list of candidates for each party, which they can vote for. The combined number of votes for all the candidates per party is the total number of votes a party receives. If N is the number of seats that a party gets in the election then, usually, the first N candidates on this list will become members of parliament. However, a candidate at a higher position than N on the list may receive a sufficient number of votes to be elected directly.

The 1st chamber is elected at fixed 4-year intervals (so, the dates will not match those of the general elections). It is elected indirectly by the members of the legislatures that represent the 12 provinces in the Netherlands. In turn, the legislatures of the provinces are elected through direct proportional representation by the voters of those provinces.

The formation of a new government.

After the general election, the king will appoint someone to start negotiations for a new coalition government (the "informateur"), after consulting with the leaders of all political parties in the newly elected parliament. This person surveys the possible coalitions, and then hands off to a newly appointed (again, by the king) person, who will form the final government (the "formateur"). The latter will usually be the leader of the biggest party in the prospective coalition government, and the prime minister in the new government. Once the process has been completed, the new government will be inaugurated.

Current political parties in parliament.

Approximately left to right:

  • SP - Socialist Party, the most populist of the parties on the left.
  • GroenLinks ("GreenLeft") - Environmental party, created by a merge of 4 smaller leftist parties in 1990.
  • PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid, "Labour Party") - Most mainstream and biggest party on the left side.
  • D66 (Democraten '66) - Centrist party
  • CDA (Christen Democratisch Appel) - Centre-to-right Christian Democrats. Either the CDA or the PvdA are usually the biggest party.
  • VVD (Voor Vrijheid en Democratie) - liberal party (in the European sense)
  • LPF (Lijst Pim Fortuyn) - Party founded by the murdered Pim Fortuyn
  • ChristenUnie - Merger of two smaller Christian Right parties.
  • SGP (Staatkundig-Gereformeerde Partij)- The most conservative Christian party.

There are two members of parliament who split from their original party:
- Lazrak - Member of parliament who split off from the SP (conflict over internal finances)
- Wilders - Member of parliament who split off from the VVD (wanted to move more to the right).

Current seat division in the 2nd chamber:

The current coalition government is made up out of CDA, VVD and D66.

The place in the political spectrum of the parties I mention are approximate, of course. The left-right spectrum is just one way to describe their positions, and I'm sure supporters of all of these parties will dispute my description of their party or other parties in some way.

More details, the general direction of, and hot issues in Dutch politics will be the subject of things I hope to write at a later date.

Hi Frank,  I have a few questions about elections:

  1. Is there a national list for each party, or are there separate lists for each province?
  2. How can someone low on the list be elected directly?  Are there some single member seats in the 2nd chamber?
  3. Is there a minimum threshold of votes that a party must receive to get any seats in parliament?

Thanks, corncam
by corncam on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 07:28:58 PM EST
Hi corncam.

To answer your questions:

  1. There is a national list for each party for the 2nd chamber elections. They do list where the candidate comes from on the entries, and some parties do make an effort to get a spread of candidates around the country, but there are no local lists for the national elections.

  2. They can be elected directly if they get enough votes.  The formula is as follows: from the total number of votes, the number of votes for one seat is computed by dividing the total number of votes by 150 (it is called the "kiesdeler"). If the number of people voting specifically for you is more than 25% of that number, you're in. I believe this number has been changed a few times, but I'd need to look that up.

  3. There is no threshold.

Thanks for your interest!
by Frank (wijsneus-aht-gmail-doht-com) on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 07:46:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, and I forgot:

It is possible to get just a single seat through the elections, but currently the only single seat occupants are the ones who split from their parties (Wilders and Lazrak).

by Frank (wijsneus-aht-gmail-doht-com) on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 07:51:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great job Frank - Recommended!
Presenting complexity of Dutch politics in a concise and lucid way.

For Dutch parliament I wish for a single reform: reduce number of seats from 150 to 120 or even 100 members. Too often futilities are discussed and major issues are neglected. Spend the money saved on higher salaries for individual parliamentarians. Increase quality and decrease quantity.

Since election May 2002 and success of LPF party of Pim Fortuyn, it is clear the Dutch electorate has a swing vote potential of perhaps 30%. Makes polls uncertain and election results unpredictable.


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by Oui (Oui) on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 08:30:10 PM EST
Yeah, the electorate has become much more volatile. There is a widespread dissatisfaction with politicians, and Pim Fortuyn managed to tap into that (amongst other things). So now every party tries to be more populist to get those voters, but a large number of them remain at large, so to speak.
by Frank (wijsneus-aht-gmail-doht-com) on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 09:05:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is that de tweede kaamer?  And isn't that the potty?

things fall into place, dig holes and wait
by Cicero on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 08:56:30 PM EST
Hmm.. yes, it is "tweede kamer", but I'm not sure I know any potty-related expressions featuring those words :)
by Frank (wijsneus-aht-gmail-doht-com) on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 09:03:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Also, the name of a quaint little bar about 2 blocks from the Municipal museum in A'dam.

On a more serious note-  from visits to Holland I have come to the conclusion that the Dutch were heavily influenced by the people that they colonized.

What is the state of relations between Holland and its former colonies?  Is there a "special relationship" a la France and her former colonies?

things fall into place, dig holes and wait

by Cicero on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 11:45:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In a way Dutch MP did flush the Qur'an.


Submission   ● Hirsi Ali  ● Hirsi Ali with bodyguard

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by Oui (Oui) on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 09:28:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not flushing, meant to purposefully desecrate someone's belief simply for humiliation. "Submission" is a critique. Looking at the statistics of the amount of abused moslim women - in the Netherlands alone, I find it a fair and just call.

The line between freedom of speech and blasphemy is thin enough. It is the motivations behind the actions that should be put to the front.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 04:03:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
For the person she is, her life in overcoming hardship of Somalian life and her stay in Saudi Arabia. She is exemplary as an asylum seeker, finding education and a position in Dutch society, but foremost Hirsi Ali is an asset to the European community.

Theo van Gogh's artistic work, political thought and MP one-seater Geert Wilders are not my cup of tea.  Don't speak of abuse of Muslim women, without mentioning Dutch men are in no way better at identical social level.

Trouw - artikel over film Submission [nl]

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by Oui (Oui) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 06:25:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think the comparison is a valid one either. But I do not think this movie was made to better the situation of muslima.  

I think Hirsi Ali is a very intelligent and creative person, but the movie should not have been promoted as road to better the situations of some muslima. I rather think of it as a therapeutic tool for Hirsi Ali then a bridge to reach muslim women in the Netherlands.

by amsterdam on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 01:43:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... that it could have been therapeutic for Hirsi Ali - but we don't know and I don't want to speculate. All I want to say that it is plausible, looking at her history.

I do, however, think that it was the intent of Submission to better the situation of muslim women - starting in western cultures. Hirsi Ali has been forthright about her intentions from the first day. I think, though, that the effects of the movie are nill - not many muslim women were reached or affected, it just polarized the debate.

So, my view in brief, it shouldn't have been promoted as a bridge to reach muslim women, yet it was, but it didn't really work.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 03:28:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
potty? Gets direction to 2e kamer! LOL
Next time ask for "'t kleine kamer(tje)".
Perhaps easier on the bladder.

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by Oui (Oui) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 12:41:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A diary? Wow.

Thanks for this information. I am really enjoying this site and I am glad to see you posting here. Looking forward to hearing more.

Hope to see you again soon . . . I'll buy your beer next time.

by SeattleLiberal (SeattleLiberal at msn dot com) on Wed Jun 15th, 2005 at 11:44:29 PM EST
How about my beer?  Huh?


Yeah, he finally wrote a diary.  That deserves many beers.

We'll teach you how to order in Dutch and really confuse the Pike Brewery folks.

by Plutonium Page (page dot vlinders at gmail dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 02:26:20 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, of course yours as well. It is just such a novelty to see a diary by Frank I got carried away.

It was good too!

by SeattleLiberal (SeattleLiberal at msn dot com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 04:53:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Huh...this seems really quite complicated to me...I'm gonna have to re-read this.

I'm curious, what do you think is the social background for the Dutch being so liberal...and it is interesting to see that the Dutch are trending middle right...how do the Dutch hold their social and political differences these days?

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia

by whataboutbob on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 05:13:38 AM EST
Good questions.. but outside of the scope of this diary entry :) I hope to try to answer those questions in a later writeup, they aren't that easily answered.
by Frank (wijsneus-aht-gmail-doht-com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 09:58:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Dutch have always been traders. I believe that is the reason why they easily accept other cultures and lifestyles. Also we have never had an official state religion.

I don't think the Dutch are as liberal as people think they are. I would call them pragmatic.

by amsterdam on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 11:05:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Something lost on many Americans is the huge debt we owe to the Dutch. The good old Pilgrims spent a number of years in Leiden before coming over to the New World, and the tolerant commercial environment in Holland at that time made a huge, huge impression on the leaders of the Separatist leaders. In a world where religious freedom was very rare, they were able not only to practise their religion but also to run businesses and raise families and organize their trips.

John Robinson was a particularly strong advocate of tolerance in the Separatist community.

by asdf on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 01:30:38 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was taught in American history 101 that the reason they left the Netherlands was that they found the climate too liberal and that their children adapted to Dutch liberal society too easily.

I am not arguing that is just what I was taught. I am open to other interpretations.

by amsterdam on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 02:01:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes. I recently read about that again, and it seemed that they considered Dutch society too liberal and unclean, especially things like prostitution.
by Frank (wijsneus-aht-gmail-doht-com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 02:29:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is how I understood it. Because their children did not have  to battle their position in the Netherlands, there was no need to fight the Dutch,
so the Netherlands became a danger to perceived martyrdom, hence we got to get out of this place. Interesting don't you think?
by amsterdam on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 02:53:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think that's quite right. They did feel that their children were becoming Dutch rather than English, but they generally approved of the rest of it. There's a biography of John Robinson "The Pilgrim Way" by Robert Merrill Bartlett, (a bit old, published in 1971) that goes into this in detail.
by asdf on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 07:05:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Plymouth: Its History and People
In the first years of the 17th century, small numbers of English Puritans broke away from the Church of England because they felt that it had not completed the work of the Reformation. They committed themselves to a life based on the Bible. Most of these Separatists were farmers, poorly educated and without social or political standing.

One of the Separatist congregations was led by William Brewster and the Rev. Richard Clifton in the village of Scrooby in Nottinghamshire. The Scrooby group emigrated to Amsterdam in 1608 to escape harassment and religious persecution. The next year they moved to Leiden, where, enjoying full religious freedom, they remained for almost 12 years.

In 1617, discouraged by economic difficulties, the pervasive Dutch influence on their children, and their inability to secure civil autonomy, the congregation voted to emigrate to America.

Fewer than half of the group's members elected to leave Leiden. A small ship, the Speedwell, carried them to Southampton, England, where they were to join another group of Separatists and pick up a second ship. After some delays and disputes, the voyagers regrouped at Plymouth aboard the 180-ton Mayflower.

It began its historic voyage on Sept. 16, 1620, with about 102 passengers--fewer than half of them from Leiden. After a 65-day journey, the Pilgrims sighted Cape Cod on November 19.

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by Oui (Oui) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 08:36:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If I remember correctly, there was a book released early this year about how Dutch governance influenced the thinking of the Founding Fathers. It particularly investigated how the governance and liberal trade of New Amsterdam (modern NYC), then in Dutch hands, affected the groundwork of the USA Constitution. Perhaps has anyone read it?

These kind of books describing Dutch heritage make me all tingly and warm inside.

by Nomad (Bjinse) on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 03:36:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I read most of it.. maybe it's still lying around somewhere.. (checking..).. it's called "The island at the centre of the world" by Russell Shorto.

It's a good read, although I do think the writer does seem to attach a lot of importance to one guy (van der Donck).

by Frank (wijsneus-aht-gmail-doht-com) on Fri Jun 17th, 2005 at 10:01:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just written it down.
by Nomad (Bjinse) on Mon Jun 20th, 2005 at 03:50:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Recommended. And I'm going to have to save this on my files - am moving to Zuid-Holland in August and it'll be useful to understand how the political stuff works. I'm looking forward to hearing about the hot issues in Dutch politics!

You have a normal feeling for a moment, then it passes. --More--
by tzt (tzt) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 05:49:11 AM EST

The king (the official term used in the constitution, even though all monarchs since 1890 have been female.)

Has this merely been a result of coincidence?  No male children born to the Dutch Royal Family, or the eldest has always been a daughter?  Or, something quirky about those very lovable Dutch people?

"Look Daddy, I--" "Don't say anything. Sit down." "Look here, let's try to forget this. If you promise--" -- Song of Solomon, CW

by Chloe Wofford Is My Fav on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 10:24:53 AM EST
It has been a coincidence. No secret matriarchical plans there ;) The next monarch will be a king (Willem Alexander).
by Frank (wijsneus-aht-gmail-doht-com) on Thu Jun 16th, 2005 at 12:22:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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