(**Disclaimer.** I can only claim to be reasonably proficient in Dutch. About 95% of the sources and media I have used have been in Dutch, so therefore I may have missed key points or the spirit of the source. This article is in no way definitive and is just written as a guide to the Dutch Political and Social model for those who have no previous knowledge. It has also been filmed before a live studio audience.)
As expected and is custom, the Dutch General Election of June 9th 2010 has produced a result with no clear majority for any party. As is also the custom, the closed doors horse trading and protracted negotiations begin in earnest. The processes involved in forming a new Dutch Government are notable for the length of time it takes. On average 79.8 days are needed to form a new cabinet from election day. The longest took place in 1977 with 208 days and the shortest 10 days in 1956.
This article will highlight 4 areas:
1. A little History and Geography
2. The Dutch Political System
3. The Dutch Social Model (Polder Model)
4. A brief analysis of the 2010 results
God made the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands (Dutch proverb)
The Netherlands is an estuary and delta just over half the size in square kilometers of Scotland where the Rivers Rhine and Maas (Meuse in French and English) empty into the North Sea. With 27% of the landmass and 60% of the population under sea level, the History and Geography of the Netherlands has been one constant struggle against nature, a struggle which has shaped the Dutch psyche as well as the social and political model of the country. In the words of Professor Herman Pleij in his book Hollands Welbehagen (The wellbeing of Holland):
''The Netherlands owes its existence to the democracy of dry feet. We need each other literally in order not to drown and subsequently have to rely on co-operation for the means to stay alive.''
In addition, since the Industrial Revolution, the importance of water purification has been at the very heart of the Dutch social and economic base. The pollution of the Rhine and Maas from the 19th Century onwards combined with the exceptionally low non-salinated water table and high population density, have historically been the Geographical factors behind the Dutch practice of consensus and co-operation. It is of no coincidence that the earliest recorded civil organizations in the Netherlands is Water Boards. 800 year old Water Boards meetings and minutes are on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Historically, the strict class distinctions at the heart of British of politics and society have been all but absent in the Netherlands. After decades long struggle, the Dutch Republic was declared independent of Spain in 1648. The struggle against the Spanish created and cemented common cause between the classes. The established religion of the new Dutch Republic, Calvinism, was an egalitarian doctrine which emphasized the personal relationship between man and God and taught thriftiness, hard work and tolerance, qualities which the Dutch are still thought to possess today.
The tolerance of the authorities to religion was the key to the flourishing of commerce, trade, arts and culture otherwise known as the Dutch ‘Golden Age’. Huguenots from France and Jews from all corners of Europe fled to the Dutch Republic in the face of persecution. Jewish and Huguenot renown in commerce and finance allied with the traditional Dutch skills in seafaring and mapmaking saw Amsterdam become the international capital of finance. The Dutch East India company (the first transnational corporation) had already been founded in 1602 controlled the flow of spices and gold into Europe and had a trade monopoly in the East.
The unprecedented wealth which now flowed into the Dutch Republic saw the flourishing of arts and culture. Although class was an issue, in general terms, all classes mixed freely with each other for the common good in terms of commerce, protection against the elements and religion.
The Socio-economic and Political model of the Netherlands (the Polder model) is a direct result of these Geographical, Topographical, Historical and Religious causes.
The Dutch Political System
The Netherlands is a Constitutional Monarchy with universal suffrage based on proportional representation established in 1919. The organization of the Dutch State is based on the principles of Montesquieu’s trias politica or ‘separation’ of powers. The legislature consists of two chambers, the Eerste Kamer and Tweede Kamer (first and second chambers).
The Eerste Kamer is elected by the States Provincial (the Regions) and meets part time. It has the right to accept or reject legislation but cannot amend or initiate legislation. In layman’s terms it is a political watchdog consisting of veteran politicians elected by the regions of the Netherlands to work on their behalf. It has 75 Senators.
The Tweede Kamer is the most significant chamber in the Dutch Government and is elected by the electorate using the d’Hondt method of PR. There are no electoral constituencies, the Netherlands itself is one large constituency when voting for the Tweede Kamer. In effect, this means every single vote has equal weighting. There are 150 seats in the Tweede Kamer, if a political party gains 20% of the popular vote, they gain 20% of the seats or 30 seats in this instance. Each party publishes a list of candidates for election with the leader at the top. The voter can ‘preferentially vote’ for a candidate on the list if the candidate is well known in a region but for all intents and purposes, the further the up the list the candidate is, the more likely they are to gain a seat.
The quota - that is the number of votes that entitles a party to one seat depends on how many votes have been cast. If 9 million votes are cast, this is divided by 150 meaning each party has to gain 60,000 votes to gain one seat.
Every advantage has its disadvantage (Johan Cruyff)
As representative as the Dutch system is in terms of voter preference and power, the permanent result of Dutch Elections and the subsequent criticism is that it leads to weeks or months of discussions and meetings behind closed doors. Or in other words, anti-democratic horse trading which does not reflect voter preference.
An example of this occurred yesterday. One of Geert Wilders PVV policies was staunch opposition to the raising of the retirement age to 67. As a result, he gained many votes from the 45 and upwards age group. In initial coalition talks with the largest party, the VVD who want the retirement age rise, Wilders immediately announced he had dropped opposition to this measure.
If the election creates only permanent coalitions where all parties drop core ideological beliefs to be in power, how then does the governance of the Netherlands avoid accusations of anti-democratic practices by a small party political elite? The answer is in the Polder Model.
The Polder Model
A ‘polder’ is a dyke. The loaded significance of this word is not hard to fathom and immediately harks back to the earliest struggles against the elements. The Polder model is a system of negotiation, consensus and representation between all ranks in society, between Government, Employers and Trade Unions.
In practice since 1945, Government, Industrial and Political policy has only been formed and implemented after series of negotiations which take place at the SER De Sociaal-Economische Raad or Social Economic Council. The SER which is a federation of employers and Trade Unions advises the government on fiscal, economic and employment policies. Employees and Trade Unions are represented by the FNV, the Dutch equivalent of the TUC.
The SER’s core principles are:
• balanced economic growth and sustainable development
• the highest possible level of employment
• a fair distribution of income.
Since 1995, the Government by law does not have to consult with the SER before passing legislation but in practice and tradition it still does.
At the heart of the Polder Model is the Works Council Ondernemingsraad. This Act makes all employers responsible in setting up a works council if they employ 100 or more people. The Works Council is involved in all major decision making processes made by the employer and by law must be consulted by the lawyer. The average Dutch worker is protected both by the Works Council which mainly deals with labour related, technical and organizational issues whilst the Unions deal with representing the employee as part of the FNV at the forum of the SER.
In companies with fewer than 100 employees, Works Councils are not a legal requirement, however 60% of all companies with fewer than 100 employees have done so. This gives lie to the Union and worker bashing policies within the UK that giving power to a worker means Industrial strife. For those smaller companies without a Works Council, they are legally obliged to consult workers twice a year and on exceptionally important matters.
If, like me, you believe that Democracy in the workplace and representation of your interests to Government are integral to being an active citizen, the Polder Model is a shining beacon of how this can work. The works council in my place of employment can be time consuming and slow, but there is a harmony between employers and staff which is unheard of in my experiences in the UK. There is disagreements and arguments and the system is not perfect, but the Polder Model shows that Industrial Relations within a Western capitalist society can be structured for the benefit of all.
The 2010 General Election
Even for Dutch standards, the result of the 2010 election is exceptionally fractured. Since 1919, the leading party has never had as small a margin of victory as the VVD has now. This will make the process of coalition forming even more difficult and time consuming than has been in the past. And of course the elephant in the room is Geert Wilders PVV.
From reading the newspapers, watching television and speaking to colleagues and friends, the general consensus (there’s that word again) is that Wilders PVV will fall apart from the weight of its own contradictions and the amateurish nature of the organization. However, the question on everyone’s lips is why 1/6th of the population voted for an avowed racist who campaigned virtually on one anti-Islamic policy. Organisations which represent Moroccans and Muslims have expressed shock at the support for the PVV and the suspicions the following morning after the elections that colleagues, friends etc may have voted for Wilders.
Exacerbating the coalition building situation is the economic crisis. An administration has to be implemented as soon as possible and the only alternative the VVD has to building a coalition with Wilders is to build one with the PvDA (Labour Party). Two ideologically opposed parties may join together to nullify Wilders and it would be in the PvDA’s interests to try to stem the hard right economic manifesto of the VVD.
What makes the VVD’s coalition problem worse is that although the VVD has not ruled out joining a coalition with the PVV, every other party has. Also preventing a coalition with Wilders is International image. Between 60- 70% of the Dutch economy is export based. Having an Islamophobe and Europhobe as a Minister of Government is not conducive to promoting Dutch exports abroad.
For the first time, every newspaper has a different opinion on what is going to happen, no one is sure in the short term. The one outcome of this election that everyone is concerned with is the popular vote for Geert Wilders and what this means firstly for the future of race relations and the Dutch culture of openness and discussion as the exit polls showed much less support for the PVV than they subsequently gained.
For the first time in its history, Dutch Politics may be entering ‘interesting times’.