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Dutch political system


Unitary parliamentary representative democracy under a constitutional monarchy

Head of State: King Willem-Alexander

Head of Government: Mark Rutte

a consociational state. Dutch politics and governance are characterized by a common striving for broad consensus on important issues, within both the political community and society as a whole.

The Dutch hold parliamentary elections every four years unless the government collapses before then.

To be more specific, we should say unless the governing coalition collapses.

The process of national elections for a new parliament

Which party would you vote for today?

Which party would you vote for today?

First, each party develops a fresh set of positions (standpunten) on the issues and publishes it on their web site. (Standpunten: VVD, CDA, PvdA, D66, SP, Groen Links, PVV). An election campaign lasts about two months, features lots of televised free-for-all debates with a dozen people around a table, and costs a tiny fraction of what US campaigns cost. The members of Parliament spend hardly any time in the fund-raising and lobbyist-pleasing activities that their US counterparts say consumes from a third to a half of their time.

The Dutch use the D’Hondt method of the party-list proportional representation system.

A very popular website in the Netherlands, StemWijzer (Vote Chooser –English-language version), asks a series of questions about current issues and then ranks the parties by how close their positions are to the person answering the questions. Party loyalty is low; people switch all the time. The chart on the left compiled by Maurice de Hondt’s polling organization shows the results over the past two years when a sampling of Dutch were asked, if the Parliamentary elections were held today, which party would you vote for?

Polders south of Delft

Polders south of Delft

The voters don’t vote for a local representative to Parliament. Instead, each party has a list of people on the ballot. The list is at least as long as the number of seats the party could be expected to win, and often includes local political favorites in an attempt to draw those voters. Each voter votes for one of the names on one of the lists, though most people vote for the first name. In the Netherlands, in excess of 80% of the eligible voters complete a ballot (in the US, it’s about 48%, a little higher in presidential election years, closer to 35-40% in off-years, putting the US well down the list of countries by voter turnout.)

The votes are counted by party, not by candidate. The percentages are distributed among the 150 available seats in Parliament. For example, if the CDA candidates get 33% of the vote, they get 33% of the seats, that is, 50. The first 50 names on the CDA list will then enter Parliament, though if someone lower down got a lot of votes, he or she may get elevated; it’s a good system for rising party stars.

Voting with a red pencil

Voting with a red pencil

The result: coalition governments

It has been over a century since one party got more than 50% of the votes, so every government is a coalition. After every election, the monarch talks to the leader of each party that has enough votes for at least one seat. He then asks one of them, usually the one with the largest single bloc of votes, to try to form a coalition of more than 50%. This is an intense, messy process that can take months and several tries after an election. It has almost always involved three or four parties, often far apart on the issues, but willing to work together.

Thus the zero-sum competition in the US cannot happen in the Netherlands. In the US, there’s a Democrat/Republican split on every issue. In the Netherlands, there is always compromise. Otherwise, the government couldn’t function. In fact, it “collapses” when it can no longer agree on an issue.

In the US, the party holding the presidency may be different from the party controlling Congress. The president’s cabinet are his hand-picked and trusted advisors, almost always all from his party. In the Netherlands, the eighteen cabinet seats are divided among the three or four parties in the ruling coalition. They don’t all agree by any means, but they put their country first over their party, and not getting along is fatal to the coalition, so there is tremendous incentive to compromise and work it out.

When it doesn’t work out, when the coalition doesn’t hold together on an important issue, the result is not gridlock. The result is that the government “collapses”. They hold new elections and start over again to build a workable coalition.

The key: The Polder Model of compromise for the good of society.