‘Is it time for change in democracy as a new Senate takes its seats?’

Nic at vuurtoreneilandUsually little attention is paid in the media to the election of the upper house of parliament in the Netherlands. The system is not quite as archaic as Britain’s House of Lords, but hardly an example of modern democracy, writes commentator Nicola Chadwick.

The senate voting system is a complicated one. Generally the result can be predicted in advance, as the provincial councillors vote for their own party. However, residual votes from one party can be passed on to another party to make up a seat. So before last week’s election, representatives of both coalition parties exhaustively drank coffee with possible waverers, as a single vote could make the difference of a whole seat.

Four years ago in the lead up to the last Senate election, Rutte summoned a Zeeland provincial governor to his prime ministerial tower in The Hague to secure a majority of one seat. Johan Robesin of Provinciaal Belang Zeeland (PBZ) pledged his support in exchange for a promise not to flood a ‘polder’ (reclaimed land) in his province. Not doing so breached government agreements with the Belgians. It seems Rutte preferred damaged relations with Brussels to the risk of a minority in the Senate.

Politically promiscuous
Now the coalition has fallen short of 17 votes in the Senate. Although the VVD is still the biggest party, Labour has lost almost half its seats. Even with the support of the constructive three (C-3) parties, which have helped Rutte II get legislation through the Senate so far, the coalition is still two seats short of a majority. This means Rutte will probably have to become more politically promiscuous than ever, changing partners frequently to carry out the rest of his programme before his term ends in 2016. And that will be almost impossible as all the parties will demand conflicting concessions for their support.

It became painfully obvious that the support of the C-3 parties no longer sufficed when D66 declined to take part in the pre-budget talks. Rutte, ever the optimist, says it will be easier to find consensus from now on, as he is planning tax reforms before his term in office ends. And everyone is in favour of tax cuts, aren’t they? Hmm, but they do not agree on WHO should benefit.

Electoral reform
For many years, politicians have been openly asking whether an upper house is still a valid chamber for sanctioning new laws. Up until the past few years, the senate assessed new legislation on whether it was workable or constitutional. However, it has become more and more politicised, with legislation increasingly being rejected along the lines of party dogma. Last December, three of Labour’s own senators rebelled, refusing to pass a new health bill, which threatened to remove the right to a second medical opinion. The incident brought the government to the brink of collapse.

Meanwhile the government is looking to set up a commission on the future of the Netherlands’s political system… or rather on whether or not to scrap the Senate. But it has to tread carefully.  The Christian Democrats for instance enjoy a lot of regional support and do relatively well in provincial elections and therefore also in the senate – so they are not about to get rid of it. Anyway asking politicians to get rid of an albeit indirectly elected house is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Last year, the senate approved the introduction of an advisory referendum. The odds are stacked against petitioners for change. Once a referendum has been organised, at least 30% of the electorate have to vote for the result to be valid. And then politicians can ignore the outcome. At the same time, the first passage of legislation for a corrective referendum took place. However, a change in constitution is required for a corrective referendum, and that means the initiative has to pass through both houses of parliament a second time after a new parliament has been elected. In a collective referendum, citizens can undo new laws they don’t like.

The Netherlands briefly introduced referenda to elect municipal mayors, but it was scrapped due to lack of interest. Turnout was only 9% for the first mayoral election in Utrecht in 2007, as both candidates were from the same party.

So if referenda do not lead to more democracy, what’s does? The organisation Meer Democratie has launched a citizen’s initiative to end political appointments for public office. It says former politicians are over-represented in all kinds of public functions. Even though anyone can apply, the jobs have often been handed to whoever’s turn it is depending on their political colour. Likewise, Dutch anthropologist turned finance journalist Joris Luijendijk warns that too often former politicians are drafted onto the supervisory boards of banks and financial firms to keep the lines short between business and government and maintain the status quo

Pharoah of the Netherlands
Comedian Arjen Lubach recently launched a bid to become Pharaoh of the Netherlands – as a cheerful protest against the monarchy. His citizens’ initiative instantly attracted 50,000 signatures, which is enough for the Lower House to put it on the agenda. However, it is unlikely to be taken seriously in The Hague.

What The Hague should take seriously is that interest in elections is dwindling. In spite of Dutch politics being relatively clean, politicians are thought to be about as trustworthy as second-hand car salesmen. There is a sense that that it makes little difference which party is in power. And many people do not feel represented when they fail to see ‘people like them’ among MPs. As a result, populist parties are filling the gap. And even a dandy leader like the late Pim Fortuyn was seen as ‘one of the people’, much like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, who although he is often seen downing a pint, is hardly your regular man in the street.

In spite of its initial popularity and rapid spread to cities across the Western world, the OCCUPY movement failed to turn into a force to be reckoned with. Its aims were not sufficiently articulated and perhaps it was more an expression of discontent than a popular uprising. Not to mention the terrible situation that has arisen in the Middle East and northern Africa since the largely failed Arab Spring.

Democracy “without elections”

So what if legislators didn’t have to carry the burden of re-election. Would that free them to draft legislation which really cracks those tough political cookies. In Iceland, it worked. A lottery determined which citizens would draft a new constitution after the financial crisis triggered by the Icesave debacle. The event of internet and social media has made people more vocal. However, democracy is slow to reform and fails to reflect the rapid changes that are taking place in society.

Dutch politics has seldom been so fragmented. In the lower house, disgruntled MPs hold onto their seats and some set up splinter parties, when they leave or are thrown out of their original parties.  Suggestions have been made to raise the electoral threshold to prevent mini-parties from entering parliament. But that would mean the end of long-standing parties like the GroenLinks, ChristenUnie, the SGP and even D66 in its less popular days.

So where is democracy going? And will the current coalition be able to weather all the storms it still has to face with so little support. In a way it has too. The Netherlands is due to hold the six-month presidency of EU next January and it will be an embarrassment if the sixth coalition in a row fails to make it to full term.

Nicola Chadwick is a freelance translator/journalist/editor who regularly blogs on Dutch current affairs and politics.