Dutch local elections: who can vote and how local government works

On March 19, voters in the Netherlands will elect the members of some 400 local councils. This is the first of a short series about the local elections.

The Netherlands has 403 local authority areas and most of them will be holding elections in a month’s time. As well as Dutch nationals, an estimated 450,000 foreigners will also be able to vote.

Who can vote

To vote in the national elections you must have Dutch nationality, but the situation is different in the local elections. These categories of residents can vote:

1. Dutch nationals

2. EU nationals

3. Foreign nationals who have lived officially in the Netherlands for more than five years

If you are eligible to vote, you will automatically receive a voting card posted by your local council. You need to take this card, and ID, to the polling station when you go to cast your vote.

Voting takes place in polling stations, usually located in schools, community centres and other public buildings. Some councils set up polling stations in railway stations to catch early morning commuters.

The polling stations are open from 07.30 hours to 21.00 hours, when the count begins.

How local government works

The Netherlands is a parliamentary democracy with two chambers: the lower house of parliament or Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal with 150 seats, and the senate or Eerste Kamer der Staten-Generaal which has 75 seats.

All Dutch nationals aged 18 or over can vote for members of the Tweede Kamer – compulsory voting was abolished in 1970. The political make-up of the Senate is based on the proportion of votes parties get in the elections for the 12 provincial councils, or Provinciale Staten.

The third tier in government is the local councils, or gemeentes. There are currently 403, ranging in size from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to small villages. Amsterdam and Rotterdam also have a fourth layer, the district committees, which focus on very local issues.

The number of councillors in a gemeenteraad depends on the size of the local authority area. Councils with a population of more than 200,000 residents have 45 members and the smallest, with fewer than 3,000 residents, just nine.

Local councils are run by the mayor (who is appointed by the crown) and a team of wethouders, or aldermen. The college van burgemeester en wethouders (B&W) is the local authority equivalent of the cabinet.

As with national government, the Dutch electoral system makes coalition councils inevitable. As soon as the votes have been counted, work begins on putting together a working coalition. Once a coalition has been identified and agreed, the councillors appoint the aldermen who are, in effect, local government ministers. This process can take several weeks.

What do local authorities do?

Some 90% of local council funding in the Netherlands comes from national government. Councils themselves raise money through local property taxes, waste collection and water charges, parking fees, tourist taxes and dog taxes.

The main tasks of local councils are:

1. Ensuring sufficient housing, planning future developments and drawing up zoning laws, together with housing corporations.

2. Ensuring traffic flows smoothly within the local road network. This includes building local roads, tunnels and cycle tracks.

3. Waste collection, road cleaning.

4. Providing schools, parks, libraries and sports facilities. Allocating subsidies when necessary.

5. Keeping council residency registers, issuing passports, id cards and driving licences.

6. Dealing with welfare benefit claims (bijstand) and helping people get back into work.

This is set to change in 2015. The national government hopes to transfer a large number of extra responsibilities to the local councils:

1. Long-term care services (non-residential)

2. Youth care, including psychiatric services

3. Sheltered work schemes for the disabled

None of these plans has yet been approved by national government.

This is the first in a short series on the local elections. DutchNews.nl is currently preparing a special website section containing useful information as well as summaries of the main party policies and other links.


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