The changing rules for Dutch cabinet formation in perspective

The changing rules for Dutch cabinet formation in perspective

The changing rules for Dutch cabinet formation demonstrate that the Netherlands is a polity in transition, possibly also developing in the direction of a ceremonial monarchy and a majoritarian democracy. What’s at stake?

Traditionally the Queen has taken the initiative in the Dutch cabinet formation process, acting as an impartial arbiter. This year the House of Representatives changed its rules of procedure, however, to the extent that it has now taken over this role from the Queen.

This development, should it prove to be successful, means that the process to parliamentarise the Dutch cabinet formation will have been completed after all. In 1971 a parliamentary motion by Kolfschoten had already been adopted, calling for a similar role for Parliament that it currently fulfills. At the time, however, an attempt to agree on a formateur failed.
Before last month’s elections, several experts were skeptical as to whether Parliament would succeed this time. Thus, emeritus professor of ‘The Parliamentary System: Legal Norms and Power Relations’ Joop van den Berg predicted that the new rules for cabinet formation were insufficiently detailed. Carla van Baalen, director of the Centre for Parliamentary History at Radboud University Nijmegen, referred to a bible verse: ‘Put everything to the test. Accept what is good’.

The completion of the process to parliamentarise the Dutch cabinet formation could well turn out to have been the first step in the direction of a ceremonial monarchy. Traditionally the Netherlands has been a constitutional, parliamentary monarchy.

The Queen’s role in the formation process, although controversial, was perhaps the least problematic aspect from the perspective of constitutional law. Other, more sensitive, issues include the fact that monarch and ministers together make up the Government, and the monarchic chairmanship of the Council of State. In fact, a bill drafted by Geert Wilders’ PVV to change this was already introduced into parliament last year.

Finally, the Netherlands appears to be developing in the direction of a majoritarian democracy. Traditionally the country has been the prototype of a consensus democracy. This type of democracy has increasingly come under pressure as a result of both the individualisation and horizontalisation of power relations, however.

One indicator is constituted by the recent election results: there are now two main parties in Parliament. Another indicator is the House of Representatives’ vote to ban ritual slaughter in 2011, although this bill was later rejected by the Senate.

Is there something at stake in all this? Yes, in so far as according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy index 2011 the Netherlands has maintained its top 10 ranking, well above for example the United Kingdom and the United States (ranked at 18 and 19 respectively).

Furthermore, according to the Human Development Report 2004, published for the UNDP, ‘[c]ultural diversity is here to stay – and to grow’. The Report recommends power-sharing mechanisms such as an electoral system of proportional representation, executive power sharing, provisions for cultural autonomy, and safeguards in the form of mutual vetoes, by which the Netherlands has traditionally been characterised. Couldn’t the traditional Dutch parliamentary monarchy be seen as an additional kind of power-sharing mechanism?