The State of Dutch Democracy: Dancing on the Deck of the Titanic?
The state of Dutch democracy is uncertain. After last week’s elections, the stability of the political system appears guaranteed for the next couple of years. We cannot be sure, however, what will happen afterwards. This marks a change from the past.
So Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party has not ended first in the Dutch parliamentary elections of 15 March 2017 after all. But does this mean that Dutch democracy is healthier than ever before, as political scientist Tom van der Meer put it in a German newspaper article on the morning of the elections? Given the relatively high turnout in this election, among other things, it may well seem that the answer to this question has to be in the affirmative. However, at least three concerns remain regarding the state of democracy in the Netherlands.
To begin with, although the Freedom Party did not finish first, it has now become the second largest party in the country. For this reason, the Dutch would be ill-advised to believe that they can put the topic of populism and its relationship to democracy to one side. On the contrary, as Jan-Werner Müller has argued in his book What is Populism? (2016), liberal democracies have quite a bit of homework to do. For example, if populism is characterised by antipluralism, what exactly do they believe that pluralism is good for, if anything?
Secondly, the dramatic loss of the Labour Party inevitably raises the question whether Dutch party democracy is grinding to a halt? Of course, scholars have already been pointing to the need to start thinking (again) about how to organize democracy without parties for quite some time. Although a simultaneous gain such as that by the GreenLeft party demonstrates that even now the political party may not be over yet, the other former system party of the Christian Democrats has booked its second worst result in modern political history as well.
Thirdly, to the extent that the historic loss of the Labour Party is the result of its having been the junior partner in a cabinet with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals, the volatility of the electorate is once again a striking feature of the election outcome. Recently, this topic was even made a subject for consideration by the new State Commission on the Parliamentary System. What seems clear, is that this time the results could easily have been different, and that in the next election we may be in for new surprises.
As was already argued before the elections, the ‘levelling’ of the party political landscape is perhaps the most notable aspect of this particular election, in that the Liberal Party is the second smallest of the largest parties ever represented in the Dutch Lower House. On the one hand, this does not seem like a major change, since the Netherlands has always been a plural country. On the other hand, at least four parties are now needed to form a new majority cabinet, and voters could find themselves without a credible alternative in the next elections.
What this means, is that one does not have to be a pessimist to conclude that it is too early to tell whether democracy in the Netherlands is indeed healthier than ever, or that the Dutch are merely dancing on the deck of the Titanic.