Dutch political history 202: from conservative to libertarian

Last time we ended in 1815 with the creation of the united kingdom of the Netherlands with at its head our very first Dutch king: Willem I. Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland all united together in one strong empire! On paper it sounded so nice. In practice it lasted a measly 15 years.

The main problem was that the Belgians did not like their forced annexation. Who did this Dutch ‘king’ think he was? They dismissed him as the king with the wooden crown and grumbled under their new constitution. A nationalistic play in Brussels called Hamilton The Mute Girl of Portici was enough to get people to riot in the streets and thus began the Belgian revolution. This pissed off ambitious king Willem to no end and he threw all his money and soldiers at the southerners. To no avail. In 1840 the treasure chest was empty, Belgium seceded and King Willem I abdicated his throne in shame.

Next in line to be king was Willem I’s son, Willem II (great creativity, much wow). King Willem II was mostly scared – his father failed as a king and in Europe progressive revolutions were brewing. Initially Willem II resisted pressure to reform the constitution, but in 1948 1848 he famously changed his mind, quipping that he had turned overnight from a conservative into a libertarian.  Thus the constitution was rewritten by progressive Johan Thorbecke and from that year on a democratically elected parliament held executive power. The king now answered to parliament instead of the other way around.

Willem II – Intelligent but not so much character

It is worth mentioning that the next king in line, Willem III (heh) very much hated the changes made by Thorbecke and his father. He tried to distance himself from becoming king, but accepted the position anyway and was king until the end of the 19th century. The Dutch monarchy ever since has been mostly ceremonial with lots of hand-waving and ribbon-cutting. There has been one serious attempt in 1918 to end the kingshouse when socialist Troelstra thought the communist revolution had spread to the Netherlands, but it turned out the sitting queen was too popular. Our current king is Willem-Alexander, whose image I can only describe as ‘friendly guy you’d drink a couple of beers with.’

Willem-Alexander: Bland.

So our attention now turns to the parliament which came to hold all the power. Parliament is split up into two ‘chambers’, the 1st and the 2nd chamber. The 1st chamber’s function is essentially to check the technicalities of the laws made in the 2nd chamber, so really the 2nd chamber is where all the action happens.

The 2nd chamber has 150 seats to divide by popular vote: if your party gets 20% of the popular vote then your party gets to occupy 30 seats in the 2nd chamber. The seats are quite literal: parliament has a big conference room in The Hague which houses 150 much coveted blue seats. Once the 150 seats are divided among the parties a ruling coalition is formed. In order for the coalition to be legit it needs at least half the seats + 1 to rule, ergo 76 seats. Since very few parties have more than 30 seats a ruling coalition will always include at least 2, often more parties. As you might imagine forming a coalition is an arduous process with nights and nights of negotiations between parties. Hence we refer to Dutch politics as the ‘poldermodel’, a model in which everyone has to reach consensus.

150 seats in the 2nd chamber. Debates are always open for the public (see top right balcony)

The ruling coalition gets to -officially- rule the 11 ministries that form the government. We have the following ministries:

1. Ministry of General Affairs
The smallest ministry, headed by the minister-president. MP is by tradition the head of the biggest party.

2. Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations

3. Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Ministry of cathedral headquarters.

4. Ministry of Defence
Ministry of offence, naturally, but the Dutch military boils down to a couple of tanks, airplanes and soldiers on bikes.

5. Ministry of Economic Affairs
Ministry of Keynesian economics.

6. Ministry of Finance

7. Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment

8. Ministry of Education, Culture and Science
Leftist portfolio.

9. Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment
Leftist portfolio.

10. Ministry of Security and Justice

11. Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport

The ministries take care of most of the ruling and they design the bulk of the new laws. The 2nd chamber can veto these laws but as the ruling coalition is formed by a majority in the 2nd chamber they usually work in unison. Thus while ostensibly the task of the 2nd chamber is to debate political issues, really their task is to pretend they are talking to the Dutch voter 24/7 and act the part.

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