The Netherlands

   
 

Executive Summary

Minority government
requires support; right-
wing party shows
strong gains
Developments have effectively turned the third cabinet led by Mark Rutte as prime minister (Rutte III) into a minority government that requires support from non-coalition parties to implement its government agreement, at least to the degree possible. The Rutte III cabinet consists of four political parties (VVD, CDA, D66, CU). It began with the smallest-possible parliamentary majority (76 out of 150 seats), but lost this when one VVD lawmaker, ousted due to violations of ethics rules, broke away from his parliamentary party group but decided to keep his seat nonetheless. Meanwhile, the Dutch political landscape has changed. In the 2019 provincial elections, the right-wing populist Forum for Democracy party, a political newcomer, proved to be the big winner. Although the party participated in government coalition negotiations in all provinces (there is no formal “cordon sanitaire” in the Netherlands), it failed to gain a foothold in the government anywhere. However, it entered the Senate with 12 seats, the same number as the VVD, which had heretofore been the largest party. In the subsequent European Parliament elections, this right-wing populist surge was pushed back; the Forum for Democracy achieved just three seats, while Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom won none.
Pension, climate
agreements forged;
courts force new
environmental action
After a very slow start in 2017, the government managed to make good on its important promises to implement comprehensive new pension and climate agreements. In keeping with tradition, these legislative initiatives were first largely outsourced to societal consultative procedures (e.g., platforms or roundtables) in order to generate sufficient political acceptability (“draagvlak”), before being advanced to the parliamentary debate and approval stages. For some observers, these societal consultative procedures testify to the above-average quality and active role of civil society in Dutch democracy. To others, they demonstrate procedural sluggishness and the veto power wielded by organized societal interest groups such as business associations and trade unions. In the case of the pension agreement, this latter judgment appeared vindicated following the European Central Bank’s (ECB) ruling to reduce interest rates to an extremely low level, which had the effect of cutting into the obligatory financial reserves of the private pension funds. This immediately demonstrated the brittleness of the agreement, with the trade unions threatening to renege. In the case of the climate agreement, the ink of the stakeholders’ signatures had hardly dried when courts forced the government into a state of crisis management. In one case, the Supreme Court (Hoogerechtshof), upheld a previous verdict that the government had made insufficient effort to meet its own pledges in the Paris Accords. In separate cases, the High Court (Raad van State) ruled that the state had been negligent in failing to protect Nature 2000 areas from nitrogen deposits, and that the transport of toxic/polluted soil presented a risk to the general health of the population. The final outcome of this clash between the executive and the judicial branches of government remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it appears clear that the passage of the national climate agreement has placed climate-change policy high on the political agenda.
Inequality focus
replaces austerity
Since the 2007 – 2008 financial meltdown, strict austerity policies have produced a solid economic recovery, particularly over the last five years. However, this has been achieved at the cost of generating an inward-looking and volatile electorate. In a rather sudden turnaround, the Rutte III cabinet dumped its previous support for neoliberal austerity and business tax cuts in favor of policies aiming to repair a decade of growing income inequalities, focusing especially on the middle classes. This turn toward redistributive policy was in no small measure triggered by the fear that the costs of the climate agreement would be disproportionately borne by tax-paying citizens, instead of by polluting enterprises that had to be pushed toward environmentally friendly behavior.
Solid economic, social-policy performance;
racist symbols mobilize
radical right
The performance of economic and social policies proved largely comparable to the previous year. Unemployment rates have declined substantially in recent years, although high rates of youth unemployment, almost exclusively in the non-regular and underpaid sectors of the labor market, remain cause for concern. The Dutch continue to do moderately well in most areas of social sustainability. That said, the systemic crisis in the education sector has manifested in teacher strikes, with teachers demanding higher wages (to attract better-quality teachers and alleviate the present shortage of qualified teachers), smaller classrooms and less work pressure. An excessively soft approach to anti-discrimination policy in recent years appears to have been an important driver in the establishment of DENK, a political party that appeals to Dutch citizens of second- and third-generation Turkish and Moroccan descent. DENK has been unable or unwilling to put the issue of integration on the national or local agendas. Instead, symbols of racism such as the Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”) have mobilized the radical right, while the issue of racism has gained traction within mainstream debates due to hooligan scandals during soccer matches. Persistent anxieties among voters concerning immigration issues have also strengthened anti-immigration parties such as Forum for Democracy. In the realm of healthcare policy, excessive overall cost increases have been prevented; but prices for a large number of medicines have spiked. The hybrid public-private healthcare system, given the amount of political turmoil following the sudden bankruptcy of several hospitals, appears to be losing legitimacy among left-of-center political parties and among citizens at large.
Public-safety institutions under stress
Regarding rule-of-law performance, almost all institutions related to public safety and security, but especially the police and the judicial branch, currently face substantial challenges and are under increasing stress. Providing grounds for persistent concern, the political parties and government bureaucracy have shown an increasing disregard for rule-of-law requirements. For example, by relentlessly prosecuting as frauds families (often with only a single parent) that received childcare premiums on potentially dubious grounds, the tax authorities have severely duped hundreds or even thousands of bona fide families.
Implementation problems across domains; budget cuts undermine decentralization
The government apparatus is clearly lacking in the areas of executive capacity and accountability. There are visible and increasing implementation problems in many policy domains (e.g., teaching, agriculture, construction, hospital and youth care, policing, and maybe even the tax system), indicating that the lean government approach of recent years has left deep wounds that will not heal quickly. Interministerial coordination and agency monitoring efforts are substandard. There are increasing problems with the country’s public ICT systems and large-scale rail and road infrastructure. Regarding water management, a traditionally strong area of Dutch governance, administrative reforms have been implemented more smoothly. Budget cuts associated with the devolution of central-government welfare functions, for instance in areas such as youth care, has effectively threatened the long-term decentralization of welfare policies to local governments. In the area of public safety and security, a contrary trend toward rapid centralization and bureaucratization has led to problems in policing (e.g., staffing, regional and local presence, and ethics concerns) and, as has become abundantly clear, the judiciary (in the court system generally, and with the management of judges and access to the judicial system more specifically). In the realm of accountability, weak intra-party democracy and a lack of citizen policy knowledge are causes for concern. At the local level, experiments with more inclusive participatory and deliberative policymaking tools are increasingly common. However, these are rarely able to address systemic issues, as they are still limited to the margins of community-level policy.
Challenges accumulating
Overall, Dutch politics and policies still appear sustainable. However, challenges are accumulating. The government should seek to loosen policy deadlocks over attempts to address socioeconomic inequalities, address climate-change deficits, involve citizens more in the early stages of policymaking, enhance local government and citizen participation in policy implementation, set clear goals and priorities in the areas of environmental and energy policy, and tackle the looming policing and judicial-system crises.
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