The Netherlands


Key Challenges

Challenges to governance sustainability
Three challenges affecting the sustainability of governance in the Netherlands remain insufficiently addressed: the maintenance of traditional state functions and the integrity of the separation of powers, the transition to a sustainable economy, and the need to address growing inequalities in income and living standards. However, long-term sustainable-governance issues in the country overall present a highly mixed picture.
Strengths punctuated
by crisis
With regard to policy-performance indicators, on the one hand, the country appears to live up to its double reputation of proper economic and social policymaking. The government has shown solid, traditional macroeconomic management, and has preserved international competitiveness. Within these constraints, it has also retained its commitment to the social management of care – that is, by maximizing the probability of good care for every citizen, especially for the elderly, the sick and the economically disadvantaged (e.g., unemployed or poor people). On the other hand, efforts to pursue environmentally sustainable practices headed into a crisis in 2019, felt particularly within the agriculture, infrastructure and home-construction sectors. Serious implementation gaps and manpower shortages have emerged in policy areas including education, housing, (youth and hospital) care, infrastructure construction, public transport, and policing and judicial work – these latter two areas all the more worrisome given efforts to fight drug-related and (financial) cybercrime. These shortcomings represent the scars left by a decade of austerity policies and efforts to do more with less.
Traditional state functions must be shored up
The first challenge involves ensuring that traditional state functions are well maintained. In this regard, the Dutch will have to increase their military capacity and spending over a relatively short period. Reforms to the police force, judiciary and public prosecution service have run into implementation obstacles and produced serious ethical concerns. Without adequate attention, these problems may become chronic. Government tasks in the domain of the public finances require that tax officials’ integrity be unimpeachable, and that serious steps are taken to tackle the country’s reputation as a tax haven for large sums of foreign (U.S. and Russian) capital. In large parts of the country, there are serious symptoms of state failure with regard to protecting citizens from violence in the fight against drug-related crime. The police and judiciary have failed to stop the country from sliding toward becoming a so-called narcostate; porous harbors make the Netherlands the biggest entry point for drugs to the rest of Europe, and ineffective policing of sparsely populated rural areas has helped the country become the biggest exporter of synthetic drugs.
Oversight functions ineffective; judicial branch shows symptoms of weakening
Part of this challenge relates to the functioning of the Dutch political system as a trias politica model, or example of the separation of powers. Parliament increasingly lacks control over the executive. More and more tax income (legally) escapes parliamentary accountability rules. Compared to many other countries, the intellectual and financial resources provided to parliament are minimal. There is little effort to impose firm regulation of the conduct and finances of political parties, even though this makes them more reliant on and vulnerable to external funding. Even policy formulation itself is outsourced to government-sponsored think tanks, increasingly to commercial consultancies, and to the institutionalized stakeholder-consultation process referred to as “poldering.” Second and equally worrisome are symptoms of weakening of the judicial branch. The independence of the judicial branch is under pressure due to financial problems caused by government policy that has subjected the courts to performance-based pay – that is, pay per completed case. This has pushed judges to prioritize speed over quality. Judges and other personnel at the courts complain about work overload, which in turn leads to long delays in the resolution of court cases. The accessibility of the judiciary for citizens with minimal or merely average resources has been diminished by decisions to reduce the number of courts, and to reduce funding for the fees paid to public-interest lawyers, who are leaving the profession in droves.
a key goal
The second major task is to design and facilitate a shift toward a sustainable economy. In large part, this is a matter of achieving environmental sustainability. The strong economic recovery experienced by the Netherlands has a flip side, in that it took a series of court rulings and a verdict by the High Council of State to push the government to begin catching up with the rest of the European Union with regard to implementing climate-change policies seriously. The rapid phase-out of natural-gas production before 2030 means that it will be vital to develop a new energy policy based on a transition to renewable energy sources. Public investment in sustainable transportation infrastructure can no longer be postponed in view of a looming congestion crisis. For all its innovation, Dutch agriculture contributes significantly to carbon dioxide and nitrogen emissions, as well as to the outbreak of diseases due to intensive livestock production, and must therefore be reformed. Nevertheless, the policy dynamics of 2019 may have proved to produce a turning point in heading toward the sustainable economy of the future.
Multiple layers
to inequality
The other part of achieving a sustainable economy is addressing increased socioeconomic inequality. As it is least rhetorically leaving neoliberalism behind, the government will have to adjust its income and tax laws. Foreseeable technological innovations (particularly digitalization, big data and the use of robots) necessitate modernization of the education system and the labor market. So far, labor-market reform is the only such area in which a long-term plan has been developed. Emergent and potentially disruptive technological innovation requires the development of a strategic approach to digitalization that will address its effects on human rights, while also introducing regulation and control mechanisms, and developing consensus-building mechanisms able to handle contentious (ethical) issues. The increasing segregation across levels and types of schools needs to be addressed. The relevance of existing educational qualifications in a rapidly changing labor market is increasingly questionable, and education at all levels is inadequately financed and staffed.
Pressures from
diversifying population
The third longer-term task is to strike a balance between identity politics and globalization. In the Netherlands, globalization manifests itself (among other indicators) through continuous immigration and an increasingly multiethnic population. Yet, to date, there has been no public debate about the future demographic composition and size of the population. The “Black Pete” disorders (which diminished in 2019), the housing shortage, overcrowding in trains, traffic congestion and ecological pressure more generally all signal the urgent need for new policies able to address the interdependent issues of sustainability, ethnicity and globalization. For the open Dutch economy, cooperation within the European context is crucial. And indeed, the Dutch government and the country’s political parties appear to have made a turn back toward Europe.
New modes of engagement needed
It is increasingly clear that tackling these challenges will require new modes of constructive citizen participation and representation beyond traditional expressions such as protests and large-scale demonstrations. The gap between government policy on the one hand, and citizens’ feelings and experiences on the other, has created significant discontent and anti-establishment sentiment, feeding populist calls for more direct democracy. In view of recent negative experiences with national referendums in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe (e.g., the United Kingdom and Catalonia), the Rutte III cabinet, as one of its first policy actions, abandoned the national consultative referendum. Participatory democratic practices are (again) limited to the local and municipal level. Critics have called for a change of course away from “defensive” participation to the opening of a “second track” – that is, a more proactive form of participation, based on open dialogue, trust and cooperation. The extent to which this will be realized remains unclear.
New political cleavages must be overcome
The country’s new political cleavages – between citizens favoring closed and open borders; between freedom for corporations and stricter disciplinary interventions for ordinary citizens; between urban and rural populations; between younger and older generations; and between expert-led, evidence-informed governance and bottom-up citizen participation – must ultimately be overcome if the viability and sustainability of the Netherlands’ democratic society is to be ensured. This means there must be a simultaneous political focus on substantive policy issues, implementation gaps and political issues such as stricter rule-of-law monitoring and innovative modes of democracy.
P. Scheffer, De vorm van vrijheid, Amsterdam University Press, 2018

M. Chavannes, Zo glipt de democratie door onze vingers (podcast De Correspondent).

NRC-Handelsblad, 19October 2019. Eindelijk: ons geduld is op.

NRC Next, 30 August, 2019. Vergeet de jongere niet, zegt de SER.

NRC-Handelsblad, De boer moet beter op de natuur letten, 10 September 2018

WRR Verkenning nr. 38, De nieuwe verscheidenheid. Toenmende diversiteit naar herkomst in Nederland, 29 May 2018

Party Polarization

Fragmented political landscape
At the national level, the Dutch political-party landscape is more fragmented than ever, with relatively moderate polarization on economic issues and substantial polarization on cultural issues. In particular, debates related to immigration, multiculturalism and the social integration of ethnic minorities are particularly polarized.
Polarization increasing; greater choice of closely related parties
Following the 2017 electoral results, several existing trends combined to increase political polarization: the Rutte II coalition cabinet that comprised the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), and the Labor Party (PvdA) lost heavily; the number of effective political parties in parliament reached an all-time high; the three main centrist political parties – Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), PvdA and VVD – won fewer parliamentary seats than ever; electoral volatility was only higher in 2002 when Pim Fortuyn List (LPF) entered parliament with a stunning 24 seats; and left-wing political parties won an all-time low of only 42 parliamentary seats, having lost a combined 20 seats. Volatility and fragmentation is primarily caused by voters having a greater choice of closely related political parties. For example, voters can choose between a confessional set of three parties (i.e., CDA, SGP and CU), a socioeconomically moderate right-wing set of three parties (i.e., VVD, CDA and D66) and a progressive left-wing set of five parties (i.e., PvdA, D66, GreenLeft, Socialist Party and Party for the Animals (PvdD)), in addition to a cluster of outsider parties (e.g., PvdD and PVV) and several newcomers (50PLUS, DENK and Forum for Democracy). Of the new parties, 50PLUS appeals to discontented pensioners; DENK appeals to well-educated, typically young voters of Turkish and Moroccan descent; and Forum for Democracy, which surprised many by winning the 2019 provincial elections and entering the Senate as the second-largest party, appeals to culturally conservative, younger voters with anti-elite and anti-Europe sentiments.
Moderate left-right polarization; many feel unrepresented
Ideological polarization on the economic left-right dimension is moderate. Over the last 25 years, Dutch voters have held relatively stable preferences on issues such as income inequality and redistribution, taxation, and the economy. In 2019, the inequality issue regained a high level of prominence in party and governmental politics. However, on the cultural dimension several issues have seen substantial shifts in public opinion. In particular, public opinions on immigration, integration and European unification have become more negative. Even in one of the most proportional representative systems in the world, with very few entry restrictions on new political parties, about a third of the electorate – disproportionately in the lower-income and lower educational attainment brackets – feel there is no party they can sufficiently identify with. Competition for these voters may have resulted in more inter-group polarization among political parties (on issues like immigration, religion and education), and has manifested itself in impolite, harsh and frequently insulting statements by politicians in the press, on social media and even in parliamentary debates. This has also resulted in lower levels of public trust in the major political institutions and parties, and in particular politicians.
Government formation now more difficult
At the national level, the record number of days required to form the four-party Rutte III cabinet is a sign of political fragmentation making government formation and policymaking more difficult. In its latter days, the Rutte II cabinet lost its majority in the Second Chamber but remained capable of governing through the formation of ad hoc majorities in the Senate, a situation that has reoccurred since June 2019. Fragmentation and polarization appear to be much more of a policymaking problem at the level of local politics and administration. Fragmentation is worse at the municipal level because local political parties have won well over a third of the total number of seats in local councils, resulting in a large influx of relatively inexperienced politicians with radical political agendas. Frequent political-party schisms at the local level also make the formation of working majorities more difficult to achieve and result in longer periods for local-government formation. National political parties, at both extremes of the political spectrum, managed to win a considerable share of municipal council seats. At the local level, one frequently observes issue linkages of traditional issues (e.g., parking spots in cities or social housing with “preferential treatment” of refugees) and immigration/integration issues. (Score: 7)
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J. van den Berg, Versplintering, voor en tegen, 17 February 2017 (, accessed 1 November 2018)

S. de Lange, Besturen in een gepolariseerde samenleving, Binnenlands Bestuur, 18 January 2018

Ben Meindertsma en Hugo van der Parre (accessed 18 November)

A. Krouwel en B. Geurkink, Politieke fragmentatie in Nederlandse gemeenteraden, Jaarboek van de Griffier, 2016, 127-139
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