"Dutch democracy in danger"
"Dutch democracy is extremely vulnerable. The government's legitimacy is crumbling." These are not the words of right-wing politician Rita Verdonk, nor any other politician looking to score points with the disenfranchised. No, these words are from Vice-President of the Council of State, Herman Tjeenk Willink.
These are not the words of right-wing politician Rita Verdonk, nor any other politician looking to score points with the disenfranchised. No, these words are from Vice-President of the Council of State,, the embodiment of the Dutch establishment. It sounds bad, particularly coming from someone like Mr Tjeenk Willink. Should the Netherlands be worried?
Mr Tjeenk Willink presented the Council's annual review in The Hague on Wednesday. He took the opportunity, on behalf of the Council, to express his concerns about the state of Dutch democracy. He presented a carefully worded but sharp analysis of a number of threats to this country's political system.
Behind closed doors
Mr Tjeenk Willink says too many important decisions in Dutch politics are made behind closed doors, during the formation of a new government. Once the government accord is reached, debate is shut down. Topics which could generate lively debate in parliament are either avoided altogether, or debated pro forma, since the governing parties have no interest in re-opening the governing accord.
Mr Tjeenk Willink also argues that parliament does not set its priorities very well. Politicians are easily swayed by the day's news, sometimes at the expense of more important issues. He recalls the moment a few years back when parliament debated the expansion of the European Union from 15 to 25 member states.
But the debate took place late at night, because the previous two days, MPs were focused on the so-called Margarita affair, involving a member of the Royal Family: "Yes, you could say it's just question of setting priorities, but in hindsight, I wonder if we're satisfied with how it went, and want we've learned from it"
In the Vice-President's analysis, the government and its representatives lack legitimacy. He says this became clear in 2002, with the rise of populist Pim Fortuyn.
But Mr Tjeenk Willink traces the origins of this lack of legitimacy to the end of what is known as the pillar system, forty years ago, when different groups in society were represented by their own organisations and their own political parties. Since that system broke down, Mr Tjeenk Willink says, the Dutch political parties have found it difficult to connect with their base.
One of the changes that has taken place in this time is the dissipation of power away from the executive branch, down to local government or other institutions. For instance, the media now sets the agenda for much of the population. But the media outlets have their own interests and do not always act in the general interest.
This has also had a negative effect on politics, says Mr Tjeenk Willink. Both the middle governing layer and the media lack accountability. Ignorance at all levels of how the system should work, has meant that "Developments could take place under the surface, making our constitutional democratic system extremely vulnerable at the moment."
In conclusion, Mr Tjeenk Willink says the recent trend towards populism, most recently by Geert Wilders and Rita Verdonk, takes this problem even further. These politicians don't take the parliamentary process seriously; they look outside parliament for their legitimacy. Mr Tjeenk Willink warns that this trend could undermine the fundamentals of Dutch democracy.
The Council of State
The Council of State is made up of 55 people appointed by the Queen. The Council advises the executive branch about in preparing legislation, and it also serves as the highest civil court in the country.
By political editor John Tyler
10 April 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands 2008]