Off to the polls again

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The difference between the provincial election on 11 March and the last two general elections is striking.

The January and May polls had specific themes that galvanised the electorate. There was a mass turnout in May 2002 in response to the assassination of populist politician Pim Fortuyn nine days earlier. His funeral served as a mass election rally and his LPF party received 1.6 million votes and 26 seats in the 150-seat parliament.

Some 80 percent of the electorate came out to vote again in the January 2003 election that resulted from the collapse of the centre right coalition due to LPF infighting. Voters realised that the LPF was not the answer so they entrusted the mainstream parties, Labour (PvdA) and the Christian Democrats (CDA), with the formation of a new government.

The CDA emerged the biggest winner with 44 seats and Labour came a close second on 42. Despite the strong endorsement it received, the CDA's Liberal (VVD) ally did not do well, forcing the CDA to turn to its rival Labour to form the next government.

Now that CDA and Labour appear to be reconciled to working with each other, the provincial election looms as the prospective coalition's first major test.

But given the voter apathy, it appears the nation is unconvinced of the election's importance. There is no big issue, no fallen leader to mourn or errant party to punish.

A pre-election opinion poll by Interview-NSS predicted that turnout will be as low as 46 percent, about the same as the last time out in 1999. And it is easy to see why. The Netherlands has three tiers of government: the national government, local authorities and the provincial administrations in between.

People know what the Prime Minister and cabinet do — they may not be universally popular but they are essential. By the same token, the work of the city and town authorities has a daily impact on citizens' lives.

But the countries provincial councils, one for each of the 12 provinces are a bit of an enigma. They basically do the work too small for the state government to bother with and too big for local authorities.

The tasks include spatial planning, public transport and the supervision of regional water authorities and housing projects.

The Queen appoints a commissioner to head the provincial administration of aldermen and public service staff. The aldermen are nominated from the pool of provisional representatives elected during the provisional election.

Writing in newspaper NRC in the lead up to the election, professor of administration at Leiden University, Theo Toonen, said provincial councils are a vital component of modern society. He even suggested the erosion of the commissions' tasks leads to crises such as the explosion in the eastern city of Enschede which killed 22 people and levelled an entire neighbourhood in May 2000.

This argument is not cutting much ice with the voters, but that does not mean that provisional elections are irrelevant.

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