Home Living in the Netherlands Government, Law & Administration The political system of the Netherlands
Last update on April 26, 2021
Written by Aaron Gray-Block 

The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy with three tiers of government. Here’s how the political system of the Netherlands works.

Prinsjesdag: Dutch budget day

Parliament’s annual session begins on Prinsjesdag – held on the third Tuesday of September – the king (or queen) delivers the Speech from the Throne, on behalf of the government and in a joint session of the Senate and the Lower House, sets forth government policy for the coming calendar year.

Budget 2014: Read the responses to the 2014 Dutch budget.

Article 4 of the Dutch Constitution

‘Every Dutch national shall have an equal right to elect the members of the general representative bodies and to stand for election as a member of those bodies, subject to the limitations and exceptions prescribed by Act of Parliament’.

Dutch system of government

The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system, with the monarch Queen Beatrix serving as the official head of state. The prime minister is head of the Cabinet.

After a general election the queen and the prime minister form the government, with the sovereign appointing ministers and the cabinet deciding on policy and exercising executive power.

There are three tiers of government — the national government, the provincial governments and the local or municipal councils.

The national parliament has consisted of two chambers since 1815.

The Second Chamber or Lower House, comprises 150 members directly voted for by the public. The First Chamber or Senate has 75 members voted for by the provincial government councils.

The Lower House supervises the government, but the government exercises executive power and is responsible for governing the nation.

In a conflict between the government and the Lower House, the House has the final word.

At the instigation of lawyer and statesman Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (1798-1872), the Lower House obtained in 1848 its set of rights which formed the basis of the Dutch constitutional monarchy.

The Lower House has the right to approve the budget, the right to ask questions, the right of interpellation, the right to submit motions, the right to institute an inquiry, the right of amendment and the right of initiative.

Elections for Lower House MPs are held in principle every four years and political parties win seats in parliament according to a proportional representation system.

Lower House MPs initially assess the government’s proposed legislation, but opposition MPs can also introduce bills or proposed legislation.

Once a bill is passed, it moves onto the Senate, which has a right of veto. The Senate can either approve or reject proposed legislation. It cannot amend legislation.

Local government is run by directly-elected municipal and provincial councils. Elections are held in principle, every four years.

From the municipal council, a municipal executive is formed. The executive consists of a mayor (appointed by the Dutch monarch) and aldermen and women (appointed by the municipal council). The municipal council supervises the executive and together, they govern the town or city.

The provinces are governed by the provincial councils, namely the Provincial Executive Committee and the Royal Commissioner.

Both the commissioner and executive committee are in charge of the daily government of the province. A chairman or woman presides over the provincial council.

Who can vote and stand for election?

Only Dutch citizens aged 18 or older are allowed to vote at national elections.

However, all EU citizens are allowed to vote in local government elections, as are people from non-EU countries who have lived in the country legally for a minimum of five years.

To vote in the municipal elections you must be a resident of the province or town in which the vote is taking place on the date the poll is held.

Since 1994, EU citizens have been entitled to vote in elections to the European Parliament in the member state in which they live.

Courts can strip a Dutch citizen’s voting right and mental illness can also result in exclusion from the voting process. Non-Dutch members of diplomatic institutions in the Netherlands are also not allowed to vote.

Amendments to the Constitution in 1917 and 1919 introduced universal suffrage (men in 1917 and women in 1919) and a proportional representation system.

Between 1917 and 1970 voting was compulsory and people who did not turn up at a polling station were liable to a fine. The last election where voting was compulsory was in 1967.

All Dutch nationals aged 18 or over have the right to stand for election.

Non-Dutch nationals aged 18 and over may also stand for election to municipal councils, based on the same conditions granting them the right to vote.

Non-Dutch nationals from other EU states can stand for election in Dutch elections to the European Parliament, provided they do not stand for election elsewhere.

How it works in practice

The Dutch Lower House frequently amends draft legislation and the minister may choose tp adopt the amendment, leave it to the judgement of House MPs, advise against it or even declare it to be unacceptable.

But if the Lower House decides to adopt the amendment even if the minister declared it unacceptable, the minister can withdraw the proposed legislation.

If the minister wishes to maintain the legislative proposal in its original form, he or she may threaten to resign, which might result in a government crisis.

Due to the large number of parties in the Netherlands, governments are always coalitions so if one or more members of the government resign, their fellow party members in the coalition might follow suit, prompting a cabinet crisis.

The Senate has no right of amendment. It can only accept or reject the proposals of the government. The Senate rejects government proposals only in very rare cases.

The government has the right to dissolve the Lower House, the Senate or both.

Dissolution is followed by early elections and in practice, early elections only occur after a political crisis which leads to the resignation of the government.

All legislation requires royal assent from the sovereign.

Minority coalition

Foreign policy has impacted domestic politics in recent years, particularly when the government collapsed in February 2010 over strategies in Afghanistan and became one of the first NATO countries to withdraw troops.

Once nicknamed the ‘land of compromise’ – due to the Dutch government’s traditional reliance on a coalition of two or more parties – a minority coalition formed for the first time in the subsequent October 2010 elections. Prime Minister and central-right liberal leader Mark Rutte created a government with ministers from his VVD party and the Christian Democrat CDA, supported by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, the PVV. This nationalistic party, although known for its right-wing focus, puts equal weight on socialist themes.

Coalition collapses

Debates over a budget plan to steer the Eurozone’s fifth-largest economy back below the EU deficit ceiling of three percent caused the minority government to collapse in April 2012. Deficit projections sit at 3.3 percent for 2013 and 3.4 percent for 2014.

The Netherland’s strengthened its stance on austerity in the September 2012 elections with large gains achieved by pro-European parties, Rutte’s VVD and the social-democratic labour party PvdA (taking 41 seats and 39 seats respectively). With Mark Rutte back as prime minister, a coalition with Diederik Samsom’s PvdA gives the current Dutch government a comfortable majority to pass budget cuts, although further opposition support is needed to pass laws in the Senate. Recent economic downturn, however, has seen a large shift in public opinion towards cuts of up to EUR 8 billion planned for 2014.