Home Living in the Netherlands Government, Law & Administration The political system of the Netherlands
Last update on August 17, 2021
Written by Annette Farshchi

Who is Mark Rutte and where is the Tweede Kamer? Find out with our guide to the political system in the Netherlands and the Dutch government.

Whether you’ve lived in the Netherlands for some time or you’re planning to relocate here, having a good understanding of Dutch politics can prove useful in daily life. After all, the government determines policy that impacts every part of your life, from finding the best schools in the Netherlands, to how much you pay for Dutch utilities.

To help you get to grips with Dutch politics, this guide takes a closer look at the fundamentals of the political system in the Netherlands, including:

Government and political system in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy, similar to the UK, Belgium, and Spain. This means that the monarch acts as the head of state, albeit in a largely ceremonial role. The democratically elected prime minister, meanwhile, acts as the head of the Dutch national government. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, the Netherlands ranks ninth in the world.

King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima
King Willem-Alexander and his wife, Queen Maxima

As of July 2021, the Dutch monarch and head of state is Willem-Alexander. Willem has been king since 2013 when his mother Beatrix abdicated. The current prime minister is Mark Rutte, of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Rutte has been prime minister since 2010, although following the March 2021 election, his current role has been acting prime minister.

Branches of government in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a parliamentary democracy with three branches of government:

  • Executive: The prime minister (currently Mark Rutte) leads the national government, the executive branch of the Netherlands political system. This branch includes the cabinet, in which a number of political parties make up the governing coalition.
  • Legislature: The Dutch parliament (Staten-Generaal) is made up of two chambers: the 150-seat, directly-elected lower house, Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives) and the 75-seat upper house, Eerste Kamer (Senate). Both houses traditionally meet in The Hague’s Binnenhof, although the complex is under renovation, expected to last until 2026.
  • Judiciary: The Netherlands has 11 District Courts, four Courts of Appeal, and one Supreme Court. In 2002, the Dutch judiciary system was reorganized, safeguarding judicial independence and reinforcing its constitutional position. The judiciary system does not fall under the authority of the Ministry for Justice and Security.

Main political parties in the Netherlands

The Netherlands has a high number of active political parties. Indeed, it can feel like there’s a new political party every few weeks when catching up with Dutch news.

Following the March 2021 general election, there were 18 Dutch political parties with seats in the Tweede Kamer, including:

  • People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD): The VVD was founded in 1948 and is led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, currently in a caretaker role. The party promotes conservative liberalism and regulated free-market economics.
  • Democrats 66 (Democraten 66, D66): Named after its year of foundation, D66 has been led by Sigrid Kaag since 2020. D66’s ideology is progressive, social liberalism. The party is strongly pro-European Union.
  • Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV): Founded in 2006 by controversial politician Geert Wilders, the PVV relies largely on donations. The party has a conservative, nationalist ideology, with anti-Islam, anti-immigration, and anti-EU views.
  • Christian Democratic Appeal (Christen-Democratisch Appèl, CDA): Founded in 1977, the CDA is currently led by Wopke Hoekstra. The ideology of the Christian-democratic party is based on social conservatism.
Dutch elections
Dutch election campaigning
  • GreenLeft (GroenLinks, GL): Founded in 1989, GroenLinks is led by Jesse Klaver. GroenLinks is a green political party, with a focus on social democracy and taking care of the environment.
  • Labor Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA): The PvdA was founded in 1946. The social democrats focus on the welfare state and are in favor of investing in public education, healthcare, and public safety. The current leader is Lilianne Ploumen
  • Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren, PvdD): Not to be confused with PvdA, the PvdD was established in 2002. The party promotes animal rights and environmental issues.
  • Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD): Starting life in 2016 as a think-tank, the conservative, Eurosceptic FvD is led by controversial Thierry Baudet.
  • Socialist Party (Socialistische PartijSP): Founded in 1972 as the Communist Party of the Netherlands, SP is now less radical than it once was. Lilian Marijnissen is the current leader.
  • BIJ1: Founded in 2016, BIJ1 is led by TV personality-turned-politician Sylvana Simons. The egalitarian, radical party won its first ever seat in March 2021’s general election.

There were many other Dutch political parties gaining seats in government at the March 2021 general election. This includes JA21, Denk, and Volt, among others.

The Dutch Prime Minister: who is currently in power in the Netherlands?

On 15 January 2021, the entire Dutch cabinet resigned, taking responsibility for its part in a recent childcare benefits scandal. Since then, Mark Rutte has continued in the role of Prime Minister, albeit in a caretaker capacity along with the rest of the cabinet.

Mark Rutte
Mark Rutte

Rutte had previously served as a Prime Minister in three consecutive cabinets since 2010. The current caretaker cabinet consists of four political parties: the VVD, CDA, D66, and Christian Union (CU).

Netherlands General Election – March 2021

The most recent general elections in the Netherlands took place in March 2021. This was Western Europe’s first general election since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the pandemic and the childcare scandal that had engulfed the previous cabinet, Rutte’s VVD once again received the most votes in the election. The party won 34 of the Tweede Kamer’s 150 seats to maintain its position as the largest party in parliament.

D66 received the second-highest percentage of the votes at 15%. This translated into 24 seats in parliament, a marked improvement from the previous election. PVV came third with 17 seats, followed by CDA, with 15. The 2021 elections also saw many new Dutch political parties gaining seats in government, including Together (BIJ1, 1 seat), Farmer-Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, 1 seat), Right Answer 2021 (JA21, 3 seats), and Volt Netherlands (3 seats). The total number of parties participating in the elections was 37.

Due to various scandals and the demands of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the formation of a governing coalition has been significantly delayed. As of July 2021, the process is still ongoing, with no new government expected before the end of the summer. Until a new governing coalition forms, the caretaker Prime Minister and cabinet remain in place. The next general elections in the Netherlands should take place in 2025.

The electoral system in the Netherlands

Elections in the Netherlands take place every four years when the electorate goes to the polls to vote in the new members of the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer). There are 150 seats in the Tweede Kamer, and all are directly elected through universal suffrage. However, typically no one party gets close to the magic 76 seats needed for a majority. This means that Dutch governments normally consist of several parties, often representing a range of ideologies.

Dutch election
Dutch parliament, The Hague

Unlike the Tweede Kamer, the Senate (Eerste Kamer) is not directly elected by the wider population. Instead, the chamber’s 75 seats are elected on lists by members of the Netherlands’ 12 provincial governments and three Caribbean electoral colleges. Votes of these different bodies are weighted depending on their population. Terms for the Eerste Kamer are also four-year limits, with elections taking place within three months of provincial elections.

Voting in the Netherlands

Elections usually take place on a Wednesday in March, and voters receive their voting pass in the mail at least two weeks prior to elections. There are many voting stations across the country, and you’ll see signs for your local polling place. At the voting station, voters need to show their voting pass and ID. They then receive a ballot paper to cast their vote in the polling booth. If desired, voters can appoint someone to vote on their behalf. The voting pass includes instructions on how to do this. All Dutch citizens can vote from the moment they turn 18.

In addition to elections for the Tweede Kamer, the Netherlands holds elections for:

  • the European Parliament: every five years.
  • provinces: every four years.
  • municipalities (gemeenten): every four years. Citizens over 18 who have lived in the Netherlands for five years can vote in these elections.
  • regional water authorities (waterschappen): these take place every four years and coincide with provincial elections.

Political representation in the Netherlands

The best way to become politically active yourself is to become a member of a political party. Whatever your political persuasion, you’ll find details on how to join and become an active member on the political party’s website. The availability of English information is typically limited. However, don’t let that put you off. Joining a political party can be a great way to make friends and, of course, improve your Dutch.

Alternatively, you could even start your own party. There is no age limit nor is it necessary to have Dutch nationality. You need to register your party with a central polling station. Registering a party for Tweede Kamer elections costs €450, while registering for municipality elections costs €112.50. You’ll also need to visit the notary and register in the Business Register of the Chamber of Commerce (Kamer van Koophandel). Find more information here (in Dutch).

The political landscape of the Netherlands

The political landscape of the Netherlands has changed considerably over the last few decades. Between 1994 and 2002, Dutch coalition governments consisted of the PvdA, D66, and VVD. It was during those years that gay marriage and euthanasia became legal. However, since then there are certain issues that have dominated much political discourse in the Netherlands.

Anti-immigration populism

During the 2002 elections, politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated, sending shockwaves through Dutch society. In 2004, anti-Islam sentiment in the Netherlands was further fueled by the murder of film director Theo van Gogh. While Fortuyn’s party Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) was one of the first to criticize the traditional ruling parties and their integration policies, these views have become more commonplace in Dutch political discourse. Today, there are more political parties with these views, including PVV, FvD, and JA21.

Childcare benefits scandal

In January 2021, the Dutch government resigned en masse over a child allowance scandal. Between 2013 and 2019, the Dutch tax authorities wrongly accused around 26,000 parents of fraud with child allowance. As a consequence, many of these parents got into serious financial trouble, losing their houses and jobs. Some also suffered from mental health problems, including at least one who took their own life.

State Secretary for Finance, Menno Snel, resigned over the affair in 2019. In 2020, the tax authorities admitted that at least 11,000 families were subjected to extra scrutiny because of their second nationality, fueling outrage across the country. In 2021, following a parliamentary interrogation, Lodewijk Asscher, former Minister of Social Affairs and Employment resigned. A few days later the entire government followed.

Then, during coalition talks following the March 2021 election, journalists photographed a note of government officials. The note, referencing MP Pieter Omtzigt, said “positie Omtzigt, functie elders” (“position Omtzigt, function elsewhere”). Omtzigt played a big part in exposing the childcare benefits scandal. Rutte initially denied having spoken about Omtzigt’s position during formation. However, later reports were published indicating that Rutte had spoken about Omtzigt. Rutte then claimed he “misremembered”, and barely survived a motion of no confidence against him as Prime Minister.

As a result of these recent developments, confidence in the Dutch government has declined drastically and the formation of the government is still ongoing.

The Netherlands in the European Union

The Netherlands was one of the founding members of the EU in 1993 and joined the Eurozone in 1999, replacing the guilder with the Euro. The Dutch are generally supportive of the union. Indeed, a poll in 2020 revealed that 25% of the Dutch population is in favor of “Nexit” (Dutch withdrawal from the EU), and 75% is against it. However, two Dutch political parties in the Tweede Kamer are in favor of leaving the EU: FvD (which gained six seats in the last elections) and PVV. Other parties are open to a potential referendum, while most want to remain in the EU. D66 even wants to include EU membership in the constitution.

The state of the economy in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a prosperous country, its open economy heavily relying on foreign trade. It ranks as 17th largest in the world in terms of GDP and 13th largest in terms of GDP per capita.

Food processing, chemicals, oil refining, and the manufacture of electrical appliances are the country’s main industrial activities. Despite its size, the Netherlands is also the second-largest exporter of agricultural and horticultural products, behind the United States.

Dutch farming
Intensive agriculture in the Netherlands

After six years of growth, the COVID-19 crisis caused the Dutch economy to severely shrink in 2020, but less than it did in other countries, such as the UK and Germany. Due to policy support measures for firms, unemployment rates didn’t increase drastically. However, this is likely to change in the second half of 2021, when support measures will gradually be discontinued.

The OECD Economic Forecast Summary (May 2021) predicts that the Dutch economy will increase by 2.7% in 2021 and 3.7% in 2022, returning to its pre-pandemic level by early 2022.

Grassroots politics and political activism in the Netherlands

Over the past few years, several activist groups have formed in the Netherlands.

In 2019, farmers started protesting against a proposal by the Dutch government to halve the country’s livestock as a way to limit nitrogen emission. They also demand more respect for their profession from society, most notably by blocking roads and distribution centers with their tractors.

Shell Must Fall stickers in Amsterdam

Extinction Rebellion NL is the Dutch branch of the global environmental movement. It raises awareness of the climate crisis and urges politicians to act. High-profile demonstrations took place at Shell’s headquarters and the Rijksmuseum, as part of the “Shell Must Fall” movement.

Another Dutch activist organization is Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP). Founded in 2014, it holds peaceful protests aimed at abolishing the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) character that has been part of the feast of Sinterklaas since 1850. KOZP believes Black Pete to be a discriminating and stereotypical character and a remnant of Dutch colonial times and slavery.

Useful resources

  • Government.nl – official website of the government of the Netherlands
  • CBS – provides statistics relating to various topics in the Netherlands
  • House of representatives – information on the Tweede Kamer