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Parliamentary systems

How they work

Case Study: The Netherlands

Willem-Alexander, Maxima, and their eldest daughter Princess Catharina-Amalia, the Princess of Orange, Princess of the Netherlands, Princess of Orange-Nassau

Willem-Alexander, Maxima, and their eldest daughter (middle) Princess Catharina-Amalia, the Princess of Orange, Princess of the Netherlands, Princess of Orange-Nassau

What’s going on in the Netherlands? Well, early one Saturday morning five years ago, February 20, 2010, the government collapsed. How can a government collapse?

I don’t think the U.S. government has ever collapsed, although it recently (2013) shut down partially! What does a government look like after it collapses? Is it like a revolution? What happens next to put it back together?

Dutch government collapses after Labour withdrawal from coalition

Row over extension of Dutch troops’ tour of duty in Afghanistan forces Labour out of Jan Peter Balkenende’s ruling coalition

Dutch political leaders may take months to form a new coalition after the government collapsed for a fifth time since 2002 over troops in Afghanistan, as rising support for an anti-immigrant party limits their options.

Several parts of those sentences indicate things that are different than in the U.S. Even if you don’t keep up with Dutch politics, a knowledge of how parliamentary systems work will give you a lot of context for understanding what is happening in other countries.

Some context

The British magazine The Economist has published the Democracy Index to rate and rank 167 of the world’s countries in five areas:

  • electoral process and pluralism
  • civil liberties
  • functioning of government
  • political participation
  • political culture

The countries are grouped into 30 full democracies, 50 flawed democracies, 36 hybrid regimes, and 51 authoritarian regimes. The Netherlands ranks fourth among the full democracies. All of the eighteen countries ranking higher than the U.S., as well as four of the six countries ranking directly below the U.S., are governed by parliaments with no separation of the executive from the legislature.

That is, 25 of the 30 full democracies, as well as half of the countries that we are studying, have parliaments and prime ministers rather than the separation of powers that the U.S. and Latin American countries have with a separate executive branch. In addition, most of the countries that we are studying have multi-party systems, as opposed to the two-party system in Sri Lanka and the United States, the single-party systems in Egypt, Vietnam, China, and then the situation in Saudi Arabian, which as an absolute monarchy has no political parties.

Learn more about the parliamentary system.

A parliament and many political parties

The Dutch have a multi-party parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. That means that Willem-Alexander (below with Maxima and their three daughters a couple of years ago; do they look Dutch or what?) is the head of state. He is only the seventh monarch since 1815, when the modern monarchy was imposed by Napoleon. The monarch has limited powers, mostly during the formation of a new cabinet and her yearly Speech from the Throne on Prinsjesdag (Princes’ Day).

Het Binnenhof, the Dutch parliament buildings

Het Binnenhof, the Dutch parliament buildings

The photo to the left shows Mauritshuis, the lighter colored building, housing the amazing Royal art collection, and the Parliament buildings. The Prime Minister’s office is on the second floor of the hexagonal building next to Mauritshuis. The Dutch have two houses of Parliament, the Eerste Kamer, or upper house, and the Tweede Kamer, or second house. When this discussion refers to “Parliament” it means only the Tweede Kamer.

The Dutch hold parliamentary elections every four years unless the government collapses before then.

To be more specific, we should say unless the governing coalition collapses.

Any test questions from this page come from above here, not below

The process of national elections for a new parliament

Which party would you vote for today?

Which party would you vote for today?

First, each party develops a fresh set of positions (standpunten) on the issues and publishes it on their web site. (Standpunten: VVD, CDA, PvdA, D66, SP, Groen Links, PVV). An election campaign lasts about two months, features lots of televised free-for-all debates with a dozen people around a table, and costs a tiny fraction of what US campaigns cost. The members of Parliament spend hardly any time in the fund-raising and lobbyist-pleasing activities that their US counterparts say consumes from a third to a half of their time.

The Dutch use the D’Hondt method of the party-list proportional representation system. In the U.S., we use the first past the post method of the plurality voting system.

A very popular website in the Netherlands, StemWijzer (Vote Chooser –English-language version), asks a series of questions about current issues and then ranks the parties by how close their positions are to the person answering the questions. Party loyalty is low; people switch all the time. The chart on the left compiled by Maurice de Hondt’s polling organization shows the results over the past year when a sampling of Dutch were asked, if the Parliamentary elections were held today, which party would you vote for?

Polders south of Delft

Polders south of Delft

The voters don’t vote for a local representative to Parliament. Instead, each party has a list of people on the ballot. The list is at least as long as the number of seats the party could be expected to win, and often includes local political favorites in an attempt to draw those voters. Each voter votes for one of the names on one of the lists, though most people vote for the first name. In the Netherlands, in excess of 80% of the eligible voters complete a ballot (in the US, it’s about 48%, a little higher in presidential election years, closer to 35-40% in off-years, putting the US well down the list of countries by voter turnout.)

The votes are counted by party, not by candidate. The percentages are distributed among the 150 available seats in Parliament. For example, if the CDA candidates get 33% of the vote, they get 33% of the seats, that is, 50. The first 50 names on the CDA list will then enter Parliament, though if someone lower down got a lot of votes, he or she may get elevated; it’s a good system for rising party stars.

The result: coalition governments

It has been over a century since one party got more than 50% of the votes, so every government is a coalition. After every election, the monarch talks to the leader of each party that has enough votes for at least one seat. She then asks one of them, usually the one with the largest single bloc of votes, to try to form a coalition of more than 50%. This is an intense, messy process that can take months and several tries after an election. It has almost always involved three or four parties, often far apart on the issues, but willing to work together.


Jan-Peter Balkenende, former prime minister for four different coalition governments

Thus the zero-sum competition in the US cannot happen in the Netherlands. In the US, there’s a Democrat/Republican split on every issue. In the Netherlands, there is always compromise. Otherwise, the government couldn’t function. In fact, it “collapses” when it can no longer agree on an issue.

In the US, the party holding the presidency may be different from the party controlling Congress. The president’s cabinet are his hand-picked and trusted advisors, almost always all from his party. In the Netherlands, the eighteen cabinet seats are divided among the three or four parties in the ruling coalition. They don’t all agree by any means, but they put their country first over their party, and not getting along is fatal to the coalition, so there is tremendous incentive to compromise and work it out.

When it doesn’t work out, when the coalition doesn’t hold together on an important issue, the result is not gridlock. The result is that the government “collapses”. They hold new elections and start over again to build a workable coalition.

The key: The Polder Model of compromise for the good of society.