The innovative political system of the Netherlands

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It was one of the world’s foremost political scientists, Arend Lijphart of the University of California, San Diego, who first developed the concept of consociationalism as a method of governing states that are deeply divided by ethnicity, language or religion.

Not surprisingly, Lijphart, who specializes in comparative politics, elections, and electoral systems, was Dutch by birth – because it was in the Netherlands where this idea, then called pillarization (“verzuiling” in Dutch), was first put into practice.

His first major work, “The Politics of Accommodation: Pluralism and Democracy in the Netherlands,” was published in 1968, and he developed his arguments further in his 1977 book “Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration.”

The goals of consociationalism are governmental stability and the avoidance of violence. A consociational, or power-sharing, system, acknowledges bedrock, permanent difference between the constituent communities.

Each officially recognized group has a say in the governing institutions of the country, and their interests are safeguarded by various political mechanisms, including autonomy in the cultural sector, separate voting rolls or proportionality in the electoral system, guaranteed representation in a legislature, the right to veto legislation which might affect them adversely, a set number of positions in the executive branch of government and in public sector employment, and so forth.

Hence, they all participate in decision-making at the central level of government and, unlike in a majoritarian political system, no ethnic or religious majority cannot ride roughshod over the interests of another group just because the latter has fewer members.

While such mechanisms are today in place (or have failed) in such fragile polities as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus, Fiji, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland, they were pioneered in the Netherlands, where the system was in operation between 1917 until the late 1960s.

The Dutch system of pillarization or “confessional pluralism” was the creation of the politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper, who served as prime minister from 1901 to 1905. In 1917 the constitution was changed in order to resolve the ongoing conflict between religious and secular parties. It implemented both proportional representation and equal funding for secular and religious schools.

This “pacification,” as it was called, had by the 1920s divided Dutch society into four ideological communities: Catholics, orthodox Protestants (Calvinists), socialists, and liberals.

These were self-sufficient subcultures that rarely interacted. The Catholics and Calvinists had their own parties, unions, farmers’ associations, radio stations, and newspapers; socialists too belonged to socialist trade unions, listened to socialist radio, read socialist newspapers, and interacted mainly with other socialists.

Kuyper’s vision for keeping the peace among different ideological communities broke down in the 1960s as Dutch society changed and became more integrated; the old identities became less salient.

Still, even today some institutions in the Netherlands revolve around the old cleavages. For instance, public television is divided by several pillarised organizations, instead of being one organization. The education system, too, is split between public and religious schools.

For the past century, the political system has been dominated by three political party “families”: the Christian Democrats, currently represented by the Christian Democratic Appeal (Christen-Democratisch Appel, or CDA); the social democrats, now in the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, or PvdA); and the liberals, of which the right of centre People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie , or VVD) is the main grouping today.

And despite the growth of more extreme parties, especially the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or PVV) led by Geert Wilders, Dutch politics and governance remains characterised by a common striving for broad consensus on important issues.

All Dutch governments are coalitions. The current one, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD, comprises his party and the PvdA.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: Plural Societies, Christian Democratic Appeal, Party for Freedom Christian Democrats Labour Party University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Netherlands, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus Fiji Lebanon Northern Ireland

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