Photos Rijksoverheid / Corné Bastiaansen
Around a year ago the much needed and repeatedly delayed renovations started on the Binnenhof, the seat of the Dutch parliament. From concrete degradation to leakages and from asbestos to technical malfunctions, the building was quite literally falling apart. Rock bottom was reached when a lamp came down the ceiling of the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch Lower House, nearly striking a minister. And where the house of the Dutch democracy is quite literally falling apart, the institute of the Dutch democracy is also in need of a grand update.
The current Dutch government cannot seem to handle the polycrisis at hand, namely the housing, energy, environmental (nitrogen pollution) and asylum crises, to just name a few. The Dutch parliament appears to be and being sources of commotion and scandal rather than reassurance and stability. Without any major updates to the system since the 1950’s, slowly but surely the clockwork of the Dutch parliamentary system seems to be slowing to a grinding halt, and work has to be done to recalibrate the Dutch system and to prepare it for the challenges of tomorrow.
In a series of articles, I will therefore go through the different elements of the system, to see what problems have arisen, what the corresponding fundamental mechanisms are, and how I think these problems might be solved. From term limits to the way governments are formed, and from fragmentation to the role of the party in our democratic system, I will look at these problems through a technical lens. As a result, a sort of political engineering will arise, which hopefully will lead to a unique set of solutions for the problems in the Dutch parliamentary system.
First, a general analysis of the problems at hand must be done to create a common context for the series of articles. Problems? Or are we talking about dilemmas? While in media and everyday speech, issues in society are often called problems, these in fact are dilemmas. A dilemma is a set of intertwined problems where no perfect solution exists since every solution is a trade off between the different needs stemming from the intertwined problems. Therefore, it is important to see if there are patterns in the current governance dilemmas and identify the stakes per crisis and what role the government plays, and why the government can’t seem to be able to balance the interests. Of the resulting crises, the nitrogen crisis is the prime example.
According to the RIVM, nitrogen emissions have to be drastically reduced, since the surplus created by mainly agricultural businesses leads to environmental and health issues. The downside of high intensity livestock farming has been known from the start, as the newspapers already wrote about it in the 1960s. The government has in the past tried to solve this issue by coming up with solutions which effectively only delayed solving the crisis, mainly due to a very strong lobby of the agricultural sector. However, due to a court ruling the government policy allowing agricultural business exploitation, has been overturned. This directly led to not only the stalling of the creation of new agricultural businesses, but also to stalling other nitrogen emitting activities, such as the building of houses, thereby creating difficulties solving the migration crisis. Since the overturning of the policy, the government has tried to solve the crisis, yet to no avail, and has communicated in ways which have amplified civil unrest, coming mainly from rural and peripheric communities.
When I look for the different stakeholders in this crisis, I see the short-term financial needs of the farmers and livestock feed producers are pitted against the long-term health, environmental and biodiversity needs of the people living around the farms. And with more than 50% of the country being used for agriculture, the sustainability of the majority of the country is at stake. Yet, the stakeholders played out to be quite differently compared to the ones I identified, since large parts of the rural and peripheral communities felt their way of life was attacked by new government policy, leading to the unrest, which ranged from going to the homes of ministers, creating traffic jams, or blocking distribution centres of supermarkets. It is important to note that the protests were supported financially by the livestock feed producers, underlining the owners versus workers nature of this crisis, since livestock feed producers sought after profit at the expense of the common good.
The response of rural and peripheral communities, though amplified by the stakeholders, can come as a surprise when thinking of the active cleavage which the nitrogen policies tries to balance. The cleavage at hand is the owners versus workers cleavage, a societal fault line which divides society in two parts. The owners stand for the people who own parts of a shared realm where the workers, the people who are dependent on the owners, live and work . Yet when putting the farmer protests into context, the protests might not come as a surprise since people living in rural and peripheral areas have felt that the government has slowly been abandoning them since the 80’s. The withdrawal of governmental facilities and support in the name of decentralisation, a neoliberal term for austerity. The decentralisation has led to the downfall of the availability of public facilities, such as schools, libraries, courts, hospitals etcetera, decreasing the quality of life and opportunities. Thus, further restrictions on life by the government through nitrogen regulations are unwelcome, even though the regulation will lead to improvements in the quality of life of the majority of its opponents. In fact, these measures would help solve the housing and asylum crises which the same people find important, which makes the attitude at hand more startling.
This paradox of people feeling powerless and thereby going against their own needs, I would like to call societal misalignment. It stems from an imbalance between the different cleavage identities someone has: for opponents of the nitrogen legislation that would be the peripheral, rural and worker identities, where the rural and peripheral identities overshadow the worker identity. Their opposition leads to a deterioration of their living space, and thus the term misalignment is chosen. The existence of the misalignment mechanism seems to be supported by the backing of parties like PVV, BBB and FvD in the rural and peripheral areas, since these parties programs do not actively deal with the causes behind the discontent but focus on the resulting unhappiness to get support by proposing symptom control.
Besides societal misalignment, I would also like to distinguish a phenomenon which I would like to call governmental misalignment, where the policies the government must implement go against the needs expressed by the stakeholders the parties represent. This is the case for the VVD for instance, where the party members voted against their own upcoming legislation to tackle the nitrogen crisis, since they don’t want farmers’ businesses to be terminated, question the scientific findings and methods, and fear disastrous electoral results from the legislation. The VVD being a business oriented and owners party, the response of the members seems fitting. Besides the members of the VVD, members of the CDA and CU don’t agree with the proposed legislation. The only party in favour of the current legislation is D66, which is backed by the court ruling revoking the old legislation. The troubles with quickly coming up with effective legislation to solve the current crisis, can therefore not come as a surprise since there is a lack of support for the proposed policy.
The nitrogen crisis is not the only field where misalignment can be found. For instance, societal misalignment can be recognized around the asylum crisis and the corona crisis, where governmental policy is unsupported due to the sentiment of abandonment by the government. In these crises the centre versus periphery and the state versus church/beliefs cleavage respectively, can be identified. Furthermore, governmental misalignment can be identified in the Groninger gas crisis and the child benefit scandal crisis, where the government is having a very hard time coming up with effective measures to compensate for the harm to civilians, caused by government policy. Here the centre versus periphery and the owners versus workers cleavage respectively, can be identified. The occurrence of misalignment seems to indicate that certain groups are being privileged over others, namely the centre, state, owner and urban identities in mixed combinations over the other identities. Note that these identities tend to coincide with those of the current and past governments, leading to a need to figure out where this privileged position originates from.
The need to address the sources of misalignment, however, seems to be in sharp contrast with the image of the Dutch parliamentary system, namely it being very proportional, meaning that the votes are translated into a seat distribution with little distortion. Nonetheless, when combining the polycrisis and the increasing sentiment of being unheard, it becomes clear that while the parliament might be very efficient in representing the people and balancing its needs, it is not very effective at it. And even though the system might be very proportional, due to the fragmented character of the political landscape, small distortions can have huge consequences for governance, since one seat can make the difference between being or not being in government at all. Therefore, in the upcoming article, I will go into just this, proportionality and seat allocation, and see how democratically legitimate our current system is. Stay tuned.