The Dutch state system is confusing not only to foreigners but often even to Dutch people themselves. In light of the upcoming Dutch election on the 17th of March, we thought it would be appropriate to try and clarify how the Dutch system works.
The History and Role of the Dutch Royal family
The official leader of the state is the current king or queen, and they have been since 1813. Our first king: Willem van Oranje signed the first Dutch constitution in 1814, making the Netherlands a ‘constitutional monarchy’. The constitution describes the fundamental laws of the Netherlands binding both citizens and the elites. In this first version, the king was appointed sovereign leader of the Netherlands. Although the head of the Dutch royal family still holds this title, they hold little of the power originally associated with it.
This is due to the second Dutch King, Willem II, who in 1848 signed a revised version of the constitution that greatly limited the power of the king. It should be noted that he did not sign this revision out of goodwill, he was blackmailed by journalists and politicians who pressured him using his queer lifestyle. This revised constitution stripped Willem II of almost all his power and converted the Netherlands into a parliamentary democracy. After Willem II died a year later in 1849, it took two more generations before the royal family fully accepted their new position in the state, although they had little choice as their new position was constitutionally anchored.
To this day the head of the royal family does little more than sign legislation, important to note here is that he cannot refuse to sign, and go on state visits whilst the ‘Staten-Generaal’ governs the country.
The Staten-Generaal (States-General)
The ‘Staten-Generaal’ is the name given to parliament in the constitution. The Dutch parliament is divided into two very originally named chambers.
The Eerste Kamer (First Chamber)
The ‘Eerste Kamer’ is a regulatory body that consists of 75 members from 16 different parties. They convene only once a week and vote on legislation that passed the ‘Tweede Kamer’ (Second Chamber). It’s also important to know that the members of the first chamber are not directly voted for by citizens. Instead, they get voted in by members of the ‘Provinciale Staten’ (Provincial States) who are democratically elected and are also responsible for policy on the provincial level. This indirect form of democracy has led to the first chamber being almost completely filled with rich businessmen and women, to whom their seat in the chamber is a small side job or in many cases a stepping stone to career advancement. The Netherlands has always been a trade-centric country, and the first chamber is a prime example of how engrained lobbyists have become in the Dutch political system.
The Tweede Kamer (Second Chamber)
The ‘Tweede Kamer’ has 150 members from 15 parties and is the beating heart of the Dutch democracy. The main responsibility of the second chamber is to introduce and vote on legislation. They thus have the largest impact on laws and the direction of the Netherlands. The members of this chamber are directly voted for by Dutch citizens, in elections such as the one coming up in March. Elections are held every four years and determine all the seats in this chamber, as opposed to a staggered election cycle like that of the US parliament. Another primary responsibility of both the second and the first chamber is to keep track of the Cabinet of Ministers, also referred to as simply: the government.
The Kabinet/regering (Cabinet of Ministers/Government)
The leader of the party that has the most members in the Second Chamber is generally the Prime-Minister*, this rule is currently occupied by Mark Rutte** representing the VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy). The prime minister is tasked with creating a coalition, a bond between parties that together have more than half the seats in the chamber. These parties, called the coalition parties, then together discuss a government accord. This accord covers how they will divide power, what parts of their shared agenda they will push and what parts will not be pushed into policy, as well as who takes the ministerial spots available.
The Prime Minister, as well as the other chosen Ministers, are no longer part of the Second Chamber as long as they form the Cabinet of Ministers. They together are now the government and are responsible for policy, thus they cannot have a vote in legislation anymore. In reality, however, the Cabinet and the Second Chamber work together quite closely, both on government policy as well as legislation.
* ’generally’ because this title is reserved for whoever forms the coalition, however, this role traditionally falls on the leader of the largest party.
** Since the 15th of January, Rutte has the position of ‘demissionair’ (caretaker) Prime-Minister, as the government resigned over a discriminatory welfare scandal. For more info: ABC (English), BOinK [Parents’ association] (Dutch)
In reality, the system is a lot more complex than described in this article. But the most important things to remember are: The King is nothing more than a show figure; the Prime-minister and the Cabinet are ‘the government’ and determine policy; the Second Chamber is responsible for legislation and the Cabinet is based on the power divide in this chamber; the First Chamber is a quasi-democratic regulatory body filled with lobbyists. But most importantly if you are a Dutch citizen remember to vote in the March 17th elections!