Dutch Politics Explained

A few days ago we posted H. Numan’s essay about the push by the Dutch elites to boycott Geert Wilders’ party and keep them from participating in the next government, despite their position as the far-and-away most popular party in the country.

Based on the comments on his essay posted by mystified readers, H. Numan concluded that it was necessary to write a longer account that might helps shine a light on the peculiar political customs of The Netherlands.

Dutch politics explained

by H. Numan

Most readers here are American, and you folks have a two party system. We have a very different system, in which it is next to impossible for one party to gain a majority. It’s totally different, looks incomprehensibly complicated but it sort of works. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. Our system isn’t better or worse than yours. Just different. Both systems weren’t invented yesterday. A lot of it comes from history. Both can very easily be perverted into something other than a democracy. Trump saved American democracy in the nick of time. I hope Wilders can do the same for us.

Let’s dive into history for a bit. It’s really interesting. I think few people know that the US constitution is directly based on the Union of Utrecht, for example.

The present-day kingdom of the Netherlands is not all that old. It only emerged after the fall of Napoleon. The exact date is difficult to give, even for a history buff like me. 2 December 1813 or 24 August 1815, depending on your viewpoint. Prince William VI didn’t like constitutions one little bit, and he simply refused one. He’d much rather have been an absolute ruling prince than a king under a constitution. It took a lot of effort to change his mind. That’s why there are different dates.

In 1813 Prince William VI landed in Scheveningen from England and accepted the throne as Prince. In 1815 he accepted the throne as king under a constitution. From prince William VI he was promoted to King William I. Both names refer to Prince William the Silent, of whom he wasn’t even a descendant… but appearances do matter. “What’s in a name?” asked the great bard. “EVERYTHING!” replies the Dutch royal family.

The people who made him change his mind weren’t exactly democrats themselves. They all (the prince/king included) wanted to return to the happy days of yesteryear before the French Revolution spoiled everything. Regrettably, they succeeded for the better part. It doesn’t differ that much from America, mind you. A small class of people who rule the country and a very large class that actually do the work. Please bear in mind I abhor communism and socialism. Any resemblance is purely coincidental. It’s easier for an American paperboy to become president than for a Dutch paperboy, I grant you that. In both countries it’s possible, but not likely. If your name is Bush, for example, you’ll do your paper round five minutes for appearances’ sake. Then it’s off to the cursus honorum on your way to the senate or the presidency. In Holland it works exactly the same way. The big difference is that important decisions are always a compromise in Holland, while in America it’s decided within one party.

In the past, and for the greater part of our history, what is now The Netherlands was a republic. The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, to be exact. That’s were the plural ‘The Netherlands’ comes from. There are more of them then just one. Seven provinces united in their struggle for independence from Spain. Each province was a completely independent state. The only two things they tried to do together were defense and foreign policy, as little as possible. The Dutch navy of the 17th century was well-known and feared, but there was no Dutch navy. The city of Rotterdam had an admiralty; so did Amsterdam, Friesland, North Holland (outside Amsterdam), and the province of Zealand. They worked together, yes. But were completely independent from each other. One served as an officer in that particular admiralty. Transfers could and did happen, but most served within one single admiralty their whole career or life. Sometimes admiralties clashed (not in war, though) and didn’t always agree. Each did what it thought was best. Selfish interests prevailed. Some things don’t really change, do they?

It seems horribly complicated, and it of course was. But at that time this crude system was a big political improvement. So much so, that the founding fathers modeled the early USA on it. The Dutch republic was at that time two centuries old, so the founding fathers didn’t really copy it. They copied the concept and improved on it.

To make matters even more complicated … Yes, that is possible. The individual provinces weren’t really independent countries. The cities within a province were almost fully independent. Remnants of that can be found even today in our country. In the present day Netherlands cities have a large level of legal independence: they can raise taxes, sometimes ignore national laws, and most of the families from the 17th century (we call them ‘regents’) still control city politics, albeit behind the scenes. The cities had their own private armies, formed out of their middle- and upper-class citizens. Seen the Nightwatch, by Rembrandt? That was the private militia army of the city of Amsterdam. A big bank made a brilliant commercial out of it a few years ago. Watch it. You’ll really like it. Until a couple of years ago, a city could fund its own police force.

How did we reach a consensus? Very, very slowly. Let’s imagine that a war had to be declared. First, all cities had to approve of it, by majority vote, in their own city. They send a representative to their own provincial government. They had to meet and by majority agree. Then a representative of that provincial government had to vote within the States General (sort of parliament), and only then war could be declared. If you wonder how anything moved faster than continents, so do I. Mind you, this was a step up from medieval times. There were only four places in Europe without a monarchy: The Dutch Republic, the Swiss Confederation, Genoa and the Venetian Republic. Your founding fathers admired the Dutch Republic enough to base their constitution on it, but were clever enough to understand the snail should not become their national symbol.

You think that was slow? Forget it. It can get much worse. In Holland we say ‘op z’n elf en dertigst’ or, in English, ‘by way of the eleven and thirty’ for something that is really slow. The province of Friesland (or Frisia in English) has 11 cities and 30 districts, then and now. Each city and each district was allowed to vote on everything in the States General. Without their consent, there was no approval from the Frisian delegate. Phones didn’t exist, roads were very bad. So he had to travel by coach or on horseback, cross the Zuiderzee, travel to each of the 11 cities and 30 districts, argue in all of them, in order to get their aye or nay. Then travel all the way back and present that aye or nay in the States General. Glaciers move a whole lot faster than that.

There were of course shortcuts. They are very much present today. First of all, each political deal was discussed in private. See who would agree, or how much it would cost to make him agree. Backroom deals were an essential part of government, then and now. Next, everybody was equal, yes. But some were a lot more equal than others. On the provincial level the province of Holland was bigger than all the others combined. Within the province of Holland, Amsterdam was bigger (politically and economically) than all other cities in the province of Holland combined. Basically, if Amsterdam said ‘yes’ and the whole country said ‘no’, ‘yes’ it usually was.

Another shortcut was the prince of Orange. Officially he wasn’t the head of the country; the grand pensionary was. But he was the official head of the army (not the navy) and controlled much of the land provinces. It would be a very brave grand pensionary indeed to defy the prince. Several paid with their heads. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was beheaded and Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis were lynched by the mob. To relate this to today: Johan and his brother Cornelis de Witt were at that time under government protection. As Geert Wilders is today. “Mysteriously” the guard detachment was withdrawn, giving the mob the opportunity to lynch them. Nobody knows until this very day who was responsible for this withdrawal. Let’s hope that history will not repeat itself during the first 15 days of March.


Modern Dutch politics began at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th century. At that time politics as well as social life were strictly segregated based on religion, known as pillarisation. If you were born in a Roman Catholic family, your mum would have an RC doctor, RC midwife, you’d go to an RC kindergarten, RC primary school, RC secondary school, listen to the RC radio station KRO, read an RC newspaper, work for an RC employer, be a member of an RC labor union, live in a rented house from RC housing, go to an RC hospital and finally be laid to rest in an RC cemetery. There were four main pillars: Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, Socialist and Neutral.

Next-door neighbors would barely see or even talk to one another if they belonged to different pillars. Nothing negative mind you, but ‘he ain’t one of us’. Surely a nice bloke, but why on earth should I say anything else than good morning to him? Basically you ignored the fact that other pillars even existed.

This pillarisation slowly disappeared in the late sixties early seventies. It’s not that long ago, folks! Yes, I know it vividly — I am that old. The pillarisation had and still has a massive influence on our political system. Why did it disappear? Because the Dutch did something that most Americans of today can’t understand: they became the most atheist nation on the planet, outside of communist countries. Because nobody really liked pillarisation. Only the people on top did. Everybody else more or less followed their lead, mostly because they had to. Social pressure, you know. The only pillar that remained and absorbed all others was the socialist pillar, one could and should argue. Our society was for almost a century entirely based on that pillarisation principle, and you will find a lot of it is still there. In fact, a new pillar is emerging: the mohammedan pillar. Integration is never on the agenda for mohammedans, segregation always is. The Slovervaart hospital, for example is already a preferred mohammedan hospital. Not a mohammedans-only hospital; the law does not yet allow for that. Don’t worry, all parties except for one are working towards that sacred goal.

An example of pillarisation: we don’t have truly independent media. The reason? Pillarisation. We had RC, Dutch Reformed, socialist and conservative newspapers. You would subscribe to them based on your pillar. No other reason. Exactly the same for radio and later TV stations. No commercial TV was ever allowed before the early eighties. All radio and TV stations were non-profit, based on your pillar. There was very little advertising, only a five-minute block before and after the news. TV stations didn’t really need the advertising, as their members had to pay membership fees. You didn’t get a TV program unless you were member. Today there is almost no difference between a really commercial and non-profit station whatsoever. The message is now 100% multicultural. The inauguration of Trump was presented very negatively, as if it was a worse disaster than 9/11. That’s the Dutch media today, and that is what the PVV has to fight against.

Now a few conclusions for you. As I said, I abhor communism and socialism. Having said that, I’m not a staunch libertarian either. The PVV party is firmly rooted in Dutch political history. During the republic the ‘little people’ revolted many times against their regent overlords. Sometimes with success, more often not. That Nightwatch militia you watched a moment ago mostly was used to for crowd control, 17th-century style. Pussyfooting hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had teargas, but a whiff of grapeshot could do wonders. Disapproving of socialism doesn’t mean to say anti-social, or ‘here’s a cup, you can beg over there’. The Dutch republic and afterwards had a system (rudimentary by today’s standards) that was light-years ahead of its time for the needy and the elderly. Poor people have, by sheer necessity, more interest in social welfare. That doesn’t mean to say they are therefore automatically socialists or worse. That’s a stupid mistake socialists and communists always make. Seems ingrained in their ideology.

Another point to ponder is why the Dutch revolted in 1572. That was a conservative revolution. The Habsburgian government wanted to centralize and modernize government. The population wanted to preserve their old privileges and customs. Up to a point, they succeeded. Very quickly the merchant class who led the revolt found their governmental seats very comfortable, and changed it into a family business. Literally. But that doesn’t change the fact that the revolt was conservative, not progressive, and was extremely successful. Wilders is leading a conservative revolution. This conservative movement is worldwide. Wilders may not succeed right now, but in the end he will. Socialism has had its day; now it’s time to react to that. Given the fact that Trump is now president, PVV voters will get a big moral boost from that.

Rest assured that Wilders and all other politicos already know to a great extent what kind of cabinet will be possible after the 15th of March elections. Wilders is one of the most capable politicians of the country. Of course he is already negotiating with most party leaders. And vice versa, all other parties are feeling out the others. Back-room politics was practically invented in The Netherlands. Or elevated to a higher level at the very least. Will the VVD work together with Wilders? Perhaps, I don’t know. We, the people, don’t know and we won’t know what deals have been struck until after the elections. That’s back-room politics for you, and that is part of our cultural history. Yes, we don’t like that part either.

Whatever you hear about the PVV party, they are anything but a socialist party. It is a conservative party with a strong social program, and that is something vastly different. It may look the PVV program overlaps with the SP (Maoists) program, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rest assured that the VVD (conservatives) will sing that tune until they are voted out of existence on the 15th. If they won’t, the media will.

It’s important to realize you cannot make a society according to your political ideas of the moment. The Frankfurt school of nihilism has had its time. History always plays a very important part, no matter how much you try to ignore it. Forgetting your history is forgetting why you look at a certain situation differently from, say, the way an American or a German will. Our Argentinean queen said ‘Dutch culture? I haven’t seen it.’ Neither has nearly all of my country’s elite… They all claim to be cosmopolitan citizens of planet Earth. No passports required, no boundaries necessary.

I myself really am sort of a cosmopolitan. After all, I have lived for 23 years in a very different culture. Yet I see something different: I see yokels who know little or nothing about foreign cultures and assume they know everything. Because they were born in well-to-do families or have a university degree, and therefore know it all. What I see is a Dutch yokel walking on clogs wearing a necktie looking down upon his heritage. Or nowadays he wears a Palestinian headscarf instead of the tie, because it’s so fashionable.

Myself? Cosmopolitan? Good lord, no! I am a Dutchman who happens to live in Thailand, and likes it very much there. Trying to understand Thai culture and Thai people. Sometimes, I even succeed. The difference between them, my country’s elite, and me is that I know what I am. They do not.

That’s a very short abbreviated history of The Netherlands. I could go on, but I think you get the idea why we have such a weird political system.

— H. Numan

20 thoughts on “Dutch Politics Explained

  1. This is a fascinating insight. Thank you!

    It occurred to me that a two-party system like in the U.S. is in practice very similar to run-off elections like in France.

    Dutch-type proportional representation leads to a totally different “game”.

    Then there’s British-style first-past-the-post, which is yet another different animal.

    These seem to me to be the three main variants in electoral systems, with totally different “games” as a result.

  2. Thank you for your insight into Dutch politics. Years ago, I used to spend some weekends working in a hostel for the homeless in Utrecht. It was only an hour’s flight out of Heathrow and it gave me something useful to do when I was away from work.

    Utrecht, being a university town was very “Cosmopolitan” (I do not like that word) and life appeared to be straightforward until election time. When I asked “who will win?” I was greeted with blank expressions. Now I understand why.

    I, too, have settled in Thailand and am currently struggling with the language. Up until now, I have relied upon the good offices of my wife who has a degree in English but my New Year Resolution is to learn to speak Thai properly, so that is what I am doing.

    I have no wish to return to England, except for a holiday.

    • Thailand is a nice country, though it has changed a lot and not to the best during the last 20-25 years. But it is for thais, not farangs. I guarantee you will never be accepted as equal and you will never understand thais. I spent 15 years in Thailand, had access to the highest level of thai society (very rare for a foreigner, members of the royal family used to come to my house), speak the language and had influence in their very corrupt social and political system, but I was still a farang behind my back.
      I still have some perks from the old days, like getting 2 years visa on arrival instead of usual 30 days, if I want to. I like that country, but it is for thais. A European cannot fully adapt and accept thai mentality.

      • I agree that Thailand is for the Thai people. I live here quietly in a northern village. My friends are a closely knit collection of Thai people and I shun expats like the plague. I try to adapt as much as I can, helped by the fact that my wife is a Thai businesswoman. I think I will manage.

        • All the best ! I am sure with a Thai wife you will indeed manage.
          I wish I lived anywhere else than Europe actually. Not easy to emigrate though, unfortunately.

  3. Although it’s quite a common system around the world, the notion of proportional representation that H. Numan outlined in his previous piece and alluded to here is something that strikes me as incomprehensible bordering on ludicrous.

    When voters cast their ballots for a mere list of a party’s candidates instead of for their own representatives from their own districts or constituencies, that’s barely what passes for my own definition of representative democracy. To whom do voters address their concerns or grievances? Whom do they hold personally to account for bad government decisions?

    It seems to me that it’s almost a farcical version of democracy, one that pays lip service to an electorate whose only duty is to vote for their favorite gang of politicians, who might or might not end up wielding any meaningful responsibility. The gangs then cut deals among themselves to decide who will make the actual decisions. I suppose you could call that “consensus politics,” but that’s being quite generous.

    No wonder Geert Wilders is having such a tough time. He might end up with the biggest gang in March, but that will mean nothing when all the other gangs close ranks against him. And the people will be silenced.

    • Nah, you are being unfair. Proportional democracy was invented in order to create a system where more points of view are represented, not just one, as in America. Nobody is nowadays emulating the Brit/Am system of first past the post. Now, I think that things didn’t work out all that well for their system. But in principle, it allows more voices, more schools of thought, that have to then make alliances.

      Thanks to their system, Mr. Wilders and his fellows are in Parliament in the first place. And that is true for the various otherwise ostracized parties around Europe.

      • >> “Proportional democracy was invented in order to create a system where more points of view are represented, not just one, as in America.”

        Of course, there are angels who decide which views are included in the list of candidates, and a voter will be fully aware of ALL of those different views and their nuances.

        As bad as the first-past-the-post system is (It is horrible.), I’ll take it ahead of the manipulated prop-rep mongrel.

        • It depends on the issue to be argued for/against as to whether the “manipulated” version works better. Anthony Trollope describes very well the corruption of the first past the post version.

          Our prop-rep corruption is different, and perhaps easier – in the long run – to change. For the first time in a VERY long dark period, America managed to “throw the bums out” via Donald Trump. However, if we do not shrink the permanent bureaucracy (a project which Trump started on right out of the gate by freezing new hires) there will be no “hope for change”.

          Meanwhile, off-stage, our very blue European-style welfare states are fast going bankrupt. And people are leaving as a result. The problem for the other states is that these Leavers take along in their baggage very blue dog Democrat ways of thinking about governance. Thus do red states turn purple.

          I’ll take our system since I see the most hope for that version — e.g., our state is already gearing up for a gubernatorial race, with the Dems and Republicans busy finding a candidate with a chance of winning. It’s a mixed bag right now.

          One possible contender on the Dem side is a long-time Soros employee who was (thankfully brief) our Congressional representative; he rode in for one term on Obama’s coat tails. This worthy fellow (a Yale law school grad) proved in a question-answer interview that he was profoundly ignorant of the Constitution.

          Meanwhile, on the Republican side, a current Congressional rep who beat the odious globalist Eric Cantor in a surprise upset (Cantor was waaay high up in Congressional power, being at the time the House Majority Leader) is considering throwing his hat into the ring…if they still wore hats. Here, see the incredible thing he did, almost at Trump levels of insurgency:


          Thus do dominoes continue to fall: with Eric Cantor gone, Paul Ryan was able to move into the vacuum and become quite powerful; he played footsie with Obama during the last period of BHO’s reign. Even though Ryan is an Open Borders globalist, his constituents in Wisconsin voted him back in just because he had become so powerful.

          Disgusting: they voted for Ryan even though the hypocrite has a big Wall all around his own home. The rallying cry has become, “Walls for me, but not for thee”.

          The Tea Party won that first round for Brat…never leave the Tea Party out of the equation…iow, don’t ask about the mechanics of American politics. It’s a Rube Goldberg contraption.

  4. Fascinating writing, thanks! The system you describe works well in a stable fairly slowly evolving Europe. I wonder how the system would cope with a fourth generation warfare?
    After all there is no assurance that Dutch as a nation must survive. While they are busy backdoor negotiating, the muslims will take over and bye bye discussions…
    The history of Europe full with nations who no longer exists. I hope the Dutch will not join their ranks!

  5. I really don’t see how Wilders (who I admire) can make a difference without a clear majority of half the seats plus one. We know the others will simply block him at every point on every issue unless he holds a majority of half the seats plus one.

    There is no gentlemanly agreement to put the childish selfish personal agenda’s of the other politicians’ aside and govern for the for the good of the Netherlands.Instead th Dutch parliament is populated by politicians with massive ego’s fulfilling their petty spiteful and personal vendetta against Wilders at the expense of truly representing either their stated party’s interests or the interests of Netherlands as a whole.

    For Wilders to make a difference he must get those seats and perhaps he could get enough party members to stand at the next election .Without that nothing will change.

    • That’s easy to explain. Because he doesn’t need to make any constitutional changes at all. We got into the EU and Euro without a change in the constitution, so we can get out the same way.

      He doesn’t need to have 50%+1 majority. All he needs is a substantial majority within that 50%. And a spine, to stick to his program.

  6. So…. your skaters are a whole lot faster than your government?

    I had no idea how convoluted is the Dutch voting system, thank you Mr Numan, interesting!

  7. There is one thing you are wrong about in this article; one pillar still exists, the reformists one. They didn’t disappear, they retracted into their own, like they are amish living in the 1950’s and everyone has tablets. Although the CU and SGP (their political parties) have their faults, both of them are not riddled with lefitst BS. Reformist schools are the best in the country. Their people the richest and most productive. Therefore, I believe they could play a tremendous role in the coming Wilders administration if the PVV wins.

    Note; many reformists don’t know what is going on in the world because they don’t follow alternative media. But those who do get ‘redpilled’ as they say, either become very politely savage (like SGP member Bisschop, check his Twitter) or retract. That is why I believe we can expect a lot from them after March.

  8. I read that no political party in Netherlands may field more that 50 candidates, yet the
    minimum seats to gain a majority in Parliament is 73! Therefore, every Government MUST be a coalition- is this correct?
    How on Earth can such an arbitrary system be logically justified?

    • The limit of 50 is because the PVV only fielded a list of 50 candidates — that is, it has no more than fifty that it can send to Parliament. If it had submitted a list of 73, then it could send as many as 73 to Parliament.

      Publically announcing your membership in the PVV can be a career-killer, and result in death threats and official harassment. That may be why the PVV can only manage to field 50 candidates. Those are brave people.

  9. Heel erg bedankt, meneer, voor uw inzichten.

    Google translate. I don’t know Dutch.

    Are Cosmopolitan and “Dutch” mutually exclusvie? Both my wife and I were born in lands that were Dutch colonies back around 1640+: Taiwan and New Jersey. In the East, I knew Christlijke Gereformeerde missionaries (pardon spelling) who clearly had “Indo” blood; Robert du Jon, the first Reformed missionary on my wife’s natal island of Taiwan, was actually French in origin, even if he worked for the United East India Company; your East Indies holdings, back in the day, were protected by forces that were probably 2/3+ foreign (German, Ambonese, etc.). I understand your country took in a fair amount of intra-European immigration, and its people long considered mastery of a foreign language (or two, or three) both worthwhile and a proud accomplishment.

    Could it be that countries that engage in a lot of trade (definitely a necessity in the Netherlands’ case) end up fairly cosmopolitan, even in their classes of relatively modest means? It’s starting to happen with the USA, too. Even American “Flyover Country” can be pretty welcoming to a respectful outsider (even not all white, or non-white!), despite what you hear about Klansmen behind every tree.

    BTW, I hope you like Thailand. Under my real name, I was US Vice Consul in Bangkok for a couple of years.

  10. The Netherlands is not as divided between rich and poor as the US and the UK. There is a much larger social safety net and the country has never relied on manufacture or exploitation of natural resources. Dutch people, like the Swiss, have been forced by their environment to become world traders and free thinkers and, although they may grumble privately about immigrants, they will draw the line at the kind of fearmongering that is threatening to destabilise other countries in Europe with weaker political systems.

    When looking at the current rise of proto-fascism in Europe, we should remember that there is fierce competition for a share of the “wealth pie” amongst the many Central European immigrants who enter wealthier EU countries as low cost labour. Currently, Muslim/African refugees make convenient scapegoats, just like the Jews were blamed for Germany’s woes during the 1930s.

    Racism never ends well.

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