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5 - Consensus Democracy in the Netherlands: Background and Future

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Summary

Introduction

The Dutch political system is often described as a consensus democracy. Problems and conflicts are resolved in such a system by intensive consultations and compromise. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, after the success of Pim Fortuyn and the rise of Geert Wilders’ PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, Party for Freedom), a lot of people have their doubts about the future of consensus democracy and what is known as the ‘polder model’. It is not the first time that this has happened. The appreciation for consensus democracy – and for the related phenomenon of the consultation economy – varies from one period to the next. In the 1960s, the attack on the ‘authoritarian mindset’ of the authorities and on the ‘lack of political clarity’ was launched, but then, around 1980, criticism of the system died down. In the early 1990s, a lot of people got annoyed once again at the search for consensus – the idea being that it would lead to gridlock and a lack of decisiveness in politics. A few years later, at the time of what were known as the Purple Cabinets of social democrats and liberals, people at home and abroad spoke glowingly of the successes of the Dutch polder model. It remains to be seen whether the current criticism of the system will lead to major changes.

Journalistic and scholarly thinking about Dutch politics has been strongly influenced by the work of political scientists such as Hans Daalder (1928-2016) and Arend Lijphart. They regard the search for consensus among the political elites as characteristic of the Dutch political culture of the twentieth century. Lijphart sees the search for consensus arise around the Pacification of 1917, a kind of package deal to resolve long-running conflicts about universal suffrage, the electoral system, and the state-financing of Protestant and Catholic schools. He sees this as a conscious effort by the political elites to resolve through consultations, from that point on, major conflicts that arise between the subcultures or pillars (zuilen). Daalder draws especially on the historical background. According to him the centuries-long peaceful coexistence of different groups under the leadership of elites of various religions and with different economic interests goes back about three hundred years, to the Dutch Golden Age.

These contribution centres on the concept of consensus. I will flesh it out further, and take a closer look at what political scientists mean when they speak about political consensus in Dutch politics.

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Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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