‘Ik Willem’ or ‘Ik Willem niet’?


by Chris­tine Hüb­n­er.

What the Dutch say about the monar­chy, par­tic­i­pa­tion and their new head of state, King Willem-Alexan­der

Crowds out­side entire­ly dressed in orange, flags over flags, and only orange toma­toes in the super­mar­kets — it is hard not to notice that we have a new king in the Nether­lands! The offi­cial abdi­ca­tion of Queen Beat­rix and the inau­gu­ra­tion of her son Willem-Alexan­der turned this year’s Queen’s Day cel­e­bra­tions into a very spe­cial show. Already ear­li­er on this blog I have been shar­ing my obser­va­tions of liv­ing in a monar­chy while hav­ing grown up in a Repub­lic. Willem-Alexander’s investi­ture was thus a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty for me (and for many Dutch­men of my age) to inves­ti­gate the impact and accep­tance of the Dutch Roy­als.

The lib­er­al, free­dom-lov­ing Dutch have always amazed me with their enthu­si­asm and broad sup­port for the roy­al fam­i­ly and (par­lia­men­tary) monar­chy as form of gov­ern­ment. Accord­ing to recent polls the lat­ter remains over­whelm­ing­ly high at 85 per­cent; only 15 per­cent of the Dutch favour hav­ing a repub­lic over a monar­chy. Even more impres­sive: the sup­port has been at the same high lev­el since the 1960s (with few brief excep­tions). While many of the polit­i­cal par­ties in the coun­try want to lim­it the influ­ence of the Roy­als to a mere­ly cer­e­mo­ni­al role, 48 per­cent of the Dutch are very sat­is­fied with the pow­er dis­tri­b­u­tion between the king and the par­lia­ment. And there could be more: 18 per­cent want the roy­al fam­i­ly to have more influ­ence on politi­cians. Accord­ing­ly, only a few hun­dred sup­port­ers showed up at the counter-event to the Queen’s Day-and-throne-swop cel­e­bra­tions orga­nized by the Repub­li­cans — and some of them were even still wear­ing orange! Indeed, the Repub­li­cans are not pre­sent­ing real killer-argu­ments against the Oran­jes: the monar­chy being out­dat­ed, an unelect­ed head of state being unde­mo­c­ra­t­ic, and the costs of sup­port­ing a roy­al fam­i­ly being too high are not exact­ly very orig­i­nal motions. Nev­er­the­less, to me the Dutch enthu­si­asm for their roy­al fam­i­ly and sup­port for the monar­chy does not fit very well with the oth­er­wise so lib­er­al image I have of my host coun­try. How come?

To find out, I – dressed in Orange of course — have min­gled with the mer­ry crowd on Queen’s Day to ask peo­ple. Jan told me that he just finds it a good idea that the king can influ­ence politi­cians. “In our sys­tem, there is some­one with no polit­i­cal posi­tion, who can put an end to a pow­er vac­u­um at any time. This is one of the biggest advan­tages of the monar­chy, I think. It’s a good thing that our head of state is not elect­ed. Since the par­lia­ment is the only insti­tu­tion at the nation­al lev­el direct­ly elect­ed by the peo­ple, it is always clear who has the last word. A stale­mate sit­u­a­tion such as for Oba­ma in the U.S. can­not occur here.”

Clau­dia adds that the Oran­jes add a fac­tor of sta­bil­i­ty to an oth­er­wise polit­i­cal­ly dif­fi­cult coun­try: “Beat­rix was the queen for 33 years. She is an insti­tu­tion while the prime min­is­ters around her have been a chang­ing. That gives me as a cit­i­zen actu­al­ly rather a good feel­ing, that in all that mess of pow­er games and polit­i­cal agen­das there is some­one who still rep­re­sents the con­cerns of us com­mon Dutch­men.” And appar­ent­ly also the quest for alter­na­tives is not help­ing, at least accord­ing to Sjaak, who is being very prag­mat­ic: “You have to ask what the alter­na­tive to the monar­chy is for us. Should we have a pres­i­dent?  First­ly, that is not going to be much cheap­er than hav­ing a roy­al fam­i­ly. And sec­ond­ly, a pres­i­dent will– in prin­ci­ple — have the exact same func­tion. I do not want to have a sys­tem where every idiot in the Sen­ate can block a bill only for his or her own polit­i­cal or eco­nom­ic agen­da.”

How­ev­er, there are also crit­i­cal voic­es among the orange mass­es: “Inher­i­tance of a roy­al title does not exact­ly lead to the best can­di­dates. If the vot­er had the pow­er, I could at least decide for myself who is capa­ble of lead­ing the coun­try.” says Bas. Louis inter­rupts him: “Yes, it is per­haps not entire­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic to make some­one head of state pure­ly on the basis of birth, but do you real­ly think that pres­i­dents are much bet­ter? Look at all the pres­i­den­tial scan­dals in oth­er coun­tries! The sys­tem works well for us and the Nether­lands is always fair­ly well steered com­pared to oth­er coun­tries.”

Only the much-loved and much-asked-for trans­paren­cy of our mod­ern democ­ra­cies seems to pro­vide a real argu­ment against the Oran­jes. Wim tells me what cit­i­zens get to hear from inside the Paleis Noordeinde in The Hague: “Noth­ing! What dis­pleas­es me most is that the roy­al fam­i­ly is secre­tive, their actions are too opaque. Most things are played out behind closed doors. Take the reg­u­lar meet­ings between the monarch and the prime min­is­ter as an exam­ple: There could be a lot of polit­i­cal pres­sure from the roy­als actu­al­ly with­out us cit­i­zens ever notic­ing it. Even con­tact with the deputies, who are around at the palace, is sub­ject to secre­cy.” This, too, is a prob­lem for Bas: “The monar­chy leads to a kind of back­room pol­i­tics. We as the vot­ers are not sup­posed to know what influ­ence the roy­als real­ly exert, so we just can­not judge.”

So the ques­tion here is not so much why the Dutch are so enthu­si­as­tic about the monar­chy, but rather what the alter­na­tives are and whether they come with more par­tic­i­pa­tion, more mutu­al trust, and more accept­able pol­i­cy. Den­nis says, “Take a look at the ques­tion from the oth­er angle for once: What is the alter­na­tive to the monar­chy as we have it today? And would we real­ly be bet­ter off with it?” For many Dutch the Oran­jes seem like a good cast for the role of medi­a­tor between pol­i­tics and peo­ple: they have a diplo­mat­ic style and few scan­dals. If they remain low-key in their influ­ence on politi­cians, keep close to lives of the com­mon peo­ple, and work on their open­ness and trans­paren­cy, there seems to be no rea­son not to like them.

With the new King Willem-Alexan­der many Dutch peo­ple expect just that: a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the young gen­er­a­tion, who is close to the peo­ple, sim­ply one of them. So at least in the Nether­lands, trust in the polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions, accept­able pol­i­cy, and the state of democ­ra­cy in gen­er­al seem to be inde­pen­dent of the form of gov­ern­ment. Accord­ing to a 2008 study more than half of the Dutch are (very) sat­is­fied with the demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem in the coun­try. Point being tak­en! The only ques­tion remain­ing then is how my fel­low coun­try­men, the Ger­mans (or oth­er Euro­peans for that mat­ter) would feel about hav­ing a king. Tiny hint: about 4 mil­lion Ger­mans were watch­ing inau­gu­ra­tion of the new Dutch king on TV!

Chris­tine Hueb­n­er is a part­ner at d|part.

Dis­claimer

The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

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