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Majority Rule/Minority Rights: Country Studies - Netherlands

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 1 Political Rights, 1 Civil Liberties (Free)


The Netherlands is situated on the North Sea across from Great Britain. The Netherlands emerged from Catholic Spain's control in the 16th century to become a continental power. Considered the first true capitalist country, the Netherlands also became a model welfare state after World War II. With just 16.5 million people, the Netherlands has among the world's most dynamic economies, which in 2006 ranked 13th for gross national income, or GNI ($42,670), and ranked ninth ($37,580) by PPP (purchasing power parity, which takes into account inflation and other factors).

The Netherlands
The Netherlands, formally a constitutional monarchy, has a bicameral parliamentary legislative system. Since liberation from Nazi occupation, the Netherlands has returned to its previous democratic stability. Two recent assassinations by political extremists, however, have challenged the Netherlands' tradition of tolerance and socially liberal policies. Predominantly Nederland, or Dutch, by ethnicity (83 percent), the population is religiously mixed and has Turkish, Moroccan, Antillean, Surinamese, and Indonesian minorities, most of whom have migrated from the Netherlands' former colonies. At one million people, the Muslim minority is one of the largest in Europe.


The provinces of the Low Countries—what is today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg—declared independence from Charles V of Spain in 1568, sparking the Eighty Years War. The seven northern provinces (Nederlands) gained effective independence under the Union of Utrecht in 1579 but was granted formal independence by Spain only in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years Wars fought between Catholics and Protestants. The Seven Republics of the Netherlands was formed under the monarchy of the Protestant House of Orange. It is today the longest-lasting constitutional ruling family in Europe. In 1677, William III of Orange married his first cousin Mary, daughter of the future James II of England; later they ruled jointly, briefly uniting the British and Dutch thrones.

The Dutch Golden Age

The period from 1584 to 1702 is known as the Golden Age, an era of expanded trade, economic development, colonial expansion, international influence, and significant contributions to culture. With its major cities on the North Sea, the Netherlands became one of the great seafaring nations of the world and established trading posts and colonies in strategic places, including Indonesia, various Caribbean islands, and, in a trade for Suriname to the British, New Amsterdam (New York). With the exception of New York, which thrived as a relatively independent entity, the Netherlands treated its colonies in much the same way Great Britain governed its colonies, exploiting resources, using inhabitants for forced labor and restricting the liberties of the indigenous population.

The Netherlands also became the first and most successful capitalist country, inventing public stock companies, share trading, a stock exchange, and insurance, among other standard tools of commerce today.

The Netherlands was highly innovative in the development of technology, forms of seafaring, and ways of protecting its below-sea-level cities. It developed a unique cooperative infrastructure of waterways between and within its cities. The Netherlands also became the first and most successful capitalist country, inventing public stock companies, share trading, a stock exchange, and insurance, among other standard tools of commerce today. It introduced innovative means of farm production as well as use of the windmill for energy.

Restoration of the Kingdom

In 1795, Napoleon's imperial army defeated the Netherlands and it was incorporated into the First French Empire. In 1815, with the final defeat of Napoleon, the Kingdom of Netherlands was restored in a union with Belgium and Luxembourg, its Low Country neighbors. But Belgium declared its independence in 1830 and Luxembourg followed suit in 1839, leaving the republic with its original territory. Beginning in 1848, the Netherlands developed a parliamentary legislative system, which has functioned ever since except during the Nazi occupation.

Neutrality and Occupation

The Netherlands remained neutral in both world wars, but in 1940 Nazi Germany ignored its neutrality and occupied the country as part of its campaign to conquer all of Europe; the Dutch government ruled in exile from London and urged resistance. Under an oppressive Nazi administration, Dutch workers were placed into forced labor and the country's sizable Jewish population was ruthlessly rounded up for transport to extermination camps. By the time the Netherlands was liberated in 1945, an estimated 100,000 Dutch Jews had been killed, 70 percent of the prewar Jewish population.

Postwar Expansion

Like much of Western and Northern Europe, the Netherlands after the war had dynamic free-market growth and development of a broad social welfare policy. It granted independence to former colonies and rejected its former practice of neutrality, first by organizing the Benelux Union (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg) in 1948. It then helped found the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, which was the forerunner of the European Economic Community and today's European Union. The Netherlands was also an original member of NATO, formed in April 1949. Internationally, the Netherlands has also sought to stand out as a country with strong concerns for human rights and humanitarian issues, providing a fixed part of its gross domestic product (GDP) for foreign assistance (about 0.8 percent; approximately $5.4 billion in 2005) and offering sanctuary for refugees, especially those from former colonies. This practice has been tested recently by the killing of a Dutch filmmaker by a Muslim extremist because of his criticism of Islam.

Majority Rule, Minority Rights

The Constitution of the Netherlands establishes a parliamentary democracy with full protections for individual freedoms and minority rights. The bicameral parliament consists of a 75-member First Chamber (Eerste Kamer) and a 150-member Second Chamber (Tweede Kamer). The Second Chamber is directly elected at least every four years by proportional representation according to party lists. Members to the First Chamber are indirectly elected for four-year terms by the provincial parliaments.

Political Majorities and Minorities

The center-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and its precedents and the left-of-center Labor Party (PvdA) have been the two largest parties in every postwar election except one. But neither has ever gained a full majority, making coalition governments a necessity. While there have been four unity governments made by these two large parties, usually coalitions have been formed by each of the larger parties with the right-wing People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and a sister liberal party called Democrats 66. In 2002, the Christian Democratic government included the anti-immigrant Pim Fortuyn List in a right coalition after Fortuyn's assassination had propelled his List to an unprecedented second place in the polls. But infighting within the Fortuyn List caused the government to fall. In the January 2003 elections, the List lost nearly three-fourths of its seats and was no longer needed for a CDA-led coalition. The CDA got only slightly more than PvdA (44 to 42 seats), but when PvdA rejected its offer to form a unity government, it was able to form a government again with the VVD and Democrats 66.

Postwar Netherlands elections and governments have thus represented different political majorities and minorities at different points in time. Government policy has alternated broadly between the Right (pro–free market and trade, pro-NATO, restrictive immigration policy, socially conservative) and the Left (pro–social welfare and union, socially liberal, more pro-immigrant). But because all governments have required coalitions, the majority was found in the mixture of these ideas together with platforms with minority views. There are no ethnically based parties, but there are 15 ethnic minority members as members of party lists and factions.

A portrait of Pim Fortuyn

The "Pillars" of Multiculturalism and the Pim Fortuyn Phenomenon

The Dutch reputation for multiculturalism and tolerance originates from the country's history of "pillar" communities. These pillars were adopted originally to allow Catholic and Protestant communities to live in one society without conflict under separate state-supported pillars. This meant state-supported subsidies for unions, newspapers, schools, neighborhoods, and different religious groups, including payments for clerics, aiming to ensure that no religious group would be excluded. Immigration policy mirrored this history. But, while the earlier pillars had eventually resulted in the broad integration of religious communities, a report by the Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands published in 2004, Ethnic Minorities and Integration: Outlook for the Future, found that recent immigration to the Netherlands had resulted in the development of insular and often growingly extremist Muslim communities alienated from Dutch values, history, culture, and politics.

The Dutch reputation for multiculturalism and tolerance originates from the country's history of "pillar" communities. These pillars were adopted originally to allow Catholic and Protestant communities to live in one society without conflict under separate state-supported pillars.

The rise of Pim Fortuyn was a new phenomenon in the Netherlands. His popularity was based on anti-immigrant sentiment that explicitly rejected the Netherlands' policy of multiculturalism, tolerance, and the championing of migration and humanitarian issues in international forums. The anti-immigrant feeling was a reflection of resentment at the perception of job replacement by newcomers and what the Social and Cultural Planning Office report called the previous 30 years' failure to create a multiethnic society. It warned that the government's multicultural policy based on the concept of pillars had supported the creation of separate, insular, and, in some cases, intolerant minority communities, especially among fundamentalist Muslims. Still, the Fortuyn List's dependence on one individual meant that it would eventually dissolve following the leader's assassination in 2002 by an animal rights activist.

The Current Politics of Multiculturalism

Public opinion was again shocked when a Dutch Moroccan brutally killed filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 because of a provocative film he made in partnership with Somali-born MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali that was severely critical of the mistreatment of women in Islamic fundamentalist communities. The sympathetic response of some of the Muslim community's religious leadership toward van Gogh's killer as well as extremist threats on Hirsi Ali, the film's author, polarized Dutch society. This polarization deepened as the Christian Democrat–led government approved a plan to expel 26,000 jobless immigrants, a plan carried out by Minister of Integration Rita Verdonk of the right-wing VVD on the grounds that "rules are rules." The plan retained public support even after an October 2005 fire at a deportation waiting area at the airport killed 11 immigrants. The government also adopted severe austerity measures and cutbacks in government services affecting especially poor and minority communities, prompting large protests by trade unions and other groups.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Immigration and multicultural politics was further complicated by the revelation that Hirsi Ali had gained Dutch citizenship based on false information she had provided to the Dutch authorities 11 years previously. Verdonk said that her "rules" stance forced her to take away Hirsi Ali's citizenship, and initially she refused a call for parliamentary inquiry. After the parliament forced an inquiry, Verdonk declared that Hirsi Ali was and remained a Dutch citizen and that the false information was not pertinent to her citizenship. She refused to resign over the affair, however, despite demands for her to do so by the coalition Democrats 66 party. The Democrats 66 party called for a vote of no confidence to bring the government down and force new elections. In the midst of the controversy and continuing threats, Hirsi Ali resigned her seat to take a fellowship at a think tank in the United States, where she speaks out prominently for rights for Muslim women.

Immigration and multiculturalism dominated the headlines in the Netherlands during recent 2006 elections, but the results continued the main right-left themes of Dutch politics. The Christian Democratic Appeal won the most seats, 41, or 3 less than in 2004. While the VVD and Democrats 66 lost 9 seats combined, a splinter right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) gained 6 and the Christian Social Union 3, evening the political spectrum. Similarly, the PvdA lost 9 seats to the Socialist Party, a splinter party, which now has 25 seats, while other left parties gained seats.

The elections left few possibilities for forming a right or left government, and a unity government proved equally difficult since each of the major parties rejected the other's coalition partners: For the CDA, the Socialist Party and other left groups were too extreme, especially in their anti-American and anti-NATO planks. For the PvdA, the VVD and PVV were unacceptable due to their hard-line anti-immigration stance, especially that of the VVD's likely next leader, Verdonk. A coalition eventually formed around three parties, the CDA, PvdA, and Christian Democratic Union (CDU), with an interesting mixed platform called "Living Together, Working Together" that promises to deal with long-standing social and economic policies. Its translation on immigration and minority issues and politics remains to be seen.