In its interim report published in June 2018, the national Commissie-Remkes committee, set up to look at ways of boosting confidence in the Dutch parliamentary system, promisingly stated that ‘the regional component must be better represented in the national electoral system’, as the visibility and representation of regional interests in national politics is currently problematic. The committee’s final report, however, only includes a weak recommendation on this aspect. This is a missed opportunity, according to Caspar van den Berg and Bram van Vulpen.
As a side-effect of globalization, the differences between regions have recently increased in nearly all Western countries. Not only have economic differences between the central and peripheral areas increased, they have increasingly grown apart in ideological terms too: whereas in the central regions the dominant culture is generally speaking more individualistic and progressive, the peripheral areas tend to be more traditionally and nationally oriented. The political consequences of this development have become clear recently, for example, in the result of the Brexit referendum, the election of Trump as president of the USA and the recent election results in Germany, France and Italy. In all these countries, the cultural and economic structures of different regions were important determinants of voting behaviour. Political geographers have dubbed this ‘the revenge of the places that don’t matter’.
What is the situation in the Netherlands? Until the mid-19th century, public administration in the Netherlands was largely arranged at district level and national politics mostly resembled regional representative assemblies of social estates. The unitary state and the harmonization of domestic administration, as introduced by the liberal statesman Thorbecke, strongly diminished the importance of regions as political communities. Regional representation in The Hague was initially arranged via a district system, until this was traded in for a system of proportional representation in 1917.
Even though the physical distances and economic differences in the Netherlands are smaller than those in the US and larger European countries, regional identities are growing stronger here too, and the cultural and political dominance of the Randstad area is causing resistance in the surrounding regions. Think, for example, of the blokkeerfriezen who set up a roadblock in Friesland last year to prevent others from demonstrating against the Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) aspect of the Sinterklaas tradition, the discussion on natural gas extraction in Groningen or the striking regional differences in the results of last year’s referendum on the Intelligence and Security Services Act. Many inhabitants of peripheral regions are rejecting the cultural conflicts that occur in the Randstad on themes such as Zwarte Piet, the controversy surrounding Dutch colonial history and gender neutrality. At the same time, many people feel they are being abandoned: the Randstad is turning a blind eye as their primary schools are being closed and they are fighting to maintain hospitals and court houses.
Recent research by the Frisian Social and Cultural Planning Office showed that only 14% of the Frisian population believe that the Dutch national government knows what is going on in their province, and according to research by Statistics Netherlands, confidence in the House of Representatives is lowest in the regions near the outside borders of the country. MP Pieter Omtzigt was therefore quite right when he recently warned about the emergence of a sort of ‘fly-over country that is ready to adopt populist sentiments’.
In the light of this it is regrettable that the Commissie-Remkes has not reserved more space in its final report for the concern that it raised in its interim report. The recommendation on this aspect is tucked away in a more general recommendation to integrate a stronger personal component in the electoral system. Voters should be able to vote either for a political party (without indicating a preference for a particular person) or for a person (who is affiliated with a certain party). This would enable voters to vote for a candidate from their own region. Although at first sight this appears to be an improvement, the current system in fact also allows preferential votes to be cast for specific candidates, for example because they are from the voter’s region. The Commissie-Remkes’s recommendation therefore does not actually create a regional component. This is a missed opportunity in an era when regional aspects are becoming increasingly important for the stability and legitimacy of the national government.
Prof. Caspar van den Berg and Bram van Vulpen MA are, respectively, Professor and PhD student of Global and Local Governance at the University of Groningen, Campus Fryslân.
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