Over the weekend, I attended a conference in The Hague on the issue of an erosion of trust in European democracies, especially focused on the situation in the Netherlands. The meeting was organized by the Dutch Ministry of the Interior, the Council for Public Administration, and NOW, the Netherlands Council for Scientific Research.
Much of the discussion centered around the perceived disaffection with democracy, and concern about an erosion of trust in government and in democratic institutions, including parties and parliament. Both academics and politicians emphasized that the Netherlands was experiencing a crisis of consocationalism, where the core values of tolerance, accommodation, and consensus, a source of deep national pride, were under growing threat. Many speakers thought that changes in the news media had contributed towards any growth in public cynicism and intolerance, alongside the 'personalization' of politics and the weakness of parties.
But the empirical evidence supporting the idea that political trust and satisfaction with democracy has steadily eroded, whether in Europe or the Netherlands, is by no means clear-cut. The following illustrates trends in satisfaction with democracy across a dozen European nations, as monitored by the Eurobarometer surveys from the early-1970s. The comparison covers a range of older democracies, as well as a few younger cases (Spain, Portugal and Greece). It also includes regimes with power-concentrating (majoritarian) institutions (such as France and the UK), as well as others with power-sharing (consensus) structures (such as Belgium and the Netherlands).
The overall results suggest a pattern of trendless fluctuations, rather than steady secular erosion in satisfaction. Indeed many countries such as Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark show rising satisfaction across the period, while other cases display peaks and troughs, suggesting volatility, especially among younger democracies. The contrasts in levels of satisfaction among countries are also apparent, notably persistently low satisfaction in Italy, especially in contrast with the Netherlands. But there is no evidence here that power-sharing democracies have consistently experienced falling public satisfaction – or that there are any steady trends across European democracies. Similar Eurobarometer trends comparing trust in institutions also show a pattern of trendless fluctuations more than steady decline.
Table 1: Satisfaction with democracy, EU12 1972-2007
So why were so many speakers at the conference convinced that a 'crisis' of public trust was apparent in the Netherlands?
In part, the explanation rests on the recent political history of the country, suggesting an era of growing party instability and polarization (Mair 2008). New issue cleavages, notably immigration and the rise of a more multicultural society, have generated strains challenging the old party politics of consensus accommodation. Moreover these developments have been exacerbated by the Dutch electoral system, a national party list system with an exceptionally low threshold of votes for parties to enter electoral office.
Following the 1994 general election, the 'Purple' Coalition was formed among PvdA (Labour), D66 (progressive liberal) and VVD (conservative liberal). During this era, the government introduced legislation on abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage. The coalition parties lost their majority in the 2002 earthquake elections, due to the rise of List Pim Fortuyn, the new political party led by the flamboyant populist Pim Fortuyn, campaigning on an anti-immigration programme. The assassination of Fortuyn a week before polling day boosted his party's support; the LPF entered parliament with one sixth of the seats, while the PvdA (Labour) lost half its seats. A cabinet was formed by CDA, VVD and LPF, led by Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, but after only 87 days in power, the coalition fell apart as a result of consecutive conflicts within the LPF and between LPF ministers.
In the ensuing elections in January 2003, the LPF dropped to only five percent of the seats in the Second Chamber. The left-wing Socialist Party (SP) became the fourth party of the Netherlands. The centre-right Balkenende II cabinet was formed by the Christian-Democratic CDA, the conservative-liberal VVD and the progressive-liberal D66. Against popular sentiment, the right-wing coalition initiated an ambitious programme of welfare state reforms, health care privatization, and stricter immigration policies. On June 1, 2005, the Dutch electorate voted in a referendum against the proposed European Constitution by a majority of 62%, three days after the French had also rejected the treaty.
In June 2006, D66 withdrew its support for the coalition, triggering its collapse, and the Balkenende III caretaker cabinet was formed by CDA and VVD. The ensuing general elections held on 22 November 2006 saw a landslide victory for the Socialist Party, which almost tripled in size and became the third largest party with 17% of the seats, while the moderate PvdA (Labour) lost a quarter of its seats. At the other end of the spectrum, LPF lost all its seats, while the new anti-immigrant PVV went from nothing to 6% of the seats, becoming the fifth biggest party. This polarisation of the Second Chamber, with an even distribution between left and right, made the cabinet formation negotiations very difficult. The talks eventually resulted in the formation of the Social-Christian fourth cabinet Balkenende, by the PvdA, the CDA and the Christian Union.
The result has been new challenges arising to the stability of Dutch coalition governments. A country which has long prided itself on a culture of liberal tolerance, founded on elite accommodation in a consociational democracy, finds itself under growing difficulty in meeting these ideals.
These are indeed important developments but it is not clear that these elite-level challenges are necessarily reflected in long-term shifts in public attitudes towards Dutch democratic institutions, nor that changes in the news media (such as personalization and commercialization) or in campaign communications (such as any growth in 'negative' messages) have played a major role in these events. New issue cleavages, and the role of the radical right in exploiting these developments, is certainly an important phenomenon, but this has affected majoritarian political systems (such as support for LePen's Front National in France) as well as consociational or power-sharing systems (as exemplified by support for the radical right parties in Austria and Belgium). It remains to be seen whether the polarization of Dutch party politics persists, deepens (under the current economic climate), or possibly reduces, if bread-and-butter concerns with economic management return to the top of the political agenda
Reference for further information:
Mark Bovens & Anchrit Wille. 2008. Deciphering the Dutch drop: ten explanations for decreasing political trust in The Netherlands, International Review of Administrative Sciences, 74: 283-305.
Peter Mair. 2008. 'Electoral Volatility and the Dutch Party System: A Comparative Perspective.' Acta Politica, 4 (2-3):235-253