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Type: Parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch.
Constitution: 1814 and 1848.
Branches: Executive--monarch (chief of state), prime minister (head of government), cabinet. Legislative--bicameral parliament (First and Second Chambers). Judicial--Supreme Court.
Subdivisions: 12 provinces.
Political parties: Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), Labor Party (PvdA), Liberal Party (VVD), other minor parties.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
Government of The Netherlands
The present constitution--which dates from 1848 and has been amended several times, most recently in 1983--protects individual and political freedoms, including freedom of religion. Although church and state are separate, a few historical ties remain; the royal family belongs to the Dutch Reformed Church (Protestant). Freedom of speech also is protected.
The country's government is based on the principles of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary government. The national government comprises three main institutions: the Monarch, the Council of Ministers, and the States General. There also are local governments.
The Monarch. The monarch is the titular head of state. The Queen's function is largely ceremonial, but she does have some influence deriving from the traditional veneration of the House of Orange--from which Dutch monarchs for more than three centuries have been chosen; the personal qualities of the Queen; and her power to appoint the formateur, who forms the Council of Ministers following elections.
The Council of Ministers plans and implements government policy. The Monarch and the Council of Ministers together are called the Crown. Most ministers also head government ministries, although ministers-without-portfolio exist. The ministers, collectively and individually, are responsible to the States General (parliament). Unlike the British system, Dutch ministers cannot simultaneously be members of parliament.
The Council of State is a constitutionally established advisory body to the government which consists of members of the royal family and Crown-appointed members generally having political, commercial, diplomatic, or military experience. The Council of State must be consulted by the cabinet on proposed legislation before a law is submitted to the parliament. The Council of State also serves as a channel of appeal for citizens against executive branch decisions.
States General (parliament). The Dutch parliament consists of two houses, the First Chamber and the Second Chamber. Historically, Dutch governments have been based on the support of a majority in both houses of parliament. The Second Chamber is by far the more important of the two houses. It alone has the right to initiate legislation and amend bills submitted by the Council of Ministers. It shares with the First Chamber the right to question ministers and state secretaries.
The Second Chamber consists of 150 members, elected directly for a 4-year term--unless the government falls prematurely--on the basis of a nationwide system of proportional representation. This system means that members represent the whole country--rather than individual districts as in the United States--and are normally elected on a party slate, not on a personal basis. There is no threshold for small-party representation. Campaigns are relatively short, lasting usually about a month, and the election budgets of each party tend to be less than $1 million. The electoral system makes a coalition government almost inevitable. The last election of the Second Chamber was in January 2003.
The First Chamber is composed of 75 members elected for 4-year terms by the 12 provincial legislatures. It cannot initiate or amend legislation, but its approval of bills passed by the Second Chamber is required before bills become law. The First Chamber generally meets only once a week, and its members usually have other full-time jobs. The current First Chamber was elected following provincial elections in May 2003.
Courts. The judiciary comprises 62 cantonal courts, 19 district courts, five courts of appeal, and a Supreme Court which has 24 justices. All judicial appointments are made by the Crown. Judges nominally are appointed for life but actually are retired at age 70.
Local government. The first-level administrative divisions are the 12 provinces, each governed by a locally elected provincial council and a provincial executive appointed by members of the provincial council. The province is formally headed by a queen's commissioner appointed by the Crown.
The current government, formed in May 2003, is a coalition of the center-right Christian Democratic (CDA), conservative Liberal (VVD) and left-of-center Democrats 66 (D66) parties headed by CDA Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. The coalition parties hold 78 of the 150 seats in the Second Chamber of Parliament. The opposition includes the Labor (PvdA) party with 42 seats and 5 other parties, each with less than 10 seats. Given the consensus-based nature of the Dutch Government, elections do not result in any drastic change in foreign or domestic policy. Descriptions of the four main parties follow.
The Christian Democratic Appeal was formed from the merger of the Catholic People's Party and two Protestant parties, the Anti-Revolutionary Party and the Christian-Historical Union. The merger process, begun in the early 1970s to try to stem the tide of losses suffered by religiously based parties, was completed in 1980. The CDA supports free enterprise and holds to the principle that government activity should supplement but not supplant communal action by citizens. On the political spectrum, the CDA sees its philosophy as standing between the "individualism" of the Liberals and the "statism" of the Labor Party. CDA has 44 seats in the current Second Chamber, which makes it the largest party.
The Labor Party (PvdA), a classic European Social Democratic party, is left of center. It currently has 42 seats in the Second Chamber. Labor's program is based on greater social, political, and economic equality for all citizens, although in recent years the party has begun to debate the role of central government in that process. Although called the Labor Party, it has no formal links to the trade unions.
The Liberal Party is "liberal" in the European, rather than American, sense of the word. It thus attaches great importance to private enterprise and the freedom of the individual in political, social, and economic affairs. The VVD is generally seen as the most conservative of the major parties. It currently has 28 seats in the Second Chamber. The VVD has previously been the junior partner in two governing coalitions with the CDA from 1982-89.
The Democrats 66 (D66) party was founded in 1966 primarily for the purpose of promoting a drastic reform of the rigid, antiquated Dutch political system. Political reform still is its principal driving force. The party’s electoral fortunes have fluctuated widely. For a long time, its success was closely tied to the popularity of D66 founder, leader and former Foreign Minister Hans van Mierlo, who retired in 1998. Since then, the party steadily lost electoral support. In January 2003 elections, it only won six seats. Despite its relatively small size, D66 has invariably been a reliable, intellectually sound partner in successive coalition governments. D66 is a staunch advocate of a strong European Union, although it also fully subscribes to the importance of NATO and the transatlantic relationship in Dutch foreign policy.
Domestic Drug Policy
Despite intensified efforts by the Dutch Government to combat production of and trafficking in narcotic drugs, the Netherlands continues to be a major transit point for drugs entering Europe, an important producer and exporter of amphetamines and synthetic drugs, notably MDMA (Ecstasy), and an important consumer of most illicit drugs. In 2001, the interagency law enforcement Unit Synthetic Drugs (USD) listed a total of 678 seizures of Dutch-related synthetic drugs, of which 20% took place in the Netherlands and 80% in other countries. The volume of MDMA exported to the United States during 2002 continued to be alarmingly high. In 2002, the government announced a 5-year strategy against production, trade, and consumption of synthetic drugs.
The Dutch Opium Act punishes possession, commercial distribution, production, import, and export of all illicit drugs. Drug use, however, is not an offense. The act distinguishes between “hard” drugs that have “unacceptable” risks (e.g., heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy), and “soft” drugs (cannabis products). One of the main aims of this policy is to separate the markets for soft and hard drugs so that soft drug users are less likely to come into contact with hard drugs. The sale of a small quantity (under five grams) of soft drugs in “coffeeshops” is tolerated, albeit under strict conditions and controls. The United States continues to disagree with this aspect of Dutch drug policy. Overall, drug policy is coordinated by the Health Ministry, while the Ministry of Justice is responsible for law enforcement. Matters relating to local government and the police are the responsibility of the Ministry of Interior. At the municipal level, policy is coordinated in tripartite consultations among the mayor, the chief public prosecutor, and the police.
The Netherlands has a wide variety of demand-reduction and “harm”-reduction programs reaching about 80% of the country’s 26,000-30,000 opiate addicts. The number of opiate addicts has stabilized over the past few years, with the average age rising to 40, and the number of overdose deaths related to opiates stabilizing at between 30 and 50 per year.