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Leiden Law Cast #6: Geerten Boogard on (local)elections & political upheaval

Leiden Law Cast is a podcast made by Leiden Law School, Leiden University, for everyone who wants to learn more about current legal issues.

Irem Çakir (L) en Hamza Duprée

Leiden Law Cast presents information in a more ‘digestible’ form, shining a light on all the latest issues and news related to law. The podcast is presented by students Irem Çakir and Hamza Duprée. In each episode they discuss a topical legal issue with a member of Leiden Law School’s academic staff.

In the sixth episode, Geerten Boogaard, endowed Professor of Decentral Government, was our guest. Last week, in the Netherlands we all went to the ballot box to vote in the municipal elections. Now the votes have been counted and a few things have become clear: turnout was lower (by Dutch standards), local parties have grown significantly and the fragmentation, which we also saw in the House of Representatives, is now also reflected in many municipalities. We talk to Geerten Boogaard about these peculiarities: why did the Netherlands vote this way? During our informal chat, we zoom in on local parties such as Students for Leiden and Hart voor Den Haag/Groep de Mos, we pay attention to central politics and we talk about parties like Bij1, Volt and VVD. We also talk briefly about the upcoming provincial elections next year.


Shortly after the 2022 municipal elections in the Netherlands, Professor of Local Government Geerten Boogaard joined us on Leiden Law Cast. When he was young, Geerten was first keen to join the navy. But after discovering that only onshore jobs were open to him because of his secondary school subjects, he decided to leave the picturesque town Waddinxveen to study law in Leiden. He shared digs near the Kamerlingh Onnes Building with two fellow students and was a member of the Christian association Panoplia. Geerten himself admits that he was lucky that there used to be far less focus on grades, because he studied by every time dragging himself off the couch only in the week before an exam: an approach that didn’t get him high grades. He certainly wishes that there was slightly less pressure on today's students to achieve. Now, it seems like you have to aim for cum laude from the moment you learn to tie your shoelaces!

After graduating from Leiden University, Geerten started working at a department that processes benefit applications in order to have time to prepare for a PhD. There, he noticed that applicants had to put their whole history on the table before they were allowed to receive benefits. After that, Geerten started working at the department that processes applications for serious care (domestic help and placement in a care home, for example). There he saw how the government sometimes has little compassion when it comes to citizens who are in need of help, all in the name of efficiency: a recurring sentiment in the Leiden Law Cast. Geerten reminds us that in the front line of such institutions there are still individuals who do try to give a human face to the system. That said, it’s hard to deny that reducing the hours of domestic help an 86-year-old woman receives by half is a harsh measure.

After this period he became a junior lecturer and researcher at the University of Amsterdam where he was later awarded a PhD. He then returned to work at Leiden University where he currently holds the Thorbecke Chair.  

After this introduction, we focus on today’s topic: the recent local elections in the Netherlands. Turnout this time was at an all-time low (55 to 60%), though Geerten says we have to put this figure into perspective as it’s still higher than surrounding countries. Geerten is pleased that voter turnout is reasonably high here, also at the national level, because voter turnout is one of the most legitimating factors for the standing of people’s  representatives. The low turnout can mainly be explained by two things: first, local politics just doesn’t interest people much; second, many people didn’t know who to vote for.

And yet local democracy is very important for a municipality’s residents. Local democracy is sometimes about quickly adjusting decisions that have an enormous impact – think of the ban on converting houses for multiple occupation, which has put many student houses in a difficult situation.

We also talk about national elections. Geerten points out that the many splinter parties that have ‘enrichened’ our country in recent years sometimes really appeal to a section of the electorate that does not normally go to the ballot box. The trend that the number of splinter parties is on the rise is also not something new. This also happened in the 1960s and 70s, though some of these parties later merged. Local politics is so special because social connections can be activated, enabling people to stand up for very specific interests, like the new political party Students for Leiden that wants to change the election policy.

Geerten also has a nuanced opinion about the role of national representatives in local politics. On the one hand, the question can obviously be posed about what they are actually doing in the municipal elections. On the other hand, it must also be acknowledged that many people are guided by national considerations when it comes to local elections, which is also logical because people have limited time and inclination to read up on politics. In a way, it is understandable that parties use a familiar face and that citizens are then influenced by this.

Geerten is also positive when it comes to local parties. This type of party is often less ideological and thus closer to citizens. In addition, it’s interesting that local sections of national political parties sometimes collapse due to amateurism, though local parties can also do a rock-solid job. You also see local parties going out on the streets encouraging people to go and vote – like in The Hague with Hart voor Den Haag and Groep De Mos. That’s something other parties look down on, but it’s actually very good for local democracy.

Whatever you think, the people who work for local democracy deserve more respect than they get at the moment. People who are out on the streets every election, whatever the weather, handing out flyers and on the receiving end of an endless stream of woes. Those people are doing precisely what is needed to keep local democracy alive. So if you’re someone who is negative about anyone who’s a member of a political party, perhaps you should take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself, what am I doing to leave the world in a better place than I found it? Geerten says he’s even half seriously defended that everyone should be a member of a political party before being allowed to vote: it’s often the members who keep their own people sharp!

Coming to the end of the episode, Geerten calls on people to also vote in the elections for the provincial councils, where turnout is notoriously low. The members of the Upper House in the Netherlands (Eerste Kamer) come from the provincial councils (which themselves are important in relation to issues like major infrastructure projects and wind turbines).  It is precisely this body that ‘cushions’ everything the House of Representatives does, and so it is of vital importance in national politics.

To close, Geerten leaves us with some wise words, borrowed from well-known Dutch cabaret artist Herman Finkers: het wordt pas leuk als het niet meer logisch is (it only becomes fun when logic has gone).  What legal scholars and professionals do is try to make the world systematic. But it is precisely where two equivalent values collide – where the narrative doesn’t add up as it were – that’s where the joy and creativity of the law lie. That’s what keeps the game fun!

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