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Video: Does our democracy need an upgrade?

In a lecture for the University of the Netherlands, Reijer Passchier, assistant professor in constitutional and administrative law, speaks about the state of our democracy. ‘Is it not time to upgrade our democracy?’

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‘Our democracy is always a bit broken and imperfect. There’s no such thing as the perfect democracy’, says Passchier, whose special area of interest is the democratic constitutional state. ‘There are currently two problems that threaten our democracy: the major political parties are becoming smaller and politicians are too influenced by the latest trends, especially on social media.’

The Binnenhof

From individuals to parties

Passchier starts by giving some historical context, saying that Thorbecke’s constitution from 1848 is recognised as an important milestone in our democracy. In those days, the House of Representatives consisted mainly of individuals. Over the years, this gradually developed into the system of political parties. In the 20th century, the increasing compartmentalisation of society in the Netherlands resulted in four socio-political groups: the Catholics, the Protestants, the liberals and the socialists. Each of these groups had its own political party, which made elections at that time more predictable and created a relatively stable political landscape. It was also easier to form a coalition with at least two major parties, in contrast to today’s politically fragmented landscape. As those traditional compartments eroded, voting for a party on the basis of your religion was replaced by voting for a party you agree with, explains Passchier.

Complicated coalitions

Passchier says in his lecture that we now have a shortage of stable centre parties, which makes coalition forming more complicated. Examples of stable centre parties in the past were the VVD (conservative-liberal), CDA (Christian democratic) and PvdA (labour). You could achieve a majority much faster if you worked with them. Now you sometimes need four or five parties to achieve that majority. Dealing with many different views complicates the process of agreeing on a consistent policy. You can see this, for example, in the nitrogen discussion.

Passchier suggests three possible solutions:

  • an electoral threshold where a party needs to have won at least five or ten seats
  • a bonus (extra seats) for the biggest winner, in line with the Greek model
  • a minority government, where the opposition is involved in important decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Long-term focus is needed

Passchier can see that, with the rise of TV and social media, politicians no longer come together in parliamentary debates but instead address the people at home through the cameras and then simply leave. ‘Issues like the climate, multinationals and inequality are serious long-term problems, which require attention, careful study and good legislation. These issues are now constantly undermined by the latest trends.’ Passchier would like to see a ban on cameras and the use of mobile phones in parliament, so that politicians would be forced to speak to one another, instead of the camera. ‘Unpopular measures are sometimes necessary, and people can always read the minutes and proceedings afterwards.’

Photo: Marjoline Delahaye via Unsplash

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