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Referendum: new in the Dutch polder

On 6 April the Netherlands will vote on far-reaching cooperation with Ukraine. Referenda are exceptional in Dutch political history, according to Professor of Electoral Research Joop van Holsteijn.

Van Holsteijn is an expert in elections, voting behaviour, opinion research and referenda. In recent months he has regularly been asked to comment on the referendum on the so-called association agreement with Ukraine. This agreement aims to strengthen the economic and political cooperation between the European Union and Ukraine.

Why do you consider this exceptional?  

‘Until recently there was no legal arrangement to provide for a referendum. In 2005, of course, we had a referendum on the European constitution, but that was an exceptional situation based on a one-0ff ruling. Since 2014 it has been laid down in law that Dutch citizens can ask for referenda on laws and treaties that have been approved by Parliament.  That means it is a structural provision, and citizens are making immediate use of it by calling for a referendum.  This is a major change in the generally very stable Dutch political order.'  

What happens after 6 April when the outcome of the referendum is known? 

‘The first thing is to determine whether the outcome is valid. To be valid, at least 30 per cent of those eligible to vote have to go to the polling booths. Then the Cabinet has to decide how to handle the outcome. A public referendum is an advisory instrument and the decision by the voters represents a piece of advice. In other words, the Cabinet can decide to ignore the outcome. That doesn't mean, by the way, that the referendum is only symbolic. Any politician who ignores a clear outcome will have a lot of explaining to do. Bear in mind that there are elections in the not too distant future.' 

Any politician who ignores a clear outcome will have a lot of explaining to do.

‘Right now there is also a draft bill being drawn up for a corrective referendum. If that bill is passed, then citizens will be able to block government decisions or even reverse them. The outcome of that bill is more binding than the provisions of the current legislation.' 

Why is this development taking place at the present time? 

‘I would prefer to turn the question around: Why didn't it take place earlier? In many other European countries citizens have had a say in what goes on in government via referenda for much longer, and the Netherlands was an exception to the rule. One reason could be that the Netherlands is a country of minorities, where efforts are always made at reaching a compromise. A referendum isn't necessarily part of that kind of scenario, although in general there is nothing wrong with finding out the opinion of the whole of the electorate, especially with regard to decisions that affect the country as a whole.'  

But doesn't the Lower House represent the people already? 

‘I don't feel that's a very effective counter-argument. MPs do indeed do the work of politics on our behalf; it's a characteristic of a representative democracy. But that doesn't automatically make a referendum unnecessary or redundant.  You can see a referendum as a complement to the democratic tradition of representation. The advisory referendum on the association agreement is an excellent example of this. Our democratically elected representatives always have the  final say. The referendum shouldn't be seen as "taking an axe to the roots of democracy", as some opponents like to claim.'   

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