The political branch of the polder model
IN THE NETHERLANDS, spectacle and parliamentary debate do not go hand in hand. Sessions of the Second Chamber are usually more akin to a library board meeting, than a serious political discourse: very solid, never emotional. It all conforms to the traditional Dutch saying: 'Just be normal, that's crazy enough'. As a result, the Parliament does not hold debates. Rather, it deliberates.
The best characterization of proceedings in the Second Chamber was once made by columnist H.J.A. Hofland: the apotheosis of polemic discourse is when one Member points to his chest and declares in an aggrieved tone to another Member that he never said such a thing.
Dutch politics is an oasis of calm, as it has to be. Conflict is counter-productive. No single party has ever had anything approaching an overall majority in parliament, so coalition government is inevitable. This makes parties extremely cautious - today's enemy may be tomorrow's ally - especially at a time when the death of ideology has made it possible for almost all the parties to work together.
For decades, the Christian democrats played a pivotal role in the struggle for power. With the exception of the war years 1940-1945, they were represented in every post-First World War government. Sometimes they formed coalitions with the social democrats, sometimes with the liberals. The Christian democrats called the shots, the rest followed at a polite distance. The result was predictably consistent government policy.
This period of uninterrupted Christian-democrat rule came to an abrupt end in 1994, when the liberals joined forces with the social democrats to condemn the Christian democrats to the opposition benches. This coming-together of supposedly irreconcilable extremes defied all prevailing coalition theory. The combination of liberal blue with social-democratic red provided the name by which the coalition had been known since 1994: purple (Paars). In fact, the two former opposites got along so well that the coalition was prolonged after the 1998 general elections.
It is perhaps because of the smooth way in which the parties got along with one another that things suddenly went awry in May of this year: calm seas can encourage carelessness. All of a sudden, the government had tendered its resignation. Not because of fundamental policy disagreements but because one awkward Senator from one of the coalition parties had managed single-handedly to block a bill to introduce a general referendum. This was the very piece of legislation that had been the decisive reason for D66, the smallest party in the coalition, to join the government in 1994. D66 was upset, blew up the government, reflected on its position, then settled for a compromise arrangement that allowed the government to be up and running again within three weeks. Allowing everyone to chant in unison that the purple coalition had emerged strengthened from its ordeal.
The coalition between labour and capital that has governed the Netherlands for the last five years is best described as the Third Way avant la lettre, and a most successful way at that. The former trade union boss Wim Kok is now a Prime Minister worshipped by the business community. Enterprise was clear in its desire for a prolongation of the coalition under Kok's leadership after last year's elections. For businesspeople, Kok's policy is the ideal combination of social planning combined with market incentives. Pur-ple politicians refer to this as a sensible mix. At a gathering in Washington at the end of April to discuss the Third Way phenomenon, U.S. President Bill Clinton said of Kok: ''He was doing it all before we were.''
Clinton's statement gives Kok more credit than he deserves. He may well be an exponent of the Third Way, but the mentality that underlines it is deeply rooted in Dutch culture. Some historians put this down to the geographical position of the Netherlands: without compromise and consensus, it would have been impossible to live together on a strip of land that is largely below sea level. It is not without reason that the Water Boards and their polder pumping installations are the eldest tiers of government in the country. In his book, Hollands Welbehagen (The Well-being of Holland), Herman Pleij, professor of historical letters, writes: ''The Netherlands owes its existence to the democracy of dry feet. We need each other literally in order not to drown and subsequently have to rely on other countries for the means to stay alive.''
The country relies on consultation, the involvement in decision-making of as many people as possible. Although many people did not see it, even during the wild years of the 1960's and 1970's the safety net of consensus always remained in place. Outside, on the barricades, rough language prevailed, while indoors, away from the public eye, compromises were being sought. Despite the rhetoric of struggle that was dished out to the grassroots, the avenues of communication always remained open.
Consensus has been institutionalised in the Netherlands, where the national identity is reflected in countless advisory and consultative bodies. Each issue where there is a remote danger of disagreement has its own forum in which all interested parties are represented, whether it be it traffic issues, defence matters or education affairs.
This culture of consultation naturally has repercussions on politics. The more the relevant bodies agree with each other, the less freedom of movement remains for the politicians. It is under these conditions that the now well-known polder model was born in the early 1980's. There were political plans to intervene in levels of pay: the government hoped to tackle the high rate of unemployment by sharply reducing wage costs. Facing the loss of their freedom of negotiation, unions and employers' organisations agreed on voluntary wage restraint in return for a reduction in working hours. The political establishment had no choice but to acquiesce in this 'voluntary' agreement between employers and unions. It is no coincidence that in the Netherlands these two groups are referred to as the 'social partners'.
This trade-off of interests still lies at the heart of current socio-economic policy. The purple coalition is little more than the political branch of the polder model, a trade-off between the interests of the social democrats on the one hand and the liberals on the other. The decisions that are made are not so much principled choices but more mathematical solutions. Everything that can be shared is shared. The left gets its way in reducing defence spending, while the right is compensated by an commensurate reduction in spending on overseas aid.
The success of the purple coalition had allowed the political centre to govern the country without the need for the centrist party par excellence, the Christian democrats. Things have gone smoothly so far largely because of consistently good economic indicators: The distribution of available financial means remains the major component of national politics in the Netherlands. Continuing economic growth has removed the need for painful decisions.
As the co-operation between the liberals and the social democrats continues, the classic left-right divide recedes into the background to make room for a new divide between the material and non-material. Whether this will influence Dutch politics in the future remains to be seen. The essential strength of the system remains consensus: consultation will continue.
Politicians may change, but policy will remain familiar. If that is boring, so be it. Frits Bolkestein, former leader of the liberals and one of the most talked-about politicians of recent years, once remarked that the more boring a country's politics, the happier its people.