It was extremely irritating in September 2012 to watch my husband and two sons head off to the polling station to cast their votes in the general election. There I was; a taxpayer, a homeowner and an entrepreneur with no vote, simply because after 30 years, I still don’t see why I should stop being British and become Dutch. Call it stubbornness if you like but every time they go off to exercise their democratic rights, a little part of me mutters ‘no taxation without representation’ and ‘votes for foreign women!’
Voting rights for immigrants like myself are a controversial issue. The current government is even planning to increase the residency requirement to vote in the local elections from five to seven years. That makes it even more important to get out and use your vote in the local elections on March 19 – if you have one.
While you must have Dutch nationality to vote for the national government, if you are from another EU country or a foreign national who has lived in the Netherlands officially for more than five years, you can vote in the local elections. According to the national statistics office CBS, some 450,000 non-Dutch nationals will be able to vote on March 19, meaning the expat vote could be crucial in some areas.
How Does It Work?
If you are eligible to vote, you will automatically receive a voting card posted by your local council. You need to take this card, and ID, to the polling station when you go to cast your vote. Forget either, and you’ve had it. But you do have until 9 P.M. to use the official red pencil to pick your favourite candidate.
But what are you actually voting for? The third tier in the Dutch government system – behind parliament and the provincial councils – is made up of the local councils, or gemeentes. There are currently 403, ranging in size from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to small villages. (Amsterdam and Rotterdam even have a fourth layer, the district committees, which focus on very local issues.)
The number of councillors in a gemeenteraad depends on the size of the local authority area. Councils with a population of more than 200,000 residents have 45 members and the smallest, with fewer than 3,000 residents, just nine. Local councils are run by the mayor (who is appointed by the crown) and a team of wethouders, or aldermen. The college van burgemeester en wethouders (B&W) is the local authority equivalent of the cabinet.
As with national government, the Dutch electoral system makes coalition councils inevitable – often involving three or four parties. As soon as the votes have been counted, work begins on putting together a working coalition. Once a coalition has been identified and agreed, the councillors appoint the aldermen who are, in effect, local government ministers. This process can take several weeks, massive amounts of speculation and, as with national government, result in a coalition agreement full of measures which no one actually voted for.
Even though some 90% of local council funding in the Netherlands comes from national government, they do have an increasingly large power base. Councils themselves raise money through local property taxes, waste collection and water charges, parking fees, tourist taxes and dog taxes.
Their main tasks at the moment include housing, local roads, waste collection, parks, schools and providing services like libraries and swimming pools. This is set to change in 2015. The national government hopes to transfer a large number of extra responsibilities to the local councils as part of its policy of decentralization – and kicking expensive services off its books so it can pretend to be cutting spending.
None of the plans have yet been approved by parliament yet, but the government wants to put long-term, non-residential care services, youth care, including psychiatric services and sheltered work schemes for the disabled, into local authority hands.
How that all happens is decided by B&W, or the local cabinet, so the political make-up is key. In 2010, the two Liberal parties VVD and D66 emerged as the big winners in the local elections, making gains in district, town and city councils nationwide.
This year, the VVD is likely to be hit by public dissatisfaction with the party’s role in national government, as is its coalition Labour party. The polls also show D66 is again set to make major gains.
That is particularly the case in Amsterdam, where D66 is challenging 60 years of Labour dominance. Amsterdam is currently run by a bizarre collection of bedfellows: the right-wing VVD, the Labour party (PvdA) and the left-wing greens GroenLinks. The polls show it will be a close race between Labour and D66 to become the biggest party. Hardly surprising then that there were a lot of raised eyebrows when at the end of last year it emerged the city council is to spend € 400,000 on encouraging ethnic minorities to vote. The plan came under heavy fire from opposition parties – particularly as the campaign leader is a prominent Labour supporter and Labour traditionally has a high level of support among people with Turkish, Moroccan and Surinamese backgrounds. Gerrymandering? Not at all.
Turning out to vote in The Hague is even more crucial. Several opinion polls predict Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration PVV could be the biggest in The Hague after March 19. In case you wondered, the PVV only contested the local elections in The Hague and Almere in 2010 and is doing the same this year – maximum publicity for minimum effort.
The city of peace and justice would be sending out a strange message to the world indeed if a group which wants to ban the Koran, end ‘non-western’ and eastern European immigration, and withdraw from the EU becomes the biggest party on the city council. Even more reason to get out and vote to show the rest of the world that the PVV only represents a small minority of people living in the Netherlands.
When my youngest son turned 18 and was too busy partying to think about using his democratic rights, I practically dragged him to the polling station. “Forget the fact I don’t have a vote because I am stubborn,” I told him. “There are people out there dying for the right to have a say in choosing their government.” That might be an over-dramatic tactic to use, but it worked. And I would say to every international and expat out there – if you’ve got a vote, get out and use it. International workers are hugely important to the Dutch economy. We have rights as well as duties and we need to make sure our voices are heard politically as well.