Majority Rule/Minority Rights: Country Studies — Netherlands

Netherlands Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Free. Freedom Ranking: 1; Political Rights: 1; Civil Liberties: 1.


The Netherlands, situated in on the North Sea, across from Great Britain, emerged from Catholic Spain's control in the 16th century to become a continental European power having a dominant position in trade and control over significant foreign colonies. Considered the first true capitalist country for having developed some of the basic mechanisms of a free market economy (stock-trading companies and a stock exchange, e.g.), the Netherlands also became a model welfare state after World War II.

The Netherlands

A constitutional monarchy, the king has largely formal and ceremonial duties and the Netherlands is governed under a parliamentary political system. The Netherlands remained neutral in both World Wars but was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1940-44, during which period more than two-thirds of its Jewish population was sent to death camps. After liberation from Nazi occupation, the Netherlands returned to its previous democratic stability. Predominantly Nederland, or Dutch, by ethnicity (83 percent), the population is religiously mixed, with significant Catholic and Protestant populations, and also a large number of ethnic minorities, many of whom migrated from former colonies. At one million people, the Muslim minority is one of the largest in Europe. Due to its history, the Netherlands maintained a formal policy of “multiculturalism” that stressed the coexistence of Catholic and Protestant “pillar” communities and forged a shared Dutch culture. Applied to the mostly Muslim immigrant community, however, the policy tended to foster alienation and isolation. Two assassinations by political and religious fanatics in the early 2000s, the rise of anti-immigrant political parties, and increased religious extremism have challenged the Netherlands' tradition of tolerance and socially liberal policies and given rise to an intense public debate over policies dealing with ethnic and religious minorities and immigrants. 

The Netherlands is a small country both in size (131st out of 195 countries, with an area of 41,850 square kilometers) and in population (ranked 65th with just under 17 million people). Yet, the Netherlands has among the world's most dynamic economies, although somewhat slowed by the 2008–09 international economic crisis. In 2014, the Netherlands ranked 17th in the world in nominal GDP at $881 billion in total output and 13th in the world in nominal GNI (Gross National Income) per capita at $44,333 annually, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Netherlands is considered among the least corrupt countries in Transparency International’s annual perceptions survey (ranked 8th best among 173 countries in openness and transparency in 2016).


The provinces of the Low Countries — what is today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg — declared independence from Charles V of Spain in 1568, sparking the Eighty Years War. The seven northern provinces (Nederlands) gained effective independence under the Union of Utrecht in 1579 but were granted formal independence by Spain only in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years Wars fought between Catholic and Protestant states in Europe. The Seven Republics of the Netherlands was formed under the monarchy of the Protestant House of Orange, which now stands as the longest-lasting constitutional ruling family in Europe. In 1677, William III of Orange married his first cousin Mary, daughter of the future James II of England. After William invaded England to depose the Catholic James II as part of The Glorious Revolution, William and Mary ruled jointly, briefly uniting the British and Dutch thrones.

The Dutch Golden Age Netherlands also became the first and most successful capitalist country, inventing public stock companies, share trading, a stock exchange, and insurance, among other standard tools of commerce today.

The period from 1584 to 1702 is known as the Golden Age in Netherlands history, an era of expanded trade, economic development, colonial expansion, international influence, and significant contributions to Europe’s intellectual Enlightenment and culture. With its major cities on the North Sea, the Netherlands became one of the great seafaring nations of the world and established trading posts and colonies in strategic places, including South Africa, Indonesia, Suriname and various Caribbean islands, and, before ceding it Britain in exchange for the Spice Islands, New Amsterdam, later renamed New York. Aside from New Amsterdam, which thrived as a relatively independent entity, the Netherlands treated its colonies in much the same way as Great Britain, by exploiting resources, using inhabitants for forced labor, and restricting liberties of the indigenous population.

Although the country was late to industrialize, the Netherlands was highly innovative in the development of technology, forms of seafaring, and ways of protecting its below-sea-level cities through waterways. The Netherlands became the first and most successful capitalist country, inventing public stock companies, share trading, a stock exchange, and insurance, among other standard tools of commerce. It also introduced innovative means of farm production as well as use of the windmill for energy, both of which continue to be part of the foundation for the Netherlands economy.

Establishment of Parliamentary Democracy

In 1795, Napoleon's imperial army defeated the Netherlands and it was incorporated into the French Empire. With Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the Kingdom of the Netherlands was restored in a union with Belgium and Luxembourg. But in 1830 Belgium declared its independence and in 1839 Luxembourg followed suit, leaving the republic with its original seven regions. Since 1848, the Netherlands has had a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary legislative system; it has functioned ever since except during the Nazi occupation. From that time, the parliament, or States General, which first met in the 15th century, has had a popularly elected House of Representatives and an indirectly elected senate. The franchise depended on limited property or wealth qualifications until 1917, when universal male suffrage was established; women gained the right to vote in 1919, the same year as in the U.S.

Neutrality and Occupation

The Netherlands remained neutral in both world wars, but in 1940 Nazi Germany ignored its neutrality and occupied the country as part of its campaign to conquer all of Europe. A Dutch government was formed in exile in London and urged resistance. Under an oppressive Nazi administration, Dutch workers were placed into forced labor. The country's sizable population of Jews was ruthlessly rounded up for transport to extermination camps, despite extraordinary efforts of non-Jews to hide them (the Netherlands has the highest proportion of any country of “righteous Gentiles” honored by Israel for attempting to save Jews during the Holocaust). Before the Netherlands was liberated in 1945, an estimated 100,000 Dutch Jews had been killed, 70 percent of the prewar Jewish population, the third highest proportion among countries in Europe. (The harrowing story of Netherlands Jews is related in The Diary of Anne Frank.)

The Postwar Expansion

Like much of Western and Northern Europe, the Netherlands rebuilt its democratic government after the war and experienced both dynamic free-market growth and the development of a broad social welfare policy. It became again one the world’s largest economies and had high rates of per capita income growth. Post-war governments granted independence to former colonies such as Indonesia and Western New Guinea in 1949 (the latter became part of Indonesia in 1962), but a composite kingdom was created in 1954 made up of its remaining territories in the Caribbean. One territory, Suriname, gained independence in 1975, while others have retained country status (Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten) or municipal status (Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba) within the composite kingdom. After constitutional reforms enacted in 2009, residents of these islands, known informally as the Caribbean Netherlands, have the right to vote in both Dutch and European Parliament elections

After the experience of Nazi occupation, political parties rejected the country’s former neutrality in foreign policy and joined NATO as an original member in April 1949. In 1952, it helped to form the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Economic Community (today's European Union). Internationally, the Netherlands has also sought to stand out as a country with strong concerns for human rights and humanitarian issues. It provides a fixed part of its GDP for foreign assistance (0.75 percent or $5.81 billion in 2015) and offers sanctuary to refugees, especially from former colonies.

Majority Rule, Minority Rights

The Netherlands remains a constitutional monarchy. The monarch’s constitutionally defined duties still include nominating the government, signing laws into effect, and chairing the Council of State, but today these are considered ceremonial and not substantive. (The parliament in 2012 revoked the monarch’s role to mediate in the post-election formation of governments.) Succession is still determined by heredity. On April 30, 2013, in an unusual occurrence, Queen Beatrix abdicated her throne after 33 years in favor of her son, Willem-Alexander, who was crowned the same day.

The Constitution of the Netherlands also establishes a parliamentary democracy with full protections for individual freedoms and minority rights. After amendments in 1956, the bicameral parliament (Estates-General) consists of a 75-member First Chamber (Eerste Kamer) or Senate and a 150-member Second Chamber (Tweede Kamer) or House of Representatives. The Second Chamber is directly elected at least every four years by proportional representation, according to party lists. Members to the First Chamber are elected for four-year terms by provincial parliaments selected through provincial elections.

Political Majorities and Minorities

Political parties represented in parliament are highly diverse, including Catholic and Protestant-based parties as well as conservative and liberal, anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant, social democratic and socialist, and environmental parties. While Dutch politics have generally had two leading parties, one right and one left, no party has dominated politics over any extended period of time. There is a low threshold for political party representation (two-thirds of one percent) and between six and ten parties are generally represented in parliament. No party has won a majority of seats in post-war elections. As a result, there has been a series of coalition governments, usually based on left and right political divisions but also in many cases unity governments.

A portrait of Pim Fortuyn

Until recently, the two leading parties were the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) on the center-right and the Labor Party (PvdA) on the center-left. A new personality-based anti-immigrant party won a surprising second place in 2002 (see below), but it soon collapsed and the PvdA resumed its place as the second largest party in the 2003 elections. In the 2010 and 2012 elections, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which combines a free market and socially liberal orientation, supplanted the CDA as the major right-wing party (the CDA fell to fifth place in 2012). The Labor Party or PvdA remained the second largest party, slightly behind VVD in both elections.

In the post-war period, there have been five unity governments, where the two main left and right parties have formed a government, usually with one or more minor parties. This was the case in 2006-2010 and currently is the case after the 2012 elections. All other post-war governments were made of right or left coalitions led by one of the larger parties, with several smaller ones as partners.

In 2002, a new phenomenon emerged around the anti-immigrant politician Pim Fortuyn, who created his own self-named party called the Pim Fortuyn List (LPM) on a platform that directly challenged the Netherlands’s open immigration and multiculturalist policies and attacked Islam as a homophobic and “barbaric” religion. Just before the election, Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal rights activist and in part based on a sympathy vote the LPM won an unprecedented second place. The Christian Democratic Alliance, headed by Jan Peter Balkenende, included the LPM in a four-party right-wing government, but infighting within the LPM caused the government to fall after only five months; it was the shortest-lived government in post-war history. In the January 2003 elections, the LPM lost nearly three-fourths of its seats and the CDA formed a right-coalition government without LPM, from 2003 to 2006.

The "Pillars" and Failures of Multiculturalism

The Dutch reputation for multiculturalism and tolerance originates from the country's history of "pillar" communities, which were originally adopted to allow Catholic and Protestant communities to live in one society without conflict under separate state-supported “pillars.” In practical terms, this approach to diversity meant state-supported subsidies for clerics as well as for unions, newspapers and broadcast stations, schools, neighborhoods, and other groups organized by religious communities, with the aim being to ensure that no religious group would be excluded. Immigration policy mirrored this history and “pillarization” was extended to the Muslim community. While the earlier pillars had eventually resulted in the broad integration of religious communities, a report by the Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands published in 2004 (see link in Resources) found that the policy had an opposite effect for recent immigrants to the Netherlands, especially Muslim communities. Instead of integrating, much of the Muslim community had become insular, resulting in alienation from majority Dutch culture and politics and the rise of extremist views among a number of residents. The Report recommended job, education, and social policies aimed at assimilation and integration of immigrants and foreign communities.

The Report analyzed the rise of Pim Fortuyn and his political party as being rooted in widely held perceptions that immigrants were taking jobs from native-born Dutch citizens but also more generally in the view that “multiculturalism” had encouraged religious separatism and extremism. While the Pim Fortuyn List did not survive his assassination, these issues continued to resonate among Dutch voters.

Van Gogh, Islamic Extremism, and Polarization Dutch reputation for multiculturalism and tolerance originates from the country's history of "pillar" communities, which were originally adopted to allow Catholic and Protestant communities to live in one society without conflict under separate state-supported ‘pillars.’

In November 2004, the Dutch public was shocked by the brutal public murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan immigrant who had joined an Islamist terrorist network. The murder was in reaction to a provocative film van Gogh directed in partnership with Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali (an MP for the liberal VVD) that portrayed the harsh mistreatment of women in fundamentalist Islamic communities. The sympathetic response of some of the Muslim community's religious leadership toward van Gogh's killer as well as ongoing extremist threats on the life of Hirsi Ali, the film's author, also shocked most Dutch society.

As anti-immigrant sentiment rose, the Christian Democrat-led government approved a plan to expel 26,000 jobless immigrants. The program enjoyed wide public support even after an October 2005 fire at a deportation waiting area killed 11 immigrants. The government also adopted severe austerity measures and cutbacks in government services that especially affected ethnic minority and immigrant communities, prompting large protests by trade unions and other groups.

Hirsi Ali became the subject of another controversy when the Integration Minister, Rita Verdonk, revoked the MP’s citizenship in 2006 on grounds that Hirsi Ali had provided false information on her application for political asylum 11 years previously. Verdonk was forced to reverse the decision and one of the government’s coalition members, Democrats ‘66, protested Verdonk’s behavior by withdrawing from the coalition, forcing new elections. Hirsi Ali resigned her seat because of continuing threats on her life. She moved to the United States, where she has continued to speak out, often with controversy, against mistreatment of women in Muslim countries (see Resources).

The 2006 elections left few possibilities for forming either a right or left coalition and a unity government was formed by the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Labor Party (PvdA) around a platform called “Living Together, Working Together.” The unity government, again led by the CDA’s Jan Peter Balkenende, promised to deal jointly with long-standing social and economic issues, including a focus on jobs and education to try to encourage greater assimilation of immigrants. The government lasted nearly a full four-year term until the PvdA abruptly withdrew support over the country’s continuing participation in NATO’s Afghanistan operations.

The resulting 2010 election had surprising and lasting results. After losing seats in the previous election, the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) emerged as the top vote-getter over the PvdA in a tight election (31 seats to 30). Support for the previously dominant right party, CDA, fell dramatically and it placed fourth behind the anti-immigrant Party of Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders. A center-right minority coalition government emerged, led by VVD’s Mark Rutte and joined by CDA and Democrats 66, but this relied on support of members of the anti-immigrant PVV’s in parliament and the government took a more anti-immigration stance. In 2012, Mark Rutte proposed a law similar to one adopted in France (see Country Study) to ban Islamic full face and body coverings (the niqab and burqa that obsure all but the eyes). The proposed law was supported by the PVV’s Geert Wilders, but the more liberal Democrats ’66 opposed the ban and withdrew from the cabinet, again forcing new elections.

Current Issues

Elections were held in June 2012. In this round, Mark Rutte’s Party of Rights and Freedoms (VVD), now also called Liberals, cemented its position as the top party, increasing its number of seats to 42. The Labor Party (PvdA), however, also recouped some of its losses from the previous election and came in a strong second, with 38 seats. Both the left-wing Socialist Party and Wilders’s Party of Freedom (PVV) lost support from 2010, each gaining just 15 seats. No longer trusted on the economy, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) continued its decline, ending up with just one more seat, 13, than Democrats ‘66. As in 2006, there was no possibility for a right- or left-coalition government (except with support of the PVV, which both sides refused) and the VVD, CDA, and PvdA agreed to another unity government and joint platform. Surprisingly, the platform included budget cuts of €16 billion over the next four years, a ban on income assistance for immigrants who could not speak basic Dutch, and support for the proposed law on face coverings, but also economic investments in education and assimilation policies sought by PvdA.

The five elections in Netherlands from 2002 to 2012 generally maintained the country’s longstanding pluralism in political life. The two main parties on the left and right (the PvdA and now the VVD) represent two broad groups in the electorate, business and labor, but do not fully dominate politics. Smaller parties with distinct social and political histories (farm interests, traditional Christian parties) and others that are more ideological (the Green and Socialist Parties) continue to vie for position and influence. At the same time, there are now few political avenues for minority populations to be represented and the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) has gained significant support with an anti-European Union, anti-immigration, and anti-Islam platform (the PVV’s leader, Geert Wilders, has even called for the banning of the Quran and the deportation of immigrants). Although the PVV lost seats in the last election, it is the Netherlands’ third largest party and retained that standing in European Parliament elections in June 2014 (and has joined a new anti-immigrant, anti-EU bloc in the European Parliament that includes France’s National Front). Wilders, who avoided conviction in a previous indictment, is now being charged again for hate speech targeted at a specific group by calling for the expulsion of Moroccan immigrants. Still, the PVV has gained in popularity and is competing to improve its parliamentary position in elections scheduled for 2017.

In addressing problems of immigration and the country’s large Muslim population, the Netherlands has abandoned its previous policy of extending its traditional multiculturalism (based on “pillar communities”) towards immigrants. Instead, the government now favors a policy of encouraging assimilation and integration through education and jobs initiatives. Also, in May 2015, the Dutch cabinet finally approved the previous proposal to ban face coverings. In order to avoid the charge that the order is aimed at Muslims, the ban is limited to public spaces like schools and government buildings and is justified on security grounds and thus includes motorcycle helmets and balaclavas and not just niqabs. However, liberal opponents of the ban argue that the intent on traditional Muslim dress for women is clear (they also argue it is not necessary, as it is estimated only 1,000 women wear full face coverings in public). With the rise of the migrant crisis of 2015, most Dutch parties, including the PvdA, today favor restricting immigration. The country accepted just 50,000 of the 1 million refugees who arrived in Europe from the Middle East in 2014-15.

Despite controversies over immigration and assimilation, the Netherlands continues to enjoy a broad political consensus about the country’s democratic constitution, its Western allegiance, its combination of free market and socially liberal policies, and its general protections of the rights of both the majority and the minority.