Formally, the referendum result is an advice to the parliament, but everyone agrees that the outcome is politically binding. “Our research on the practice of local Dutch referendums shows that politicians almost always respect the outcome of non-binding referendums if a minimal turnout is reached. They would be heavily criticized if they didn’t”, says Arjen Nijeboer, spokesperson of the Referendum Platform.
Two organizations have already stated their interest in using the new referendum. The party for the elderly 50PLUS (50pluspartij.nl) wants to initiate a referendum on the pension system. The citizen group Burgerforum EU (burgerforum-eu.nl) has gathered signatures for a referendum on the next EU treaty.
"The introduction of a national facultative referendum in the Netherlands is a clear victory for the citizens, even when it is non-binding. Our congratulations go to our democracy friends of the Referendum Platform in the Netherlands", states Cora Pfafferott, spokesperson of Democracy International.
A regular majority of the Senate also approved a second law proposal: a Constitutional change that would make the referendum binding. However, this Constitutional change can only go into effect if it is again approved by a two-thirds majority of the parliament after the next elections (scheduled for March 2017). This two-third majority seems currently unlikely as both the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Liberals (VVD) are against any referendum. That is why both a binding and a non-binding version was initiated.
The referendum rules
Under the Consultative Referendum Law, citizens can request a national referendum on laws and treaties after these have been approved by the parliament (the facultative or abrogative referendum). Citizens have to gather 10,000 signatures in 4 weeks followed by 300,000 signatures in 6 weeks.
The Constitution, the monarchy and the budget are excluded. But referendums on taxes, EU treaties, health care, immigration policies or measures to solve the economic crisis are allowed. An independent Referendum Commission will provide information to voters and divide up two 2 million euros of subsidies to yes- and no-campaigns. Signature gathering on the streets is allowed, and online signature gathering may be introduced separately later.
The original law proposal had no turnout quorum, but at the last moment, the Social Democrats (PvdA) in the Senate demanded the implementation of a turnout quorum of 30 percent. “We are against any turnout quorum because they may trigger boycott campaigns and avoidance of publicity and debate by those who have a vested interest in the failure of the referendum”, says Arjen Nijeboer. “We want more public debate and engagement, and less political tricks and cynicism, not the other way around.” The government has some leeway to decide when the Consultative Referendum Law enters into force, but this is expected to happen around the end of 2014.
Both referendum laws were co-initiated in 2005 by Niesco Dubbelboer, then Member of Parliament for the Social Democrats and co-founder of the Referendum Platform. The laws were on the shelf for several years because of political turmoil. During his tenure Dubbelboer also successfully co-initiated the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution (a.k.a. the Lisbon Treaty) and the national citizens’ initiative, which gives 40,000 citizens the right to place a proposal into a parliament. The Referendum Platform also successfully campaigned for the introduction of a popular initiative (a referendum about proposals drafted by citizens) in the city of Amsterdam and for the introduction of the European Citizens Initiative (an agenda right for the EU), which became operational in 2012.
The Referendum Platform is an organization advancing the use of direct democracy in the Netherlands. It was founded in 2000 and has headquarters in Amsterdam. Its Board of Recommendation includes former cabinet members, former national leaders of political parties, professors of the social sciences and well-known people from the cultural sphere.
For more information about the Consultative Referendum Law and a download of the entire text, visit www.referendumplatform.nl/1432