In February 2013, the most important chamber of the Dutch Parliament (Second Chamber) had already approved the law proposal to introduce a nationwide facultative referendum in the Netherlands. There, the progressive parties, the populists and the new animal and senior parties (PvdA, PVV, SP, D66, GroenLinks, PvdD, 50PLUS) had voted in favour while the liberals and Christian democrats (VVD, CDA, CU, SGP) voted against.
Now the proposal is up for final decision in the Dutch Senate (First Chamber), which can only say yes or no to the law proposal and not make any changes at all. After their approval, the law will go into effect. In the Second Chamber, we expect the same division in the First Chamber (where the same parties are present), but in politics unforeseen moves sometimes are possible. In 1999, it was the Dutch Senate who blocked the introduction of the binding facultative referendum during the final vote. Then only one vote was missing because one single senator (Mr. Wiegel) had crossed the floor to the opposition.
The facultative referendum
Attempts to change the constitution to allow for binding direct democracy, have failed repeatedly because the necessary two-thirds majority wasn’t there. To change the constitution, either the liberals (VVD) or the big Christian democrats (CDA) have to become in favor of direct democracy. This may take a lot of time.
That’s why the Referendum Platform has decided to opt for non-binding direct democracy within the current constitutional framework. This means the facultative referendum is legally non-binding, although politically almost binding. Other elements of the law:
- Referendums can be held on laws and treaties, right after they have been approved by parliament.
- Excluded topics are the constitution, the budget and the monarchy. But referendums on taxes, social security, EU treaties etc. would be allowed.
- Citizens must collect 300,000 (2.5% of the electorate) signatures within 6 weeks; signatures can be gathered freely on the streets; the law opens the possibility for signature gathering through the internet (though this must be separately introduced).
- There is no turnout quorum (as this would be illogical for non-binding referendums).
- There is an independent Referendum Commission which sets the date of the vote, fixes the exact question, provides information to voters (before the 2005 referendum, a brochure was spread house-to-house), and divides a maximum of 2 million euros in subsidies among the yes- and no-campaigns.
The current law proposal was initiated by among others Niesco Dubbelboer (co-founder of the Referendum Platform and member of parliament from 2003 to 2006) already in 2005, shortly after the Dutch referendum on the European Constitution (which was also co-initiated by Dubbelboer). But due to various political developments, it has been gathering dust for many years.
The Referendum Platform is now lobbying to support the adoption of the law proposal, sending materials to members of parliament and other key politicians, making appointments with them, and informing the media.
Next steps… the popular initiative
Also, together with the Agora Europe foundation and Netwerk Democratie, the Referendum Platform is starting a new campaign to also introduce the popular initiative in the Netherlands.
The Netherlands already has a (rather weak) national citizen’s initiative, also introduced by Niesco Dubbelboer in 2006, which is an agenda right for citizens to enter proposals into parliament. This does not trigger a referendum. We now hope we can add a full popular initiative to that, which does trigger a national referendum in case the parliament rejects a citizen’s proposal. Read about it here.
Text by Arjen Nijeboer
Arjen Nijeboer is co-founder and spokesperson of the Referendum Platform, and an independent activist, journalist and advisor.
The law proposal is available (in Dutch only) on the website of the Referendum Platform.