Tag Archives: the Netherlands

Kings, Queens, and Contemporary European Politics

The Netherland's Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix Addressing Parliament.

The Netherland’s Queen Beatrix last week abdicated her position, handing the monarchy to her son, Willem-Alexander. Her decision was seen as both unexpected and usual, bucking the trend of other European monarchs, such as those in Spain, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark, which have held on to power despite personal and political challenges. While far more popular than her son, it is unlikely that Queen Beatrix’s resignation will have any lasting effect on Dutch politics.

But what exactly do kings and queens do?

Many European countries retain a hereditary monarchy by tradition. The functions of the executive, which are fused into a single office in the United States, are separated into two offices under these systems. The monarch usually serves as the ceremonial head of state, while a president or prime minister serves as the head of government. The responsibilities of the head of state are largely symbolic; real power is vested in the head of government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth is the ceremonial head of state, while Prime Minister David Cameron is the active head of government. Queen Elizabeth performs public duties like opening parliament and receiving ambassadors, while David Cameron performs the real governing, introducing legislation, making policy decisions, and so on.

The separation of the two positions carries some advantages. In countries like Belgium, where language politics have created strong divisions within the country and made governance (at least at the national level) effectively impossible, a ceremonial head of state (King Albert II) can provide a sense of continuity and acts as a symbol of national unity. There are also some who argue that the separation of the two positions creates additional checks on the power of the government. In the United Kingdom, for example, Queen Elizabeth II must give “royal assent” (approval) to all legislation passed by parliament. While royal ascent has not been withheld in Great Britain since the 1700s, it has been denied more recently in some former British colonies. Canada’s Governor General (the Queen’s representative in Canada), denied royal assent to a bill in 1963. Despite its rare usage, many groups lobby the Queen to deny royal assent on measures they oppose.

That said, ceremonial heads of state can sometimes create headaches for

Spain's King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

Spain’s King Juan Carlos Safaris in Botswana.

political leaders. Take, for example, Spain’s King Juan Carlos’s decision last year to participate in a €10,000-a-day hunting safari in Botswana as the country’s struggled with an ongoing economic crisis and an unemployment rate reaching 30 percent—hardly the image Spain wanted to project at the time.

What do you think? Does the division of executive power into multiple offices establish a stronger, more effective, or more democratic government? Or does it merely create greater opportunity for corruption and uncertainty? Would support the creation of a separate head of state in the United States? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think?

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The Continuing Challenge of Coalition Politics

Julia Gillard

Australian Prime Minisiter Julia Gillard

Australia has a new government, two weeks after elections left the future of Australian politics in uncertainty. Two independent members of parliament (MPs) announced they would back Julia Gillard’s minority government, permitting the Labour Party to continue to try to govern the country. But Gillard’s government is fragile. She’s promised the Greens a renewed effort to address climate change in exchange for their support and three rural MPs a high-speed fiber optic cable to connect their rural constituencies with the national broadband network. The deals give Gillaard’s center-left Labour Party coalition a narrow two-seat advantage over the rival Liberal/National coalition. But Gillard’s ability to manage her narrow majority will be tested at nearly every turn, as a single defection from the coalition could trigger a confidence motion in the government.

But the news is less positive in Belgium, where three-month old talks collapsed over the weekend, leaving the country without a national government. Belgium, like its neighbor the Netherlands, has been without a government since elections in June. The defeated pre-election government continues to operate as a caretaker government. But Belgium has, since July 1, also held the rotating presidency of the European Council.

In both the Netherlands and Belgium, the inability of the various political factions to form a new coalition government stems largely from the rise of political parties which lack any real interest in establishing a national government. In Belgium, the longstanding linguistic division and the rise of parties like the Vlaams Belang make it difficult to form alliances between traditional allies across the Flemish-French linguistic divide. Strong anti-immigration platforms in the Netherlands have also undermined coalition possibilities.

But the challenges facing Belgium and the Netherlands (and the crisis narrowly avoided in Australia) demonstrate the challenge of coalition politics. While the proportional representation electoral system [glossary] used in Belgium and the Netherlands affords voters a greater choice of political parties, it also fractures the political spectrum. Twelve separate political parties are represented in the lower house of the Belgian parliament, the largest of which controls just 18 percent of the seats. In such a fragmented political system, it is hardly surprising that a coalition would be difficult to form. Indeed, any realistic coalition would have to (1) transcend the linguistic divide, arguably the most difficult and controversial division in Belgium today; and (2) involve more than five coalition partners.  A tall task indeed!