The Dutch referendum is KIA. In a vote on 22 February, the Dutch Parliament (Tweede Kamer) voted to abolish the possibility to organise a so-called ‘advisory referendum’, by a one-vote Parliamentary majority. The decision by the government to abolish the referendum has been questioned by the opposition. The opposition is especially critical of government manoeuvres intended to make sure no referendum can be called on the abolishment of the referendum. During the first of two debates, this was criticised by MP Van Raak (Socialist Party):
“The Prime-Minister called it ‘inherently logical’ that the government wants to abolish the referendum without allowing the people to have a say in it. He called it ‘inherently logical’, because the government is against the referendum. That is an interesting thought: the people do not have to have an opinion, because the government already has an opinion. (…) I admit: you see this kind of thing more often, in dictatorships.“
Parties in the opposition would have preferred to see an alternative first. Why hasn’t the minister Kajsa Ollongren waited for an evaluation of the ‘advisory referendum’ at the end of this year? What makes the decision of special interest, is the fact that the minister Ollongren is a member of D66. D66 has always been a party striving for political reform and referenda – indeed, were formed with that exact purpose. The party has always argued for more direct influence by citizens on policy. Now they are at the forefront of abolishing the modest direct means they themselves proposed in the first place. MP Raak again:
“Today is a black day for democracy. It is the day that citizens are robbed of a right and people are silenced. And why? What have the people done? What crime have we committed? The people said no. We have said no once to the government, to the arrogant elite. (…) That’s why we are being punished.“
What exactly is taken away? The opportunity to organise an advisory referendum has been in force since 1 July 2015. It has been used once, to organise a referendum on the association treaty with Ukraine on 6 April 2016. The outcome of the referendum was negative, the Dutch voted against it. Despite this, the association treaty came into full effect on 1 September 2017.
The law specifies, that a referendum can only be called on laws and the “tacit approval of treaties applying only to the Netherlands or parts thereof within the Kingdom.” To organise a referendum, there has to be a ‘preliminary request’ by at least 10.000 citizens with the right to vote. Then this preliminary request has to be supported by a ‘definitive request’ supported by 300.000 citizens. For the referendum to be valid, at least 30% of citizens has to vote. Despite the high demands, limiting access to a referendum, it had to go. Why? According to Martin Bosma (Freedom Party), the three arguments given leave a lot to be desired:
“Firstly: the law hasn’t brought what was expected. Yes, why so? Which expectation? And who has recorded this expectation? How is this quantified? I don’t read anything in the old law about an expectation? What proves that this expectation has not been fulfilled? I want proof from the minister. That is my first question. For those viewing at home: I never get an answer from this minister; pay attention and see if she does this time.Secondly: this law hasn’t served as a step to a corrective, binding referendum. Again: who has ever seen this law as a step towards something? It isn’t written in the law. This has been dragged into the argument. It is complete nonsense. I quote another member of D66, Thom de Graaf, who said, when this law was discussed in the senate: this advisory referendum is a detached instrument, unrelated to other forms of referenda. You shouldn’t lie, madam minister.Thirdly: citizens seem to think that the referendum is binding if the turnout threshold is made, we read. All right, again the question: what evidence is there? Numbers please. If the threshold is the problem, change the threshold. Come up with a reasonable alternative, D66. (…) [If] the law is bad, improve it (…)”
But as Raak had said before, it seems that:
“The problem is not the referendum, but poor politicians; a haughty elite that thinks to know better than ordinary people. And a parliament that is afraid of the people, is not a parliament, but serves other, wrong interests.“
Without judging the truth in that statement, it is a fact that the Dutch government is hurrying towards getting rid of the referendum, cutting a few judicial corners in the process, in order not to have the new law (needed to remove the referendum) be a subject of a referendum. Arissen (Animal Party):
“The current government abolishes the referendum, and right now, without making it subject to a referendum through the cunning ruse of ‘urgent interest’, while nobody sees the urgency of the matter. (…) Another, more precarious fact, is that we are now the first democratic country to do away with the referendum. Because, as said before, [only the DDR] did something as antidemocratic. Thanks to D66 and the backroom politics we can expect from now on.“
The same point is made by MP Baudet (Forum for Democracy):
“The government keeps repeating that the advisory referendum hasn’t brought what was expected from it. If the government had expected the population to act as an applause machine, yes, in that case the referendum hasn’t brought what was expected. Instead, the population has shown it dares be critical of those in power over her. Criticism, apparently, is not what those in power expect. Instead of taking the council of its citizens into consideration and benefit from it, the government chooses to kill off the advisory referendum after its first use.“
The decision has yet to pass through the Senate, where the government holds a small majority.