Lack of trust in the rule of law grows in the Netherlands

At least one-third of Dutch citizens believe the government would be justified in violating democratic norms to resolve pressing issues such as the climate crisis and housing shortage, according to a new report by the Verwey-Jonker Institute on a study into illiberalism in the Netherlands. Distrust in the government is not a new phenomenon in the Netherlands, but the trend appears to have been fueled by the Covid crisis and is particularly strong among those between 18 and 24 years old.

Dutch citizens of all stripes appear to have illiberal tendencies. The study found no difference between progressive and conservative voters when it came to willingness to violate constitutional norms to solve complex social problems. Level of education completed doesn’t appear to impact the trend, with equal numbers of university and technical school graduates expressing opinions supportive of setting aside the rule of law. “While people think parliamentary democracy is the best form of government, we also feel that politics is incapable of solving complex problems. As soon as we become very concerned about something, a fairly large group says that a strong leader is needed. Then we tend to embrace less liberal forms of government,” according to Ron van Wonderen, researcher at the Verwey-Jonker Institute and author of the report.

The majority of Dutch citizens, over 90%, identify as having high confidence in the rule of law as a theoretical concept. Yet, 37% of the respondents in the study believe that “the government should do what the majority of the population wants, even if there are laws that prohibit it.” Over a third agreed with the statement “social problems should be solved quickly and efficiently, even if that means less attention is paid to the viewpoints and interests of different groups.”

A substantial minority of the respondents, 35 %, believe the government should be able to ignore opposition parties in parliament when addressing major national issues such as immigration and the housing crisis. At least 20% of the population believes the cabinet should ignore both parliamentary opposition and judicial orders when these constitutional constraints make it difficult for the government to address pressing national issues efficiently. “To say that the opinion of others is less important, that judges or the opposition should sometimes be brushed aside, constitutes a serious rot in the pillars of our democracy,” says Ronald Leopold, director of the Anne Frank Foundation.

This increase in distrust in the government has not occurred in a vacuum. Scholars identify the Dutch government’s repeated violation of democratic norms during the childcare benefit affair and the Covid crisis as instrumental in setting the stage for the growing rejection of democratic constitutional norms among citizens. “If you only look at Covid, many measures have been introduced outside the rule of law. And something like the childcare benefit affair – a government that really does not uphold citizens’ fundamental rights, that has really knocked down confidence,” says Barbara Oomen, Professor of Sociology at Utrecht University. “The core of the rule of law is that the elected government must also comply with the law, and with fundamental rights,” she says.

The move towards illiberalism is a global trend, as nations across the globe, including the United States, Hungary and France, struggle with a rise in rejection of democratic norms. “You see it in other countries too. Look at how many voters in France voted for Le Pen, look at the unrest in Washington after the presidential election. Due to the increasing polarization, we are more and more inclined to move the pillars that uphold our rule of law,” says Leopold.

While setting aside the rule of law in the pursuit of efficiency in the resolution of pressing issues may be tempting, the approach comes with risks. “While something like that can work for you one time, it can work against you the next time,” suggests Oomen. Scholars emphasize the importance of the rule of law and respect for minority opinions in maintaining a peaceful society. “In our democratic system, there’s a reason why we take the wishes of minorities into account. It serves to maintain stability and prevent dissatisfaction,” says Willem Wagenaar, researcher at the Anne Frank Foundation.

The study’s authors argue the trend is best addressed through more education, particularly given the dramatic rise in illiberalism among 18- to 24-year-olds. “We have to learn to live with people who are very different from us, also in political views. Our democracy offers the best protection to prevent history from repeating itself and some groups from being heard no more,” suggests Leopold.

Written by Lorre Luther