2023 Provincial Council and regional water board elections

On 15 March, Dutch voters will be heading to the polls to cast their votes for the governing bodies of the twelve Dutch provinces and the 21 regional water boards. Since 2014, the elections for the two separate governing bodies have been held on the same day. With rising sea levels, extreme weather and clean water initiatives at the forefront of people’s minds, a larger-than-normal voter turnout is expected.

What is the Provincial Council and why are the elections important?
On the national level, the citizens of the Netherlands are represented by the Tweede Kamer (literally, the Second Chamber, but more appropriately, the House of Representatives). The members of the Tweede Kamer are members of political parties and are elected by the citizens every four years. Being a multi-party system, the party with the most votes creates a coalition between other parties – usually with the same general political platform – in order to have a majority of seats to create and pass legislation.

The next layer of administrative governance in the Netherlands is the provincial level. Just like on the national level, the twelve provinces of the Netherlands each have their own governing body that is representative of the inhabitants of that province. The governing bodies are called the Provinciale Staten (which more or less translates to the Provincial Council). The members of the Provinciale Staten are elected every four years by the citizens of the province, and just like the national level, members belong to political parties and usually have to also form coalitions in order to govern.

What’s interesting on the lower levels is how the coalition at the national level might (will?) influence the provincial elections and the subsequent duties and tasks of the Provinciale Staten. And vice versa – how might (will?) the political parties and their results in provincial elections affect politics at the national level.

First and foremost, the Provinciale Staten oversees, manages and facilitates important daily aspects of life in the provinces in seven primary areas: economic stimulus, supervision of municipal finances, supervision of the regional water boards, traffic and transportation, nature and the environment, advancing the well-being and cultural activities of the province, and spatial planning and zoning approvals. In order to carry out these activities, the members of the Provinciale Staten will appoint three to seven members (depending on the province and the size of its population) to the Provincial Executive. Each member of the Provincial Executive has their area of administration, such as finances, spatial planning or welfare. Compared to the national government, the Provincial Executive is equivalent to the cabinet of ministers.

The next most important duty of the Provinciale Staten is their election of the Senate (the Eerste Kamer) on the national level. Unlike other countries such as the United States, the members of the upper house of the bicameral governing system are not directly elected by the constituents. Rather, they are selected by the members of the Provinciale Staten – who are elected by the citizens of the provinces. And while the Senate of the Netherlands does not have the power to draft legislation, it does have the power to vote down legislation drafted by the Tweede Kamer, as all new laws must go through the Dutch Senate for approval.

This makes the provincial elections vitally important for Dutch citizens on both the local level – for the day-to-day governance of the province – and the national level – for the selection of the Senate in The Hague. Given that on the local level, people are likely to vote for the party that most aligns with their local concerns, this could also give smaller parties more representation in the Provinciale Staten, thus a higher representation in the Senate – which could throw off the power balance between political parties at the national level.

Some have even regarded the provincial elections as an indicator of how national elections will go, in the same way that early primaries in the US are used as indicators. Three times in the last twenty years, the provincial elections took place within a year after the national elections and gave political strategists insight into how the national elections were heading, giving them time to adjust their campaign strategies.

The selection of new senators for the Eerste Kamer is scheduled to be completed within three months after the elections for the Provincial Councils. In terms of how the current national coalition and government will influence the provincial elections, for this election experts and pollsters aren’t confident that the current national coalition of the VVD, D66, CDA and CU will hold power in many of the provinces. On the local level, smaller parties such as the Farmers’ Movement party (the BBB, BoerBurgerBeweging) in the northern and eastern provinces, and JA21 (a right-wing party that is a strong proponent for reining in the influx of immigrants and asylum seekers) are becoming increasingly popular. These are currently opposition parties to the national coalition in the Tweede Kamer. This means that if the smaller (opposition) parties win big in the provincial elections, they will have a larger representation in the Provinciale Staten and therefore a higher proportion of the votes for new senators in the Eerste Kamer. Even if the VVD wins big in the provinces, the rise of the smaller (opposition) parties could make Senate coalition creation very difficult. Throw in that the opposition leftist parties, the Green Party and the Labour Party, are considering a fusion in the Senate after the elections, and a VVD-led coalition in the Senate just got even more challenging.

The election of the regional water boards
Much less politically charged but just as vitally important, the election of the Dutch regional water boards will also take place on 15 March. The regional water boards are a unique governing entity in the Netherlands. They are not entirely part of the government, but not entirely separate. They work independently in some respects from other layers of government, but also work very close with them as well. The regional water boards are another aspect, but not a layer, of government.

Not only their separate-but-integrated-with status with the government makes the Dutch regional water boards unique, but also the fact that they have been around in one form or another since the twelfth century, when a group of citizens near Utrecht formed a neighborhood committee to build and maintain dams around the waterways in the area. Since then, the management of water has grown and spread throughout the country to the present 21 water boards in the country.

The jurisdiction of the water boards does not necessarily correspond with the provincial borders and often encompasses parts of more than one province. For example, the Rijnland water board covers parts of North and South Holland, and the Rivierenland water board covers parts of South Holland, Gelderland, Utrecht and North Brabant. This means that water boards must work with more than one province, and the provinces themselves have to work together when it comes to water management.

Until 1992, the regional water boards were made up of officials appointed by city council members, special interest groups, business community members and representatives of housing development and homeowners. The new voting law in 1992 gave residents of each region voting rights for the first time. Voting was originally done by mail and in off years from the provincial and national elections. Since 2015, the water board elections have been held on the same day as the provincial elections. The main reason to do so was to increase the voter turnout for both elections, although this is still not high at about 55%. Still, with over one-quarter of the Netherlands lying below sea level, the water boards are extremely important. Therefore, it’s vitally important to vote for members of the board.

All residents of the Netherlands over the age of eighteen with valid residence permits are eligible to vote. This means you – the expat reading this! – are most likely also eligible to vote and have a say in the water management of the area where you live.

Other elections
For citizens of the Netherlands in the Caribbean, the Island Council elections are also taking place on 15 March. Residents of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba will cast their votes for each island’s council that will govern their respective islands as a “special municipality” within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Written by Marla Thomson