Since 1 July 2015, the Netherlands has been one of the few Western democracies that has allowed its citizens to call a referendum. However, the legislation allowing referendums is now repealed, as the new government says the law has not delivered what was expected. Four serious referendum attempts have been made during the life of the provision, of which two resulted in actual referendums. Based on these four experiences, Kristof Jacobs highlights what other countries can learn from the Dutch referendum experience.
The Dutch referendum law
The Consultative Referendum Law allows citizens to trigger a non-binding referendum about a law or treaty within a strict timeframe. In a first phase citizens have four weeks after the law or treaty is approved to collect 10,000 signatures. When this threshold is met, citizens then have six weeks to collect 300,000 new signatures. Certain topics, such as the constitution, the budget, and the monarchy are exempt.
Once enough signatures have been collected, a referendum is held, and 30% of the electorate must take part in order for the vote to be valid. If the majority of voters support ‘No’ and the turnout threshold is met, a bill withdrawing the law or treaty has to be introduced. The Parliament can decide not to approve this bill, but a debate has to be held. In other words: the result is advisory, even though there are formal consequences. In practice, both successful referendums led to changes to the existing legislation/treaty.
The referendum law does not allow government-initiated referendums, for two reasons. First, if the referendum is supposed to be a method of highlighting gaps between the government and public opinion, it is widely accepted among politicians that they are not in a good position to be the ones calling the referendum. After all, if they already knew there was a gap, they would surely already have acted to close it. Moreover, such referendums are seen as easy to manipulate by government parties. Continue reading