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Debating Democracy: The Dutch Case Ank Michels Utrecht School of Governance, Universiteit Utrecht, Bijlhouwerstraat 6, Utrecht 3511 ZC, The Netherlands. E-mail: [email protected] Normative theories on democracy differ in their view on the role of citizen participation. Whereas in the model of representative democracy, the role of citizen participation is mainly voting; in the models of associative democracy, deliberative democracy, and participatory democracy, other aspects of citizen participation are emphasized. This article investigates the extent to which the theoretical debate on democracy is reflected in the public debate on democracy and in democratic practices. It does so for the Dutch case. The analysis shows that the representative model dominates the Dutch debate on democracy among opinion makers and political parties. As far as elements of other models are mentioned, there appears to be a connection with the (ideological) background of the defenders of that perspective: the associative concept of democracy is mainly debated among Christian Democrats, the participatory model among parties from the Left, and the deliberative model among academics. Although the representative model is dominant in the public debate on democracy, the article also shows examples of local democratic practices in which elements of different models of democracy appear to be present. Acta Politica (2008) 43, 472–492. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ap.5500205 Keywords: democracy; participation; public debate; political parties Introduction Many countries in Western Europe are facing an increasing volatility in elections, a decreasing turnout, a loss in party membership, and the growth of right-wing parties (Mair and van Biezen, 2001; Mair, 2005; Gallagher, 2006). Although, broadly speaking, confidence in democracy and politics does not seem to slipping, political research does show evidence of a loss of confidence in political institutions and politicians and of popular indifference to conventional politics in many countries (Dekker, 2003; Mair, 2005). The question of how politicians should react is the subject of public debate in many countries. In fact, this debate deals with the issue of what type of democracy is needed. Politicians and political opinion makers do agree that in a modern democracy citizens should participate and be involved. There is, however, considerably less agreement on the extent to which and in what way Acta Politica, 2008, 43, (472–492) r 2008 Palgrave Macmillan 0001-6810/08

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Debating Democracy: The Dutch Case

Ank MichelsUtrecht School of Governance, Universiteit Utrecht, Bijlhouwerstraat 6, Utrecht 3511 ZC,

The Netherlands.

E-mail: [email protected]

Normative theories on democracy differ in their view on the role of citizenparticipation. Whereas in the model of representative democracy, the role of citizenparticipation is mainly voting; in the models of associative democracy, deliberativedemocracy, and participatory democracy, other aspects of citizen participation areemphasized. This article investigates the extent to which the theoretical debate ondemocracy is reflected in the public debate on democracy and in democraticpractices. It does so for the Dutch case. The analysis shows that the representativemodel dominates the Dutch debate on democracy among opinion makers andpolitical parties. As far as elements of other models are mentioned, there appears tobe a connection with the (ideological) background of the defenders of thatperspective: the associative concept of democracy is mainly debated amongChristian Democrats, the participatory model among parties from the Left, and thedeliberative model among academics. Although the representative model isdominant in the public debate on democracy, the article also shows examples oflocal democratic practices in which elements of different models of democracyappear to be present.Acta Politica (2008) 43, 472–492. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ap.5500205

Keywords: democracy; participation; public debate; political parties


Many countries in Western Europe are facing an increasing volatility inelections, a decreasing turnout, a loss in party membership, and the growth ofright-wing parties (Mair and van Biezen, 2001; Mair, 2005; Gallagher, 2006).Although, broadly speaking, confidence in democracy and politics does notseem to slipping, political research does show evidence of a loss of confidencein political institutions and politicians and of popular indifference toconventional politics in many countries (Dekker, 2003; Mair, 2005).

The question of how politicians should react is the subject of public debate inmany countries. In fact, this debate deals with the issue of what type ofdemocracy is needed. Politicians and political opinion makers do agree that ina modern democracy citizens should participate and be involved. There is,however, considerably less agreement on the extent to which and in what way

Acta Politica, 2008, 43, (472–492)r 2008 Palgrave Macmillan 0001-6810/08

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such participation should be effected. In fact, this has yielded a discussion inwhich arguments from different theoretical models of democracy seem to beinterwoven.

This article aims at unravelling the debate on democracy through the lens ofdemocratic theory. The question addressed in this article is: to what extent isthe theoretical debate on democracy reflected in the public debate ondemocracy and in democratic practices? The article examines the debate ondemocracy among opinion makers and between political parties. It does so forthe Dutch case.

The first section presents four normative theoretical models of democracy.Within each of these models, participation has a different meaning. The secondpart of this article investigates the Dutch debate on democracy. It starts with ashort overview of Dutch politics during the past few decades. It then examinesthe debate on democracy among opinion makers and in party manifestoes, andpresents some experiences with democratic practices. Views on participationand democracy will be confronted with the theoretical perspectives ondemocracy.

Models of Democracy

The concept of democracy has always been contested, as is evident from theenormous body of literature on different models of democracy (see e.g. Held,1987; Sabine, 1989; Lijphart, 1999; Saward, 2003; Hendriks, 2006). Participa-tion is generally seen as an important element of democracy. To what extentand how citizens should participate, are questions that belong to the core ofnormative political theories on democracy. The answers differ, however.In some theories, participation of many people is seen as vital to democracy,whereas other theories equate participation with the selection of politicians.In this section, four models of democracy will be presented, each emphasizinganother view on participation: the representative model of democracy, theassociative model, the deliberative model, and the participatory model ofdemocracy.1 These models also differ in their answers to questions like: Whodecides, and who are the main actors?

Representative democracy

The representative model of democracy is probably the model that is mostfrequently described. The model focuses on decision-making by electedrepresentatives. Liberal democracy and polyarchical democracy are alsooften-used terms to label this type of democracy (Saward, 2003, 150). In thisfirst model of democracy, participation plays only a marginal role and islimited to voting for leaders.

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One of the main representatives of this view is Joseph Schumpeter. Hedefines democracy in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy as follows: ‘Thedemocratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at politicaldecisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means ofcompetitive struggle for the people’s vote’ (Schumpeter, 1976, first published in1942, 269). Hence, in this view, the competition for leadership is the core ofdemocracy. The role of the people is no more than to produce a government(Schumpeter, 1976, 269). Voters must understand that, once they have electedtheir leader, political action is the leaders’ business and not theirs. In his view,ordinary people could not be expected to judge about politics and policies.Therefore, massive political participation is seen as undesirable.

A more modern representative of this view on democracy is Robert Dahl.In his A Preface to Democratic Theory (1956), he, too, focuses on decision-making by the elected representatives of the people. In Dahl’s view, electionsplay a central role in maximizing democracy, that is, in maximizing popularsovereignty and political equality. Through elections, voters can express theirchoice for alternatives. The alternative with the greatest support among thevoters will be chosen and displace the other alternatives. The orders of theelected politicians will then become policy. Dahl, too, has a narrow conceptionof political participation. He even regards massive participation as dangerous,because an increase in political activity among the lower socio-economic classescould lead to more authoritarian ideas and thus to a decline in consensus aboutthe basic norms of democracy (Dahl, 1956, 89).

Although different theories on representative democracy may emphasizedifferent aspects, they share the following characteristics: the emphasis is ondecision-making by elected representatives, the main role of voters is to selectleaders, and participation takes place through elections.

Associative democracy

The model of associative democracy emphasizes the importance of informaland local associations in democracy. These associations have an essential rolein performing governance functions on behalf of their members. In this model,citizen participation takes place in associations.

The concept of associative democracy is most notably present in the writingsof Paul Hirst. In his book, Associative Democracy, he develops the idea ofassociative democracy as an answer to the increasingly diverse and pluralisticobjectives of the members of modern societies (Hirst, 1994, 6). He claims thatindividual liberty and human welfare are best served when social affairs aremanaged by voluntary and democratically self-governing associations.According to Hirst, in an associative democracy, these voluntary self-governing associations should be the primary means of democratic governance.

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Social movements must build their own self-governing communities in civilsociety. These self-governing associations must not be regarded as secondary oropposing organizations, but as essential to democratic politics. Also, powershould, as far as possible, be distributed to distinct domains of authority, andadministration within these domains should be devolved to the lowest level foreffective governance. And finally, democratic governance is more thanelections and majority decisions; it should also provide for the continuousflow of information between governors and the governed. In Hirst’s view,communication in democracy can operate best in a system where associationshave government tasks, and where coordination depends on the cooperation ofthese associations (Hirst, 1994, 19–40).

So, the model of associative democracy may be said to be characterized byvoluntary self-governing associations, which are regarded as important todemocracy. Furthermore, participation takes place through associations andthere should be multiple and diverse centres of power.

Deliberative democracy

A relatively new conception of democracy is the deliberative democracy model.The emphasis in this model of democracy is on discussion and deliberation.Deliberation, rather than voting, is regarded as the central mechanism forpolitical decision-making. Participation takes place through deliberation.

Although the definitions of deliberative democracy differ widely from oneanother, all theorists agree that this concept of democracy includes at least thefollowing characteristics (e.g. Elster, 1998; Fishkin and Laslett, 2002; Gutmannand Thompson, 2004). First, essential to the deliberative view on democracy isdecision-making by means of arguments. Participants in the democraticprocess discuss with each other problems and proposed solutions to theseproblems. And secondly, a deliberative process assumes free public reasoning,equality, inclusion of different interests, and mutual respect. Only then, arguethe theorists of deliberative democracy, can deliberation lead to rational andlegitimate decisions.

Many issues remain on which there is less clarity. One of the issues is wheredeliberation should take place and who should be involved. Theories ofdeliberative democracy make mention of a wide range of possible deliberationforums, varying from parliament to expert forums and citizen panels (Fishkinand Laslett, 2002; Akkerman, 2006). Other issues regard the goal ofdeliberation (to reach a consensus or not), and the question of whendeliberation stops and decision-making starts. However, all theorists ondeliberative democracy focus on the democratic process. No matter how manypeople participate, who participates, and where participation takes place, the

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process of coming to decisions can only be valued as democratic if it meets thecriteria of deliberation.

Hence, characteristic for deliberative democracy is public debate anddiscussion, the assumption of free public reasoning and equality, and parti-cipation through deliberation.

Participatory democracy

The final model of participatory democracy emphasizes the necessity ofextensive participation in decision-making. In this model, citizen participationis regarded as vital to democracy.

The theoretical roots of this view go back to Rousseau. Although his idea ofan ideal society was a society of small peasants characterized by a large degreeof economic equality and economic independence, his view that theparticipation of each citizen in political decision-making is vitally importantto the functioning of the state laid the foundation for theories on the role ofparticipation in modern democracies. In Rousseau’s view, as formulated in DuContrat Social, the basis of the political system is the social contract. Underthis contract the citizens abstain from their own desires and decide to be free bymaking the laws that rule them (Rousseau, 1988/1762, 10–12 and 27–30).Hence, political participation is an essential element because it ensuresfreedom for everyone. In addition, participation has important educationaland social functions; by participating, individual citizens learn to be publiccitizens who are engaged in more than just their own private interests(Rousseau, 1988/1762, 14–15).

Modern theorists on participatory democracy, like Pateman, emphasize thatparticipation should not only cover every aspect of political decision-making,but should encompass such areas as the workplace and local communities aswell (Pateman, 1970). Other theorists propose the referendum as an instrumentfor participatory democracy. But in all theories of participatory democracy,citizens are regarded as the central actors.

To conclude, the emphasis in the participatory model on democracy is onbroad and direct participation by citizens in political decision-making, and inother areas as well.

In Table 1, the main characteristics of the four models of democracy aresummarized. The four models of democracy vary in the way they view suchfundamentals as direct or indirect democracy (which distinguishes theparticipatory democracy model from the models of representative democracyand associative democracy), the democratic process or decision-making (whichsets the deliberative model of democracy apart from the other models), or theorganized group or the individual as the central actor (which distinguishesthe associative democracy model from the others). Participation has a different

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meaning in each of the models, but there is no hierarchy from low to highparticipation between the models. The models are ideal types of democracythat in practice may be seen as complementary to one another. For instance,modern democracies are representative democracies, but most of them alsoexhibit characteristics of the other models.

The Dutch Case

Dutch politics have gone through a period of heavy turmoil since the beginningof the new century. The electoral victory of the newcomer Pim Fortuyn in the

Table 1 Models of democracy, views on participation

Representative democracy Associative democracy

Decision-making Decision-making

K Decision-making by elected


K Voluntary self-governing associations

(e.g. interest groups, religious groups) as

primary means of democratic governance

K Focus on decision-making


K Localized power

Main actors Main actors

K Voters (selection of leaders) K Voluntary self-governing associations

K Political leaders

Participation Participation

K Participation through elections K Participation through associations

Deliberative democracy Participatory democracy

Decision-making Decision-making

K Focus on the democratic process and

not on decision-making, which in-


K Focus on decision-making by individual


K Public debate and discussion K Direct democracy: referenda

K Free public reasoning and equality K Participation in local communities, the

workplace, etc.

Main actors Main actors

K Participants in deliberation K Individual citizens

Participation Participation

K Participation through deliberation K Broad and direct participation

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2002 elections made it clear that something had gone wrong in Dutch politics.Long known as a stable democracy, the Netherlands suddenly became anexample of the uprising of the citizens against the political elites. The need forchanges and adaptations in the democratic system and culture was widelyheard. The Dutch case is therefore an interesting case to study.

Dutch society has developed from a society in which passivity and allegianceto the elites of the pillars was the dominant political attitude of the citizens,into a society marked by growing demands and dissatisfaction among citizensand a growing concern among politicians about a widening gap with thepublic. In the era of ‘Pillarization’ (1945–1965), Dutch society wascharacterized by tightly organized sub-cultures of minorities, which wereorganized along a religious and socio-economic dimension. Pillarizationstructured political parties, but also trade unions, schools, the media, andleisure activities (Lijphart, 1979). Nearly every aspect of social life took placewithin these pillars. In this era, political attitudes of Dutch citizens could becharacterized by passivity and a broad acceptance of the authority of the elites.This passivity can partly be explained by the dominance of the elites, but wasalso due to the political attitude of the Dutch in general. As Daalder argued,the Dutch attitude towards authority could be characterized as a mixture ofdeference and indifference (Daalder, 1966).

This situation began to change in the second half of the 1960s. In the 1967elections the religious parties lost a substantial part of their votes. In the yearsthat followed, the pillars began to disintegrate and the dividing lines betweenthe pillars began to blur. The number of people who felt a strong loyalty to thepillar in which they had been raised declined rapidly. This ongoing‘depillarization’ took place against the backdrop of a broader movement fordemocratization and resistance to authority that originated from the youthcultures of western-European cities. In the 1970s and 1980s, new forms ofparticipation arose outside the official political arena. New social movements,like the women’s movement, the squatters, and the anti-nuclear movementtried to influence politics by organizing extra-parliamentary actions.

Since the second half of the 1980s, there has been increasing support forpolitical parties with strongly negative opinions about ethnic minorities andasylum seekers (the Centre Party, later Centre Democrats, in the 1980s and1990s, and the List Pim Fortuyn since 2002). Also, among large groups of theelectorate, there has been a growing distrust in political institutions and politicsin general (Dekker and Van der Meer, 2004; Becker and Dekker, 2005). Thesedevelopments, further encouraged by a slight decrease in voter turnout,contributed to a growing concern among the established political elites about awidening gap with the public. As an answer to the gap between politicians andcitizens, the debate on democratic reforms broadened and several constitu-tional reforms have been proposed. Earlier research shows that there is a

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certain consensus among the administrative and academic elites in theNetherlands on the desired type of democracy (Michels, 2006). Citizenparticipation is thought to encompass more than just voting in elections.However, participation is not seen as an essential feature of democracy but, atbest, as an instrument to improve the current working of representativedemocracy.

Opinion Makers and the Debate on Democracy

In this contribution, the focus is on the public debate. We start with the debateon democracy among opinion makers. In order to gain an impression of theissues and models of democracy that are debated among opinion makers, ananalysis of newspaper articles was carried out. The analysis includednewspaper articles, which were published in the NRC-Handelsblad betweenJanuary 2002 and December 2005. NRC-Handelsblad is considered to be animportant national and neutral newspaper that offers a broad view of divergent(political) opinions. Since we are looking for a variety in opinions ondemocracy, NRC-Handelsblad seemed to be a good choice for selection.Opinion makers writing for this newspaper have various political andprofessional backgrounds , and we therefore may expect a variety in opinionson democracy. The findings are not representative of the opinions of allopinion makers in the Netherlands, in the sense that it may very well be thatsome ideas on democracy (e.g. those that are mainly debated amongacademics) are over-represented, but they do offer a picture of the differentpositions in the debate on democracy among opinion makers.

The starting point for the selection of articles was the object of the analysis,which was the relationship between (participation of) citizens on the one hand,and the political domain on the other. I therefore made a selection of articleson the issue, beginning my search with articles that included the words citizenand politics, and then extending the selection with all possible combinations ofthe words democracy, participation, citizens, and politics. From these, Iselected all articles expressing an opinion on this issue for the Netherlands.I have defined opinion makers broadly enough such as to include everybodywho takes part in the public debate, among whom politicians, ex-politicians,political commentators, academic opinion leaders, but also readers who havean interest in the subject. The final selection of articles contained 83 articles.

The unit of analysis was the article. To determine the model category towhich an article was to be assigned, I reviewed this against the characteristicsof the models presented in Table 1. Every bullet defines a characteristic of thatrespective model of democracy. If an article contained a mention of one ormore characteristics of a particular democracy model, that article was labelledas fitting into that model. For example, if an opinion maker focused on the

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relevance of referenda for democracy, that article was categorized as fittinginto the participatory democracy model. If the focus was on public debate andreasoning, the article came into the category of deliberative democracy. In themajority of the articles, only a single concept of democracy was expressed inone article. But, in a few cases, a combination of opinions was expressed, whichfall into different categories of democracy. In those cases, the article wascategorized as partly falling into the one model and partly in another, or evenseveral others.

Representative democracy

Elements from the representative model of democracy dominate the publicdebate on democracy. A vast majority of the newspaper articles by opinionmakers (61%) fits into this model; that is, in these articles the emphasis is ondecision-making by elected representatives, the selection of leaders, leadership,decision-making institutions, and elections.

The opinion makers who use arguments from this model of democracy havedifferent political and professional backgrounds. A large number of them arepoliticians or ex-politicians from various political parties, including the Liberalparty (VVD), the Democratic Liberals (D66), the Christian Democratic party(CDA), the Labour Party (PvdA), Green Left (GroenLinks), and the List PimFortuyn (LPF). Others have an academic background in constitutional law,political science, public administration, sociology, or history. Others again, arepolitical commentators, staff members of research institutions of politicalparties, or ordinary politically engaged citizens.

Some of the opinion makers merely stress the relevance of the preservationof representative democracy. Others make suggestions to improve the currentworking of representative democracy. However, there is no agreement onwhich elements of the working or the system of representative democracyshould be adapted. The debate on this subject can be summarized in six mainissues. The first issue concerns the working of parliament. According to manyopinion makers, parliament (specifically, the Second Chamber) should be moreactive in controlling government. Coalition politics and agreements betweenthe government and the coalition parties in parliament make it difficult forindividual parliamentarians to disagree. Nevertheless, many opinion makersargue for a more active role of parliamentarians, for more dualism betweenparliament and government, and for abolishing party discipline. A second issueconcerns the quality and attitude of politicians. Many emphasize that we needbetter, stronger, and more passionate politicians. This demands a betterselection of individual members of parliament. Until now, quality has notalways seemed to be a criterion for selection. Furthermore, these opinionmakers feel that it is important that politicians not only listen to the people but

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also clearly state what is beyond their competence. The third issue is the selectionof political leaders and senior civil servants. With respect to this issue, opinionmakers advocate either a direct election of major political positions or a moretransparent procedure for arriving at political appointments. Fourth, there isthe issue of institutional revisions. These include suggestions for revising theelectoral system (a stronger focus on regional representation, or a votingthreshold), and changes in the cabinet formation. The fifth issue is transparencyand accountability. A modern government and public sector should be moretransparent, more service oriented, and more accountable to the public. Andfinally, the sixth issue, concerns the role of political parties. Some opinionmakers point to the lack of a clear choice between political alternatives andfavour a political landscape with two major political parties or combinations ofparties offering voters two clear alternative policy programmes.

Associative democracy

The associative model of democracy is much less apparent in the public debateon democracy among opinion makers. Elements from this model can be foundin only 6% of the newspaper articles. In these articles, the focus is on self-governing associations and groups and on localized power. Arguments fromthis model can be heard among leaders of the main workers’ organizations andwithin the Christian Democratic Party.

Most opinion makers, following the associative line of argument, emphasizethat for a better working of the political system, the responsibility should begiven back to citizens (e.g. teachers, parents, directors of schools) and self-governing associations. Private initiatives should be encouraged and governmentinterference with society should be reduced. Concepts, such as private initiative(particulier initiatief ), civil society, and organizations between state and market(maatschappelijk middenveld ) which are typical for the Dutch discourse on therelation between state and society and which are part of the Christian politicalideology, dominate the debate on this issue. Others stress the importance of thecooperation between employers’ and workers’ organizations for the working ofdemocracy. A single opinion maker points to the actual development of anetwork society in which the traditional democratic institutions lose power, anda plurality of organizations and power centres develop. In his view, thisdevelopment strengthens democracy, in the sense that it contributes to a strongersystem of checks and balances, that is, of power and counter power.

Deliberative democracy

Elements from the deliberative model of democracy can only be found in 7%of the newspaper articles. In these articles, the focus is on public debate and

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discussion, and on free public reasoning. Furthermore, attention is primarilypaid to the democratic process and less to decision-making.

Most of the opinion makers who use arguments from this model ofdemocracy have an academic background in sociology, political science, andlegal philosophy. Some of them are staff members of advisory committees orjournalists. All of them emphasize the relevance of public debate in ademocracy, but they differ in their interpretation of where changes should takeplace. According to some of them, the parliament and political parties have arole in increasing the quality of the debates in parliament, which are oftenconsidered to be of poor quality, with too much focus on technical details.Others consider it essential to democracy that citizens meet outside thetraditional political forums for open discussions on political and othercommunity matters. Ideas aimed at introducing citizen forums and panels inwhich citizens deliberate and try to give a well-informed advice that could playa role in formal decision-making have been launched. Finally, some opinionmakers argue in favour of inclusion of migrants and other groups who often donot take part in the public debate.

Participatory democracy

Elements from the participatory model of democracy determine for aconsiderable part the public debate on democracy. A minority of 26% of thenewspaper articles by opinion makers fits into this model. In these articles, thefocus is on direct democracy, referendums, participatory decision-making,including individual participation in local communities and the workplace.

Again, the opinion makers who use arguments from this model ofdemocracy have different political backgrounds, although the politiciansand ex-politicians from the Democratic Liberals (D66), the Labour Party(PvdA) and Green Left (GroenLinks) dominate the debate on introducingparticipatory elements in a democracy. Other participants in this debateare members of governmental advisory organizations, political commentatorsand academics, notably sociologists, historians, and researchers in publicadministration.

The opinion makers arguing within this model emphasize the importance ofgiving more responsibility and influence to the people. Most of them giveconcrete suggestions for introducing participatory democratic elements. Thesesuggestions can be summarized into three categories. The first categoryencompasses suggestions for institutional revisions, such as the introduction ofthe referendum, the popular initiative, the recall procedure, and the right forcitizens to put policy problems on the political agenda. The debateconcentrates on the referendum and the various types of referendums(a decisive or a consultative referendum; after a decision has been taken by

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parliament or before; a choice between a yes or a no or multiple choices).A second category contains suggestions for a more direct participation andinfluence of parents at schools, of patients in hospitals, and of citizens in localcommunities. Citizens should also be more directly involved in policy makingof local governments. Many opinion makers point to the relevance of theinternet to support citizen participation. The internet makes it possible forcitizens to get information on policy issues, to compare data (about hospitalsfor example), and to participate in discussions. Finally, a third issue is theeducation of democratic citizens. Democratic participation should be learnedat an early stage, at school and in the family.

To conclude, the representative model dominates the debate on democracyamong opinion makers. Elements of other models are less prominent andmostly mentioned by opinion makers with a specific (ideological) background.The findings are summarized in the first two columns of Table 2.

Suggestions for Improving Democracy in Party Manifestoes

Political parties take part in the public debate by debating issues in massgatherings, on television and on the internet. Members of parliament,ministers, but also local representatives are the spokesmen of the party’s ideason these occasions. The main ideas of political parties can be found in partymanifestoes, which try to give the public and other political parties an idea ofwhat the party’s priorities are and what their representatives intend to do ifthey were to ascend to power. Although manifestoes are read by relatively fewelectors, they constitute the major direct influence on what parties are seen asstanding for (Budge, 1987, 18).

Democracy and the role of citizens in politics is only one of the issues inparty manifestoes. In the 2006 party manifestoes, the political parties presentseveral suggestions for improving democracy, sometimes combining ideas fromdifferent models of democracy. I selected those parts of each manifesto thatdealt with the issue of democracy and the role of citizens in politics.Participation and giving citizens a say were other keywords for selection.Except for the CDA party manifesto, these issues were put forward in allmanifestoes in one chapter or section, usually with a title that clearly referredto the issue (see endnotes 5–10). The analysis of the party manifestoes, then,focused on those relevant chapters or sections. In order to determine thedemocracy model(s) to which a party manifesto was to be assigned, I reviewedthis against the characteristics of the models presented in Table 1.

The Christian Democratic party, CDA (Christen Democratisch Appel)makes a strong point of defending representative democracy and, at the sametime, favours a democracy in which self-governing organizations bear

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Table 2 The debate on democracy in the Netherlands

Opinion makers Party manifestoes Democratic practices

Background Issues Background Issues Examples



All Working of parliament

Quality and attitude of politicians

Selection of leaders

Revisions of institutions

Transparency and accountability

Political parties


SP,Chr Unie,

GroenLinks, D66

Revisions of institutions

Direct elections (mayor,


Transparency and




Mainly Christian


Responsibility to citizens and self-

governing associations

Cooperation between employers’

and workers’ organizations

Encouraging a network society

CDA Responsibility to citizens

and their organizations

Private initiatives





Debate in parliament

Citizens’ forums and panels

Inclusion of all groups

GroenLinks Public debate

Open culture

Citizen panels



Mainly left-wing Referendum and popular initiative

Participation in local communities,

schools, hospitals, etc.

Education of democratic citizens

PvdA, D66, Groen-

Links, SP, Chr Unie


Citizen panels

(emphasis on


Participation in local


Education of democratic















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responsibilities.2 According to the CDA, a representative democracy is the bestway of governing a country because it forces decisions to be taken in publicwhich serve the general interest. Suggestions for improving the working ofrepresentative democracy are rather minimal: the CDA party manifesto of2006 makes suggestions for a slight revision of the electoral system.Accordingly, the party also opposes the referendum, which would create‘vagueness about follow-up courses’.3 At the same time, Christian Democratsin the Netherlands have always strongly believed that self-governingassociations should have an important role in a pluralist democracy (Michels,2007). Also in the 2006 party manifesto, the CDA reasserts its belief in thestrength of an associative democracy, favouring more responsibilities forcitizens and their organizations. The party expects strong organizationsbetween state and market (maatschappelijk middenveld) to be better able tocontribute to good education, public health, and housing.

The Labour Party, PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid), comes up with severalsuggestions for improving representative democracy, such as a revision of theelectoral system, a reduction of the number of members of parliament, and agreater influence of the voters on the selection of the formateur4 and the mayor.In addition to this, the PvdA wants to give people a greater say in concretepolitical decision-making by introducing participatory elements of democracy.5

Therefore, the party advocates the institution of corrective referendums (after adecision has been taken) and encourages alternative forms of decision-makingincluding citizen panels.

Like the PvdA, the Socialist Party, SP (Socialistische Partij), makessuggestions both to strengthen the working of the representative democraticinstitutions, for example by giving voters the possibility to vote for agovernment coalition, and to supplement representative democracy byintroducing elements of participatory democracy.6 Elements of participatorydemocracy include proposals for a corrective referendum and a ‘recallreferendum’. A recall referendum could, under very strict conditions,give power to the voters to send the government away and to call for newelections. Furthermore, the SP wants to give power and financial meansdirectly to the people in neighbourhoods and to encourage participationof citizens in neighbourhoods and in councils of housing companies andschools. The SP is aware of the fact that political involvement and citizenparticipation ask for strong democratic abilities, in which dialogue, respectand conflict solution are important values. These should, therefore, be taughtat school.

The Liberal party, VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie), has,notwithstanding the word democracy in its name, not very much to add tothe debate on democracy. The party manifesto of 2006 advocates a reductionof the number of members of parliament and for the direct election of mayors.7

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The Green Left party, in Dutch GroenLinks, combines in its programmeelements of different models of democracy.8 The party wants more influence forvoters on the composition of government coalitions. GroenLinks is also a strongsupporter of more direct elements of democracy, including the corrective andbinding referendum. The party also favours more referendums on Europeanissues and the introduction of the European citizens’ initiative (the initiative toget issues on the political agenda). More strongly than any of the other parties,GroenLinks emphasizes the role of an open public debate on political issues, notonly in parliament, but also at alternative forums such as music festivals andnetwork communities on the internet. Democracy demands an open culture inwhich different lifestyles, values and political opinions meet each other.

The ChristenUnie (a conservative party with left-wing positions on socio-economic issues) defends the representative democracy as the only possibleanswer to the complexity of policy issues. In the perception of theChristenUnie, forms of direct democracy are only acceptable if these do notchallenge the principle of representation.9 Therefore, the ChristenUnie, for thefirst time, supports the introduction of the corrective referendum, but onlyunder strict conditions.

Finally, the Democratic Liberals, D66 (Democraten 66), have always been astrong supporter of the referendum and other forms of direct democracy,10 tothe extent that this has become one of their ‘crown jewels’; or, in other words,the issue of democratic reforms has become one of the major themes of theirpolitical programme and policy. Other proposals seek to give citizens a moredirect influence on the selection of political leaders, and further include therevision of the electoral system, and a call for more attention for publicaccountability on policy outputs. D66 is very explicit in rejecting a major rolefor the interest organizations of the ‘poldermodel’, that is, the trade unions andthe employers’ organizations.

To conclude, political parties present several suggestions for improvingdemocracy, in which they combine ideas from different models of democracy.The representative model of democracy dominates and is present in all partymanifestoes. The other democratic models are less present and more closelyrelated to a specific political ideology. Thus, elements of the associative modelcan only be traced in the CDA party manifesto. The focus on associativeelements corresponds to the Christian Democratic ideology in which self-governing associations are considered to be the core of society and pluralistdemocracy. Also, elements of the participatory model are only present in themanifestoes of the parties from the Left. And, except for the manifesto ofGroenLinks, the deliberative concept of democracy is not an issue withinpolitical parties.

The main findings are summarized in the third and fourth column ofTable 2.

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Democratic Practices

Whereas in the public debate on democracy the representative model isdominant, in daily political life, and particularly in local politics, we canwitness a large variety of initiatives and experiences that reveal elements of theother models of democracy. Often, elements of different models come incombination. This section presents three examples of democratic practices.

Citizen panels

Citizen panels, also known as citizen juries, forums or deliberative polls, comein various forms. There is variation in the degree to which participation in thepanel is open to every citizen, the stage of citizen participation in the decision-making process, and the extent to which citizens have the power to make finalpolitical decisions. However, there is one thing they have in common, namelythe importance that is attached to the process of deliberation and free publicreasoning. It is important to note that citizen panels are a different categorythan stakeholder dialogues and consultations, in the sense that, in the latter,stakeholders are represented, whereas in citizen panels individual citizens areexpected to speak for themselves.

There have been experiences with citizen panels in many countries, notablyin the United States and Britain (Fishkin and Laslett, 2002). In the past decade,the Netherlands has had experience with citizen panels at both the regional(on regional development in the province of Flevoland for example, Huitemaand Lavrijsen, 2006), and at the national level (a citizen jury was asked toadvise the government about a new electoral system). Most experience, though,has been gained at the local level (Leyenaar, 2005; Grin et al., 2006; VanStokkom, 2006).

Citizen panels are meant to strengthen the deliberative character ofpolicy making in order to come to better decisions that serve the publicinterest. These panels are closely linked to the deliberative model ofdemocracy. In practice, the deliberative character of many citizen panelsmay be doubted. In a study on experiences with deliberative democracy, VanStokkom provides some interesting examples of cases in which argumentwas scarce and a small minority of participants dominated the debate( Van Stokkom, 2006, 25–63). This happens, particularly, in cases whereparticipation is open to all citizens and where citizens do not share or haveaccess to the same expert knowledge. In addition to the deliberative elements,citizen panels sometimes also share elements with the participatory modelof democracy when the aim is to give citizens the power to influence politicaldecisions. However, often the relation with the official decision-making processremains unclear.

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Private initiatives of citizens

Private initiatives of citizens are essential to a strong civil society ( Putnam,2000; Dekker, 2002). Initiatives in neighbourhoods have often been started bythe local government, welfare organizations, or other social organizations(WRR, 2005). But there are also many examples of spontaneous initiatives ofcitizens, for example, coming together to keep a park in the neighbourhood, tohelp asylum seekers, or to organize a day trip for handicapped people.Characteristic of these initiatives is that they are local, small-scale initiatives ofself-governing groups of citizens.

Research on the Dutch case shows that the main aims of these spontaneousinitiatives of citizens are to improve the quality of life in the neighbourhoodand to take care of the vulnerable groups in society (Universiteit vanAmsterdam/NICIS, 2006, 20). In most cases, experiences close to home aremore important to galvanize people into action than national or globalproblems. Although these initiatives of citizens come from below, mostinitiatives or associations maintain contact with organizations in the outsideworld, with the local government and other organizations from which theyexpect (financial) support or just a listening ear. The aims vary. Examples ofthese kinds of initiative include residents’ associations, lobby associations for aplayground or a building for cultural activities, local supporting associationsfor migrants or poor people, alternative public transport, cooperatives ofartists, and education programmes for specific groups.

Private initiatives of citizens clearly bear the characteristics of the associativemodel of democracy. But it can also very well be argued that there are linkswith the participatory model of democracy, when the focus shifts to individualparticipation and to decision-making in local communities, and even with thedeliberative model, when on the role of debate and the democratic processwithin associations is taken into account.

Neighbourhood budgets

It is not difficult to find cases where individual citizens participate andhave a direct say in decision-making. Examples of cases range frompatients’ councils at hospitals and nursing homes, workers’ councils at theworkplace, and parents’ and pupils’ councils at schools, to citizen participationin local policy making, or interactive policy making. Characteristic tointeractive policy making is the fact that citizens and social organizationstake an active role in the policy process at an early stage. This approachto policy making is considered to be particularly useful in circumstanceswhere there are many stakeholders with conflicting interests, complex issues,and many solutions to the particular problem (Walters et al., 2000). There is,

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however, much variation in the actual influence of citizens on the finaldecision-making.

Another way of giving citizens a greater say in local affairs is to allocate abudget directly to the residents of a neighbourhood who have a concreteproposal for improving the quality of life or the safety in that particularneighbourhood. Since the beginning of the new century, many cities in theNetherlands have been experimenting with neighbourhood budgets.11 Budgetsare allocated to such things as a playground for the youth, a work of art, or afacelift for a dilapidated square, park, or path. Always, the idea is that citizensnot only conceive of a plan but are also responsible for its implementation.

The element of direct participation and influence of citizens in spending aneighbourhood budget is closely linked to the participatory idea of democracy.But there are also elements of the deliberative model of democracy. After all,decision-making on the issue of how to spend the budget first requiresorganizing the process of coming to decisions.

The right column of Table 2 summarizes the main findings.


The analysis clearly illustrated that, whereas in the theoretical debateon democracy a number of models have been debated, the representativemodel dominates the public debate on democracy in the Netherlands. Whileother models of democracy are not absent from the debate, they play only aminor role. The study further found that as far as elements from theother models of democracy occur in the debate, there is a strong link to the(ideological) background of the debaters. Thus, the opinion makers whouse arguments from the representative model of democracy have variousprofessional and political backgrounds, whereas the opinion makers arguingwithin the other democracy models have a more specific background:the associative concept of democracy is mainly debated amongChristian Democrats, the participatory concept among opinion makers fromthe Left, and the deliberative concept among academics. A similar patternhas been found in the analysis of the party manifestoes: elements of theassociative model can be found in the CDA party manifesto, elements ofthe participatory model are only present in the manifestoes of the parties fromthe Left, and the deliberative concept of democracy is almost absent. A strikingfinding is, furthermore, that political parties do not make any suggestionsthat affect their own position, whereas opinion makers make severalsuggestions to improve the role of political parties and the quality of individualpoliticians. Finally, although the representative model is dominant in thepublic debate on democracy, this article presents examples of democratic

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practices in which, often a combination of, elements of other models ofdemocracy can be traced.

The conclusion that arguments on participation and democracy are modifiedby party ideology may also raise doubts on the future development of thedebate on Dutch democracy. The views on democracy seem very fixed. Themuch less ideological democratic practices offer more hope for the develop-ment of new forms of democracy in which, often, elements of different modelsof democracy are combined.


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1 For a similar classification, see Engelen and Sie Dhian Ho (2004, 28–33).

2 CDA party manifesto, Chapter 2 (Vertrouwen in maatschappelijke organisaties), introduction,

and Chapter 6 (Vertrouwen in een betrokken Nederland), introduction and the Sections 6.1.2

and 6.1.3.

3 CDA party manifesto 2006, Section 6.1.3.

4 A formateur leads the negotiations between the prospective governing parties (see Andeweg and

Irwin, 1993, 109–114).

5 PvdA party manifesto 2006, Chapter 8 (Werken aan een bindend bestuur).

6 SP party manifesto 2006, Chapter 1 (Betere democratie).

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7 VVD party manifesto 2006.

8 GroenLinks party manifesto 2006, Chapter 9 (Allemaal burgers).

9 ChristenUnie party manifesto 2006, Chapter 2 (Leven), Section 2.1.

10 D66 party manifesto 2006, Chapter ‘Mensen besturen zelf ’.

11 Examples are: Waalwijk, Hilversum, Almere, Zwolle, Delft, and parts of Amsterdam.

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