Political participation of Ducth citizens in comparative Perspective

22. November, 2001


Jan Vis

Ziņojums konferencē Veidojot pilsonisko kultūru Centrālās un Austrumeiropas valstīs, 2001. gada 19. - 21. novembrī

1. Introduction

If one speaks of democracy as government by the people, one is also speaking of participation. In every description of democracy, the concept of citizen participation plays an important role. Political participation literally means taking part in the political process. As in other democracies, the Netherlands provides the opportunity to take part in the political formation of ideas and decision-making. If citizens are not given the opportunity to make themselves heard, it can hardly be said that citizens have any influence where decision-making is concerned. A certain level of political participation is an essential provision in order to be able to refer to a political system as a democracy. Citizens show political involvement by participating: discussions about political problems and issues and activities in the political process. Participation also offers citizens an opportunity to actually influence decision-making. Citizens get the chance to express their demands and ideas, and look after their interests. In addition, the participation of citizens offers public officials the opportunity to gain insight in to the citizens’ worries and problems, and in to the extent to which plans and measures correspond to their citizens’ demands.

This article mainly discusses the political participation of Dutch citizens. In some cases, the situation in the Netherlands is compared to that of other Western European countries. Research shows that since the period from the early 1970s, the level of political participation has slightly increased, in particular participation in signing petitions. This is not unique for the Netherlands. Research shows that the level of political participation has increased in other Western European countries as well, for instance in Germany, France, Belgium, and Great Britain. These countries show an increase where signing petitions and – to a lesser extent – (lawful) demonstrations are concerned.

Political participation is not equally distributed among the population. Research shows three factors of major importance where this division is concerned: sex, age, and socio-economic status. The last is mainly determined by education, profession, and income level. The level of education in particular plays an important role. The following text is largely based on sections of text from the book Regeren in Nederland (Governing in the Netherlands, 2001) by Jan van Deth (University of Mannheim, Germany), and Jan Vis (University of Groningen, the Netherlands).

2. Approaches of political participation

Political participation can be loosely defined as citizens’ activities aimed at influencing political decisions. Political participation refers not only to people in their role as citizens and not, say, as politicians or civil servants, but also to an activity (‘action’). Simply watching television or claiming to be curious about politics does not constitute political participation. Furthermore, the activities of citizens we define as political participation should be voluntary and not ordered by the ruling class or obliged under some rule.

Two approaches concerning political participation can be distinguished in literature: the instrumental approach, and the development or expressive approach. In the instrumental approach, political participation is a means of looking after particular interests and influencing government policy. In other words, the voluntary conduct of individual citizens is concerned, with the goal of influencing decision on one or several levels (local, regional, national, or European). Expressing involvement ‘in politics’ takes a central place in the development or expressive approach. The citizen becomes a fully democratic citizen by participating. In order to participate, a certain extent of political knowledge and political self-confidence is indeed required, but knowledge and confidence can be developed by participating. Participation in an expressive approach reduces the distance between politics (public officials) and citizens, and fights alienation, distrust and cynicism. However, the different approaches of political participation are not always clearly distinguishable in practice.

3. Expanding the repertoire of political activities

Political participation does not limit itself to electoral activities such as casting a vote and taking part in campaigns by politicians and parties. Contacting public officials, visiting the burgomaster, protest actions, demonstrations, sit-ins, signing petitions, the attendance of meetings, donating money, and many other forms of political behaviour belong to the repertoire of political means available to citizens. In the last fifty years there has been an expanding number of specific forms of political participation. This expansion is summarised in Figure 1.

Recently the political scientist Van Deth (2001) has made a list of about seventy activities that have been considered as forms of political participation in one or more studies (CID, 2000; Lane, 1959; Verba and Nie, 1972; Barnes, Kaase et al., 1979; Parry et al., 1992; Verba et al., 1995). The participation repertoire has been expanded enormously in the last few decades, see Table 1.

4. Forms of political participation

Political participation is usually divided into three forms: voting and electoral participation, ‘conventional’ participation, and ‘unconventional’ or protest participation.

Voting and electoral participation. This form of participation entails casting a vote in elections on a local, regional, national, and European level. This participation also includes activities as part of election campaigns, such as hanging posters, persuading others how to vote, attending party meetings, fundraising, canvassing, financially supporting parties or candidates. Party membership is also included.

Conventional participation. This concerns individual contacts of citizens with public officials, politicians, representatives, parties, civil servants, organisations, lobby groups, and/or mass media. Examples are: visiting the office hours of the mayor or burgomaster, alderman, or councillor, sending a letter or an e-mail message to a minister of a member of Parliament[1], and sending a letter or an e-mail message to the newspaper.

Unconventional or protest participation. This form of participation consists of activities with the goal of directly influencing decision-making, such as participating in demonstrations, protest actions, petitions, sit-down strikes, boycotts, rent strikes, blocking traffic, and fighting with the police. These activities usually take place in ‘loose’ organisations such as action groups, (community) committees, peace organisations, human rights organisations, or new social movements.

5. Levels of political participation
5.1 Electoral participation: attendance at the elections

Figure 2 shows the attendance figures for Dutch elections from 1970. Immediately after the abolition of the compulsory attendance, the number of voters considerably dropped. At the first election in 1970, 69 percent (Provinciale Staten (Provincial States): the representation of citizens in the province with the vote) and more than 67 percent (Gemeenteraad (Town council): the representation of citizens in the town with the vote) of the enfranchised citizens took part. During the elections for the Tweede Kamer (Second Chamber) in 1971, 79 percent found their way to the polling station. When the first direct election took place in 1979 for the European Parliament, almost 58 percent of the enfranchised Dutch citizens showed up.

Figure 2 also shows that there was a considerable increase of the number of voters at the start of the 1970s. During the following years, turnout figures for Second Chamber elections remained around eighty percent, but decreased during the 1990s. Other elections also show a gradual decrease of voters. The voting turnout percentages for the Provincial States remained almost equal in 1982 after which the interest for the provincial elections dropped to nearly 46 percent in 1999. It also shows that town councils are composed of approximately two thirds of the enfranchised citizens. A constant (strong) drop of the turnout is also visible in the European Parliament elections. In 1999, about thirty percent of all enfranchised Dutch citizens participated in the elections.

The Dutch voter seems mainly to take interest in the Second Chamber elections. In the 1998 parliamentary elections, turnout was over 73 percent, which is the lowest turnout so far. Almost eleven million Dutch nationals were enfranchised citizens. At elections for other representing bodies, a substantial part of the electorate fails to make use of their right to vote, and this part is still increasing. However, participation in the elections still remains the only form of political participation in which the majority of citizens take part. Non-voters form a heterogeneous group of enfranchised citizens. They would not all vote for the same party were they to vote in elections. The election results would hardly show a difference if every Dutch national were to vote.

After the abolition of the compulsory attendance in 1970, turnout in the Netherlands came to a level comparable to other Western European countries. In Belgium, Italy, and Greece, people are obliged to come to the polling station; as a result turnout is high. In countries such as Germany and Denmark, about eighty percent of enfranchised citizens participate in the national parliament elections. In countries such as France and Great Britain, turnout is usually not much higher than 75 percent. Figure 3 shows the average turnout numbers for various Western European countries for the years 1995-1999. These numbers relate to elections for national parliaments. These data show that the participation in national elections in the Netherlands is – relatively – remarkably high. This situation has remained unchanged during recent years.

Since the 1980s, there has been a perceptible decrease in participation of national elections. Nonetheless, it is clear that the majority of citizens remain willing to go to the polling station. This willingness of enfranchised citizens in the Netherlands is comparable to other Western European countries. However, few Dutch nationals are interested in the European Parliament elections.[2] It could be said that turnout reflects the interest voters grant to a certain political organ.

In recent decades, the amount of members of political parties has sharply decreased. Whereas almost ten percent of voters were members of a political party during the 1960s, this percentage has dropped to approximately 2,5 percent (January 1999). In other words: only a small part of the Dutch enfranchised citizens is member of a political party. The level of organisation (read: the extent to which voters are member of a political party) is one of the lowest within Western Europe. Averagely, only about ten percent of party members is active within the party. In the case of bigger parties, the active part is somewhat smaller compared to small parties. Evidently, many Dutch nationals consider being a member of a political party unnecessary. They probably assume that they have sufficient means to influence political decision- making.

5.2 Conventional and unconventional participation

Where these forms of participation are concerned, only participation in signing petitions has been of interest to a majority of people during the past few years. If casting a vote is left aside, no more than approximately ten percent of the citizens has made use of one or more forms of political participation. Table 2 shows the figures for the various forms of participation in the political process for the period from 1971 (the first point in time on which reliable data concerning participation are available). Even after a possible ‘participation revolution’ in the 1960s (‘1965-1975’), the level of actual political participation proves limited. This limited participation in the various forms of participation obviously does not mean that political participation is only a matter for some. During recent decades, a major part of the population has made use of at least one form of (non-electoral) participation.

Table 2: Participation in various forms of political actions (1971-1998; in percentages)

Source: J.W. van Deth en J.C.P.M. Vis (2001), Regeren in Nederland, Assen, p. 147.

The data in table 2 indicate little or no decrease where participation in the political process in the Netherlands during these decades is concerned. This conclusion is expressly put forward by several authors. Castenmiller (1988), for instance, has published a detailed survey of nearly every empirical study where political participation in the period 1972-1986 is concerned. This is the basis on which he concludes that hardly any major or radical change took place within these thirteen years. Participation in politics in the Netherlands – regardless of the fact whether forms of electoral participation such as voting and campaign activities, or forms of political activism such as demonstrating and boycotts are considered – remains on a more or less equal level. The only change in the period that was researched is the fact that women have somewhat caught up where their traditional deprivation is concerned. Despite the fact that men participate more often than women, the difference between the sexes has somewhat decreased during the last years.

Data from other research confirm Castenmiller’s conclusions. Not one study has indicated that Dutch citizens’ political involvement has decreased. In 1990, the Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (Social and Cultural Planning Board) carefully mentioned an increase in the readiness or willingness to take action among the population in the second half of the 1980s (SCP, 1990: 319). Though there is no question of restauration, growing apathy, or aversion to politics in the Netherlands, the increased readiness or willingness to take action did not become much more intense during the 1990s. This particularly seems a consequence of the decreased appeal of new social movements such as women’s, peace or environmental organisations. The rise of various forms of action has not resulted in a drastic decrease of the more traditional, electoral oriented forms of political participation. Although almost every Western European country shows an increase in the level of political participation, there are substantial differences in the participation in conventional forms of political participation. This becomes clear in table 3.

Table 3: Unconventional political participation in EU member states, 1981-1983 en 1990 (% of the population)

Source: O.W. Gabriel & F. Brettschneider (Hrsg.) (1994), Die EU-Staaten im Vergleich. Strukturen, Prozesse, Politikinhalte, Bonn: Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung,, pp. 582-583.

The combination of parliamentary democracy and participation democracy generally causes few problems. People’s only political behavior usually consists of casting their vote, talking politics with friends and collagues, or reading political articles in the newspaper and watching newscasts on television. Where less conventional forms of political participation are concerned, only petitions are popular with a substantial part of the population. This also goes for other countries. An overview of the changes in some forms of political participation in ten Western European countries (including the Netherlands) in the period 1980-1990 shows that the number of people participating in petitions was on average over 37 percent in 1980. In ten years, this number grew to nearly 46 percent. Only the participation in demonstrations comes in the region of numbers for petitions with an average of 23 percent. All other forms of political participation were only used by a small number of people where the countries studied are concerned. For every form of political participation, the 1980s show an increase (Brettschneider et al., 1994: 582-583). This increase also comes to the fore when a general comparison is made between the more traditional forms of participation (aimed at elections and campaigns) and other variations such as demonstrations and petitions. An increase in political participation in almost every Western European country during the 1980s seems to be concentrated in the use of this last category of action possibilities (Van den Broek & Heunks, 1993: 87-88). Citizens have obviously complemented traditional forms of political participation with newer forms.

6. Participants, activists, and inactive people

Data available show an increased level of political participation as opposed to a decreased level. However, a distinction should be made between electoral and non-electoral activities since both variations seemingly develop differently. Although participation figures in elections and the membership of political parties have shown a decrease in recent years, the popularity of forms of participation such as petitions and demonstrations has changed very little. Besides these differences in the levels and development of political involvement, some Western European countries also show distinct differences in the extent to which certain sections of the population make use of the various participation possibilities. In other words: political participation is not distributed equally amongst the population.

The best-known differences in participation in politics are related to sex, age, and citizens’ level of education. Men are more involved in politics than women, younger and older people less frequently than people of average age, well-educated people more than those with a lower standard of education, and people with a high income more than those with low incomes. There are logical explanations for this in terms of social position[3] and cognitive skills[4] of the categories mentioned (see Milbrath and Goel, 1997; Van Deth, 1983, 1990, 2000; Castenmiller, 1988). These differences between population categories are not unique to the Netherlands. Almost every study about political participation performed in many countries in recent decades shows differences in sex, age, and education.

A study by the Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (Social and Cultural Planning Board) compared political interest and political participation backgrounds in seven Western European countries, including the Netherlands, at the end of the 1980s. This study considered to what extent political involvement in every country is related to citizens’ political characteristics, and to the socio-demographic embedding of these characteristics. The conclusions of this study show remarkably few differences among the citizens of these seven countries:

Everywhere people with high education, high income, with white-collar jobs, and persons who rate themselves among the higher classes, are politically more involved than their complementary categories. In addition, men are more politically involved than women, and people between 30-49 years more than the youngest category (SCP, 1990: 371).

The seven countries differ on secondary points only for the explanation of the acceptance of political activism. This means that not the level of political involvement in Western Europe differs between the various countries, but that the patterns of participation are more or less equal. An unequal participation of citizens in the political process proves to be the rule in democracies, and not an exception.

The uneven division in the participation in the political process may lead to a situation in which political decisions structurally turn out more advantageous for those categories of the population who are relatively politically active. After all, the voices of women, both younger and older, and people from the lower socio-economic classes, do not reach the decision-makers as easily as the voices from highly educated, middle-aged men. Does this unbalanced composition of the ‘participation-elite’ not leave its mark on the outcome of the political process? This seems to hardly be the case. Apparently, the ‘participation-elite’ does not look solely after its own interests and the authorities watch the position of those who are less clearly trying to get involved in decision-making. The summary of Castenmiller’s research (1988) in this area shows that participation hardly ever results in systematic distortions of the political agenda. As far as there is disproportionate attention for certain beliefs and points of view, more progressive points of view seem in favour. However, there are only ‘indications’; there is no sign of distinct irregularities.

7 Gap between citizens and politics

Is there a problem if many citizens do not, or hardly, actively involve themselves in politics? Does a substantial non-participation by definition point to tension in the relationship between citizens and politicians? The answers to these questions depend on how political participation is viewed. As stated before, there are two approaches where political participation is concerned. In those cases where citizens have control of sufficient political knowledge and skills, and prefer to spend their time and energy on things other than politics, or if they are satisfied with the state of affairs and therefore choose not to be politically active, there is no tension in the relationship between citizens and politics in the instrumental approach. This might presume that citizens influence government policy indirectly via political parties or interest groups that represent their views. But if an expressive approach of political participation is assumed, one will be concerned in case of a low level of participation. This concern is the result about the problem of the gap between citizen and politics. A large number of citizens has abandoned politics, because ‘politics’ does not listen. Lack of political interest, apathy, and political cynicism are considered the result of the effects of the political system.

8. Representation and representativity

Is there a matter of discrepancy between the actual functioning of the Dutch democracy and the way in which it should function? Could it be that the ‘participation elite’ (‘well educated men between 35 and 55 years’) is over-represented in Parliament? Does the Second Chamber form a representative average of the Dutch population? With 54 members (36 %) (1/1/2000), women are under-represented. Younger persons (18-30 years) and older persons (60 years and older) are also under-represented: the average age of Second Chamber members is 46 (1/1/2000). The Second Chamber social profile does not in the least represent a cross section of the population. Laborers, businessmen, and entrepreneurs are evidently under-represented while people from the quartair sector (civil servants, teachers, people working for a political party, a trade union, or an employers’ organisation) are over-represented.

The question is whether various members and minorities of the Dutch population should be represented in the Second Chamber. Should the Second Chamber be a miniature representation of the Netherlands? Is the answer to the question whether the views and preferences of Second Chamber members are a representative reflection of citizens not more important? Despite the fact that the various forms of participation – with the exception of voting – form an ‘elite’ whole, this is no proof that the Netherlands do not have a democratic system. The principle of representation does not entail that every social layer should be represented in the Second Chamber in accordance with the part of the population. After all, views and preferences are only partly determined by the social origin and professional position of representatives. Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Liberals in the Second Chamber represent different views and preferences, even if they were all teachers or civil servants before they became representatives, for example.

The question whether decision-making in political organs is based on various opinions, views, and preferences amongst the population is concerned here. The ‘participation elite’, however, does not form a homogeneous entity of opinions, views, and preferences. There are distinctive political differences of opinion within the ‘selective group of participants’ concerning the formulating and solving of political problems and issues. And then the various views, opinions, and preferences are aired in the process of decision-making. In other words, the political process expresses the various represented opinions and preferences of citizens, but whether these opinions and preferences of all social layers and classes are deemed equally important may be doubtful.


[1] The Dutch Parliament has two chambers: the Second Chamber (Tweede Kamer) and the First Chamber (Eerste Kamer). Since the Second Chamber (150 members) is elected by the citizens by direct elections and thus forms the direct representation, it is the most important parliamentary organ. As a result, the Second Chamber has more powers than the First Chamber (75 members), which is elected indirectly.

[2] It is easy to find an explanation for this small extent of interest. A comparison to other EU-countries clearly shows that the relevance of the European Parliament is considered smallest in the Netherlands (Schulz & Blumler, 1994: 204-206). Dutch voters are certainly willing to go to the polling station if they think the outcome of the elections has clear political consequences. It is not so much a question of whether the European Parliament has direct meaning in the personal environment as perceived by the voter, but the perceived political relevance of the parliament plays a role in the decision to cast a vote in the European elections.

[3] Globally, two explanations can be given for the difference caused by ‘age’: the extent of social integration, and experience with certain historical events. Young persons between 18 and 25 years usually have few social obligations. They need to complete their education, find a job, and look for a place to live. The more they integrate socially, the more their political interest and participation increases.

[4] Politics is a complex process, usually dealing with complicated matters. In order to gain some political insight, and to take part in politics, (background) knowledge and some cognitive skills are essential conditions. These skills are, for instance, being able to judge social-political information, recognising connections, recognising jargon, etc. A second condition is the ‘possession’ of a number of values such as being able to articulate public affairs, being able to look beyond one’s own horizon, and being able to solve conflicts on the basis of arguments.


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