Can Europe Make It?

The populist appeal – bottom-up perspectives: The ‘Participation Society’ of the Netherlands

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These remarks, extracted from a meeting with citizens in Leidsche Rijn, confirm findings that only 20% of Dutch voters have trust in politics. Nostalgia for the old times when equality and consensus were at the heart of Dutch politics and life underlie the success of populism in the country.

Yvette Jeuken
14 March 2014

‘There is a paradigm shift. Local governments and large companies (such as investors) have less power because they cannot invest as much as they are used to. Back in 2002 everything was possible. I would have more trust in politics if politicians move forward and accept the changes in society. They have to revise their own role in society and reflect on what can be and what cannot be done.’ Male participant

‘Contractors are very powerful. As a citizen you cannot challenge them. [...] due to the crisis all stakeholders get into trouble and they have to negotiate. Local politicians listen to citizens and agree with them but they are afraid that the local government might go bankrupt. Those people take financial risks and spend too much money.’ [this makes her very angry] ‘Local governments no longer represent their citizens. There are no checks and balances. Investment companies are too powerful and have too much influence on local governments, who are trying to deal with their financial predicament.’ Female participant

‘People are very good in complaining shamelessly. But they do not undertake any action. Problems aren’t being tackled.’ [He comes up with an example in his own street, where he and his neighbours have parking problems. One neighbour contacted the local government several times, but nothing happened. This neighbour is now solving the problem by blocking the street. According to the participant, this does not solve problems but rather causes more irritation.] ‘If you really want to solve these sorts of problems you have to step up. You have to join forces in order to get things done. But most people have the idea that they are not able to change things. [...] use this sarcasm and confront people with their own stupidities.’ Male participant

‘People are lazy. It is very easy to complain. It is also very Dutch. Everywhere where there are people, you encounter people’s problems.’ Female participant

‘We are one of the stakeholders in Leidsche Rijn. We come up with solutions ourselves.’ Male participant. [He explains that there was a dangerous roundabout just in front of his house, called Rotonde des doods (the roundabout of death). Many people complained about it and a local politician came to address the situation. Nothing happened. He then started crowdsourcing ideas to create a safer situation, both online and offline. This was very successful and the local government adopted the plan.] ‘We are professionals as well, but local governments do not perceive us like that. This is risky for them because at some point the government has lost its role.’ … ‘the concept of a ‘participation society’ is problematic because it is important to see that it still relates to the unequal relation between citizens and the government. This relation now takes place on a more equal level.’

‘You need a government to make decisions that citizens themselves cannot take. Decisions that are for the common good.’ Female participant

‘Otherwise something changes in one area for the good, but causes problems in another area.’ Male Participant

The statements in context

One of the most important things we learned from our Counterpoint-Netdem consultations is that Dutch citizens share the view of living in a society in transition. This is not just an idea brought to the fore by media, advisory councils or the government but citizens themselves feel that something needs to change.

Citizens feel that they need to take more responsibility for their local community and their own well-being. The security once provided by the welfare state is now gone. But at the same time, citizens no longer accept elitist decision-making from the government and would much rather reclaim their autonomy; either by setting up their own projects, by creating the ability to influence decision-making, or by voting for parties that take ‘the will of the people’ into consideration (or make them believe they do).

The inhabitants of Leidsche Rijn quoted above illustrate that when social infrastructure is lacking, people become very creative and initiate a wide variety of projects. These go beyond those projects launched by the local government – such as communal gardens in new housing developments-, and stretch out as far as infrastructural projects and even shopping malls. These initiatives can be powerful and even bypass the local government by working directly with project developers. Hence, they implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) question the legitimacy of the local government. This is an interesting development, especially in the light of populism, because many voters for populist parties (and many of those citizens who do not vote at all) believe that the government does not represent its citizens adequately. What kind of effect will this ‘reclaiming of space’ have on the relationship between citizens and the government in the future? With elections at both the municipal and European levels just around the corner, this issue is gaining considerable importance.

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