Polder and politics

Dutch democracy assistance, in historical perspective – to this very day Dutch politics is characterized by a penchant for giving everybody a say, however small the minority might be.

Hans Bruning
25 February 2016


Satellite image of the Noordoostpolder. Wikicommons. NASA"s World Wind. Some rights rserved.In his seminal interpretation of Dutch culture in its Golden Age, entitled The Embarrassment of Riches, the British historian Simon Schama characterizes The Netherlands in the seventeenth century  as a ‘confederacy of towns and provinces’, which, as a state, ‘drew power from federalism when absolutist centralization was the norm.’ And whereas the great powers of that era – Spain, France, Britain – had ‘broken apart in domestic upheavals’, the Dutch had been ‘ingenious at sustaining the minimal consensus needed to contain discord well within the bounds of civil war.’

This puzzled contemporary foreign observers, who dismissed Dutch federalism as governmental ‘chaos’, but who also gnashed their teeth seeing that, in spite of this chaos, the Dutch enjoyed far greater wealth and prosperity than they themselves did. They could understand, and therefore accept to some extent, that this affluence was the result of Dutch business acumen. But that the dexterity of the Dutch traders could thrive so exceptionally well in a political system that, from their point of view, verged on anarchy was completely incomprehensible to them.

Of course, this extreme difference between the Dutch and their neighbours in the way they governed their respective countries – Schama even speaks of the Dutch Republic as ‘the Great Seventeenth Century Exception’ – has meanwhile dwindled, if only because absolutism has been abandoned everywhere in Europe. But to this very day Dutch politics is still characterized by a penchant for giving everybody a say, however small the minority might be.

Sometimes this is explained as a side-effect of the complex water management necessary to keep everybody dry in an environment that has always been prone to flooding. Take only Amsterdam as an example. The Dutch capital was built in a swamp, its buildings rest on poles, it has more than one hundred kilometres of canals, about ninety islands and up to 1500 bridges. What is needed to avoid such an urban system sinking, is the commitment of all stakeholders, and often the sheer number of minorities with special interests forces all those involved to collaborate.

This collaboration – the Dutch feel – should be secured by a democratically elected body rather than just an authorative group of aquatic experts. Such an official institute of surveyors of dikes, dams, channels, reservoirs, drainage and what have you is called Waterschap or District Water Board. There are quite a few of these Boards that are elected every four years and they are among the oldest democratic institutions in The Netherlands, indeed dating back to the origins of the Dutch Republic.


Interieur hoofdkantoor Waterschap Regge en Dinkel in Almelo, 2014. Wikicommons/Rik Castell. Some rights reserved.Historically speaking, also the role that the Reformation has played in this federalist mind-set should not be underestimated. The Dutch were the only ones in Europe to successfully defend their faith militarily against the Roman Catholic Church and its secular allies, something which must have made them confident enough to tolerate, and politically accommodate, a plethora of Protestant denominations that came into being through fissions and schisms, completed by Pilgrims, Puritans, Huguenots and Jews, who were persecuted abroad and who found refuge in the Low Countries.

To consult as many stakeholders as possible when decisions have to be taken and trying to achieve a ‘minimal consensus’ can be a trying and tedious process, requiring tenacious persistence from all parties involved. Typically, in Dutch this process (as well as the mentality needed to endure it) is referred to with a verb derived from the word ‘polder’, which is used to denote land reclaimed from the sea.

So ‘to polder’ means to engage in a careful, meticulous and often long-winded practice of deliberation and consultation that eventually leads to an overall agreement on a course to be taken collectively. This – obviously democratic – practice of ‘poldering’ can be observed on all levels of government, including the Parliament, which today, incidentally, consists of no less than sixteen political parties and parties’ splinters, even including an Animal Party which maintains that all animals indeed are equal.

It won’t come as a surprise, then, that the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) was founded collectively in 2000 by seven Dutch political parties – both in government and in opposition and covering the whole left-centre-right spectrum – with the aim to support emerging democracies by assisting the political parties in these democracies. In a way, therefore, also the NIMD constituted the Great Exception when compared to its sister organizations at the time, as these were all political foundations affiliated to but one political party, such as NDI and IRI in the United States or the German Stiftungen. Working on NIMD’s shop floor meant above all striking a balance, finding a compromise, forming coalitions, giving and taking, and keeping everybody in the fold. In short, it meant: dialogue.

Naturally, from the outset all of NIMD’s founding parties were represented on its Board, and, with egalitarianism being the norm, all of them had an equally strong influence on the decision-making process irrespective of size. But it is perhaps even more significant that until recently every NIMD country programme was managed by a troika consisting of one (impartial) policy officer and representatives of two political parties: ideally one big and one small party, one government and one opposition party, and one with leftist and/or centrist and/or rightist leanings. As was the case with Dutch politics in the early modern period, working on NIMD’s shop floor meant above all striking a balance, finding a compromise, forming coalitions, giving and taking, and keeping everybody in the fold. In short, it meant: dialogue. Meanwhile this model has been replaced by a less convoluted one – apparently it was just a tad too much even for the Dutchmen – and women of the NIMD – but it shows in all clarity what could be called NIMD’s democratic DNA.

In the field of international democracy assistance it is commonplace to say that one does not intend to ‘export’ one’s democracy model and force it upon the recipient of one’s assistance programmes. However, against the historical background sketched here, it would be hard for NIMD to deny that not only its internal organisation mirrors the way in which the Dutch have always done democracy, but also that this is reflected in its approach and strategy implemented in its programmes abroad.

Typically, NIMD’s core strategy for supporting the development of political parties in young democracies is facilitating interparty dialogue. At the most basic level this means encouraging political parties of all persuasions to talk to each other in a multiparty setting in which every voice is heard.

This may sound simple but often requires a lot of patience and resolve, as in many countries where NIMD is active there is often very little trust between the political parties. They may see each other as sworn enemies rather than as political opponents. Therefore, NIMD often just starts with persuading the parties to talk, inviting all of them to the table, even if (or precisely when!) the political landscape is highly fractured and there are tens and tens of parties vying for power, inside and outside of parliament.

NIMD tries to bring them all together in a safe space out of the limelight, where they can get to know each other and start to build the trust necessary for possible later collaboration. When that trust appears strong enough – a point that may take quite a while to reach, and quite some ‘poldering’ – NIMD facilitates the political parties in taking further steps towards formulating, and implementing, a greater cause.

Depending on the preferences of the parties participating in the dialogue and the consensus that eventually can be reached, this can be an agreement about a National Agenda, as has been the case in Guatemala, a set of election reforms to create a fairer level playing field in national politics in Ghana or Uganda, or new legislation in Mali that improves the way the national parliament operates.

This pattern is reiterated in the set-up of NIMD’s so-called democracy schools that are run in a variety of programme countries, for often the net is cast even wider than with interparty dialogues and not only representatives of political society are invited to participate in these schools, but also civil society activists.

Though focusing especially on supporting political parties as one of democracy’s pivotal institutions, NIMD, being a Dutch organization, also greatly values the role played by civil society and considers it to be plainly normal that non-political actors should be given a chance to influence the course a country takes. Thus, democracy schools as educational facilities are a long-term investment where both politicians and activists acquire a set of democratic values, knowledge and skills together and learn to appreciate each other’s point of view.

Given that relationships between political and civil society in NIMD programme countries more often than not are quite strained, these democracy schools are also meant to bridge the gap between both sectors of society and groom a pool of young citizens from both sides to enhance a country’s democratic future. Sometimes this can have remarkable results, as for instance in Indonesia where democracy school alumni and civil society organizations prepared certain legislation to do with health insurance in collaboration with political parties, who subsequently saw to it that the local parliament accepted the proposal.

‘If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner’. This quotation from Nelson Mandela, together with his portrait, are shown in the entrance to the NIMD’s premises in The Hague.

It is telling that exactly these words from one of the greatest men of the twentieth century were chosen by NIMD to admonish, as it were, the casual visitor. For in a nutshell these words capture Dutch political culture and, therefore, NIMD’s approach to democracy assistance, which even endeavours to turn foes into friends, invite them to join the deliberations and eventually also collaborate with them for the greater good of stability, development and prosperity.

In his book referred to earlier, Simon Schama mentions in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion that the seventeenth century Dutch prided themselves on their economic and political success and sometimes were ‘unable to resist the temptation of addressing commiserating homilies to those unfortunate enough to dwell elsewhere’.

As we have just seen, NIMD too does not shrink from a certain amount of sententious writing on the wall. But it may be forgiven for that as that seems to be a kind of hereditary by-product of an utterly democratic world view generated by a nation of traders, which, with an eye on everybody’s good fortune, celebrates plurality and inclusiveness, dialogue and participation, consensus and harmony. Put differently, Dutch democracy and Dutch democracy assistance may both boil down to just this adage: the more the merrier.

The Gemeenlandshuis ( Water Boards)  and the Old Church, Delft, Summer, 1877.

The Gemeenlandshuis ( Water Boards) and the Old Church, Delft, Summer, 1877. Wikicommons/Cornelis Springer. Some rights reserved.

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


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