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The rise and fall of the Dutch referendum law (2015–2018): initiation, use, and abolition of the corrective, citizen-initiated, and non-binding referendum

Abstract

In 2018, the Netherlands became the first democratic country to abolish its national referendum legislation. The Dutch referendum law of 2015–2018 allowed facultative, citizen-initiated, corrective, non-binding referendums, to veto specific types of laws passed by parliament. The referendum law included an ill-suited turnout threshold that created a strategic dilemma and a psychological side effect among voters. In the three years between introduction and abolition, two referendums were triggered. After the first referendum—a treaty between the EU and Ukraine, rejected by Dutch voters—support for referendums soured among centrist politicians and highly educated, progressive voters. Despite positive experiences with the second referendum, the legislation was abolished as part of the coalition agreement by the new government. This article provides a thick description of the Dutch referendum legislation trajectory (instigation, design, implementation, and abolition) to an international audience as well as a theoretical explanation of its comparatively late introduction and remarkably swift abolition. We discuss the roles of public opinion and coalition politics in the face of constitutional rigidity. Ultimately, we draw three broader theoretical lessons from the Dutch referendum experience.

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Fig. 1

Source Dutch Parliamentary Election Surveys (weighted by demographics, party size)

Fig. 2

Source Citizens’ Outlook Barometer (weighted by demographics, party size)

Notes

  1. The former are often referred to as “act-contingent motivations”, the latter as “outcome-contingent motivations” (Reed and Thiess 2001).

  2. For instance, Portugal introduced a restrictive reform in 1998 (Bedock 2017); Belgium in 1998 (Jacobs 2011).

  3. According to Wiegel himself, he was persuaded not to give in to political pressure by a note from his wife telling him he would not be allowed into his own house if he would support the referendum legislation (Goslinga et al. 1999).

  4. The barriers included a signed request to organise a referendum by at least 600,000 citizens (i.e. 5% of the potential electorate), to be collected within 6 weeks.

  5. In the Netherlands, bills do not automatically ‘die’ when a new parliament is installed. Hence, the proponents of the referendum bills could wait until there was a sufficient majority in favour of them.

  6. Although the Dutch Senate can only veto but not amend policy proposals, the initiators of the referendum legislation accepted these conditions and laid them before both houses of parliament.

  7. In a comparison with provisions for citizen-initiated, corrective referendums in 11 other countries, Hendriks, Jacobs and Wagenaar (2020) show that only two countries employ shorter terms. The majority of countries allow three or more months for signature collection. The number of signatures required proportional to the electorate varies from approximately 1% to 25% with the majority employing thresholds around 5 to 10% of the electorate.

  8. Formalised digital signature collection processes—involving government-initiated signature collection forms and existing infrastructures for identity verification—are uncommon in popular initiatives and veto referendums. Digital signature collection for European Citizens’ Initiatives presents an innovative, though not fully successful, exception (Susha & Grönlund, 2014).

  9. In their evaluation of the referendum, the Electoral Council explained their decision to consider the digitally collected signatures to be valid (Evaluatie raadgevend referendum 6 April 2016, 24th May 2016).

  10. The Electoral Council ruled that the plurality in the second referendum should be interpreted as a win for the No-camp.

  11. As the Dutch case is the first where referendum legislation was abolished, no prior study examined such an instance. However, some work exists on the restriction of referendum legislation.

  12. The 2017 Dutch Parliamentary Election Survey allows us to analyse support for specific elements of the Wrr in detail. It indicates that a majority of voters supports referendums on general laws (53% vs 34% who do not) and international treaties (52% vs 36%) but not on the government budget (34% vs 54%).

  13. The 2003 survey posed this question as well, but without a neutral answer category.

  14. This quote is taken from Bedock’s set of conclusions about ‘divisive reforms’ that require a simple majority. This is the ideal type that best applies to the Dutch referendum law: the reform had a set of proponents and a set of opponents (there was no general consensus) and the procedure required a simple majority.

  15. The successful attempts include the temporary law between 2002 and 2004, the ad hoc law in 2005, and the Wrr between 2015 and 2018.

  16. The failure of the proposal for a binding referendum in 1999 by a narrow veto of the Senate fits this explanation: in the Dutch political culture the coalition agreement does not bind co-partisan members of the Senate.

  17. According to the Dutch Parliamentary Election Survey of 2017, approximately two-thirds of D66 voters had completed an education at ISCED levels 5–8 (applied sciences; university), compared to 40% of the general electorate.

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van der Meer, T.W.G., Wagenaar, C.C.L. & Jacobs, K. The rise and fall of the Dutch referendum law (2015–2018): initiation, use, and abolition of the corrective, citizen-initiated, and non-binding referendum. Acta Polit 57, 96–116 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41269-020-00175-3

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Keywords

  • Referendum
  • Direct democracy
  • Electoral reform
  • The Netherlands
  • Public opinion