On Wednesday, elections for the Provincial Council (the provincial parliament and legislative assembly in each of the twelve provinces of the Netherlands) and waterschappen (regional water authorities) are held in The Netherlands.
Why haven’t these elections engaged the public more?
“They’re elections with limited relevance for the voter, but the main thing is that the exact nature of these elections is very ambiguous. They’re actually three elections in one. The water authority, the province, and the Senate. The Senate-aspect means it has an effect on the balance of power in The Hague in a more general sense. Because there will be repercussions if the coalition loses its majority in the Senate.
“That’s a lot of choices at the same time. A bit too much, I’d say. And the media makes it more complicated by only covering national issues, while provincial matters are barely given any exposure at all.”
Is that a problem?
“Well, it’s mainly logical. Suppose voters make their choice based on the province. Would that lead to people making different choices? It’s a complicated question and I have no idea what the position is of the parties in the Provincial Council, because you never hear anything about them. People who want to vote green will vote GroenLinks. People who are against windmills will vote PVV. Many of the stances are quite predictable.
“It’s simple, really: people don’t want to go to the trouble of taking an in-depth look at all the issues, so they look at themes that are relevant on the national stage. It’s good for voter turnout that the Senate is elected by Provincial Council members; at least then voters will show up. And people certainly won’t read through the twelve programmes put forward by all the parties running in the water authority elections.”
What could be done to make the regional water authority elections more appealing?
“That’s a difficult one. If you organise separate elections for the regional water authorities, then no one will show up to vote, and with good reason. You never hear anything about the water authorities. Those elected water authority administrators basically have carte blanche during their four-year term. They would have to make some crazy decisions to end up on the news.
“Providing voters with more information also wouldn’t help because, there just isn’t much to choose from. On the one hand you have parties who want sustainable water management – parties like Water Natuurlijk, the Labour party (PvdA), the Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren). On the other hand you have parties who see water as a commodity, a product that should be as cheap as possible: VVD and CDA. There isn’t really any other distinction to be made. That’s why you could just as well have the Lower House and civil servants run the water authorities.
“That’s just how it is. I’m sorry I can’t give you a more upbeat take on the situation.”
No problem. It is what it is. But what about the Provincial Council? Is there more of a choice there?
“There isn’t really a wide spectrum for voters to choose from here either. There are three options. Flavour 1: support the Cabinet. Flavour 2: the Netherlands needs to chart a greener course. Flavour 3: this cabinet is so full of crap that we dig in our heels.
There are few people who want both greener policy and who would vote for Forum voor Democratie (FvD). Or they think: those polders could also be swallowed up in new construction, I’m voting GroenLinks. This choice is about the common good, and of course there’s not a lot that could go wrong. You can’t expect much more, certainly not from less-educated voters. They’re not going to learn more about the underlying strategy. They have no interest in doing that, and rightly so.”
But what about provincial themes? How are those issues addressed?
“Ask a random person on campus to name something the provincial council has done in the last four years and that person will be at a loss for words. You never hear anything about it. No one monitors what those provincial politicians are up to.
“With the provincial elections coming up, people are just now realising that they’ve never heard anything about it and that no one has ever checked to see what the Provincial Council has been doing. But journalism at this level is difficult. No one is willing to pay for it, so nothing is reported. And there are enough stories to report. But until now, no one has a solution for this except to provide more funding for regionally-based journalism. But even then, the question remains as to whether anything produced with this funding would be interesting to even a small segment of the public. If that’s not the case, then regional journalism isn’t the answer.
“For example, the candidate at the top of the candidate’s list for Forum voor Democratie in Zuid-Holland is also second on the list for the European Parliament. And the third candidate on the list is someone who doesn’t even live in Zuid-Holland. So how serious is FvD about the province? They’re not. But there is hardly any coverage of these kinds of stories, so there’s no awareness among voters.”
Are journalists to blame? Or do voters share the blame, for example, by just blindly casting their vote for Forum voor Democratie?
“It’s a disgrace to democracy if the highly-educated voter, your readers, were to say: ‘I don’t know who to vote for’. That is an absurdly lazy approach. Get a life, subscribe to a regional paper and spend some time for once to dig a little deeper and learn about the issues at hand. I really mean it.
“Despite everything that’s amiss, voters can’t use that as an excuse to hide behind. Looking up a party’s website is not all that difficult. And the irony is, you don’t have to familiarise yourself with each and every party. If you’re a left-wing voter, you can skip a lot of the parties. It’s not even an afternoon’s work. It’s really not asking a lot.
It’s your civic duty. That’s how you need to look at it. No matter what kind of election we’re talking about and whatever the considerations are, taking a bit of time for it is something everyone can do. And if we, as well-educated people don’t do it, we’ll have to ask ourselves about how things are going in the rest of the world.”
Chris Aalberts is a lecturer and researcher in political communication at ESHCC. He is also a reporter, publicist and columnist, and his writing and research focuses on ‘the side of politics that remains concealed from the general public’. In this context he did an in-depth exploration of local politics in Den Helder and followed the Amstel, Gooi en Vecht water authority during the past year.