The Dutch style of government: good for dykes, bad for covid

The Netherlands’ consensual “polder model” moves too slowly in a crisis


THE DUTCH are not used to being ranked among the worst in Europe. But that is where they stand in covid booster vaccinations: 4.1% of the population have had an extra jab, just behind Romania at 5%. They started on November 18th, months after other countries. “It is impossible to explain,” says Roel Coutinho, a former head of the national outbreak-management team. He blames the Dutch culture of governing via exhaustive negotiations and consensus—a system known as the “polder model”.

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Indeed, almost nine months after elections last March, the country has no new government. For months the ruling centre-right Liberal party locked horns with one of its junior partners, the centre-left D66 party, which wanted more leftist outfits in the coalition. D66 backed down, but an agreement is only now nearing completion.

The Dutch call such lengthy consultations polderen on the theory that they stem from the country’s history of land and water management. Maintaining polders in a sea-level landscape requires agreements to fix dykes and canals, even between opposing parties. In Dutch government, the polder model means that policy is set in years-long discussions with trade unions, industry associations, housing societies, cyclists—every stakeholder imaginable. In Dutch society, it means a fondness for lengthy meetings where everyone gets a turn.

This consensual system is excellent for long-term planning. Dutch infrastructure and pensions are among the best in the world. But it can be disastrous in a crisis such as a pandemic. Decisions over curfews and vaccine passports are interminably delayed by debates between interest groups and government bodies. Meanwhile, the Dutch political scene has fragmented, and giving everyone a say is getting harder. There are 17 parties in parliament and four in the likely coalition—if they can bring the poldering to an end and strike a deal.

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This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Poldering on”

William Murphy

William Murphy

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