Opinions - 06.05.2013 - 00:00 

The Dutch Monarchy

The Netherlands celebrated Queen Beatrix’s abdication in April 2013. Wesley van Drongelen, a Dutchman living in Switzerland, argues that having an unelected person as head of state is not necessarily a disadvantage.


6 May 2013. While most Swiss could easily grasp the value of a monarchy’s fairy tale-like symbolism in uniting a country, the undemocratic element of having a hereditary high position in a state’s executive is deemed to be a negative thing. A Dutchman living in Switzerland argues that having an unelected person as head of state is not necessarily a disadvantage.

Monarchy in 2013?
At first glance, the hereditary monarchy looks as anachronistic as it looks unfair: how on earth can one justify that a person has a right to the highest office in the nation – excluding everyone else – just because he or she happens to have been born in the right place at the right time? And then, in the Netherlands, the king is even guaranteed a secured seat in government by the constitution! That is fully unacceptable in 2013... or is it?

One could wonder what would happen when the king is incapable of exercising the duties of the office that was exclusively reserved for him, or only interested in self-enrichment or self-aggrandisement? Concerning this problem, however, there is not really a difference between an unelected king and an elected president: in both cases, the people will suffer under the whims of the incapable or despotic head of state. Sure enough, it is relatively easy to get rid of a president at the end of his term, but in a constitutional monarchy such as the one in the Netherlands, Parliament can in sufficiently grave circumstances declare the king unable to exercise the royal prerogative, and thus put him aside. Until now, this has only happened twice in Dutch history, in both cases because of illness of king Willem III in the late 19th century. The house of Orange seems to be a fairly sensible family that knows how to behave.

Article 42
Article 42 of the Dutch constitution provides another safety valve against undesirable royal eccentricities. It reads: “The King is inviolable; the Ministers are responsible”. The most important part comes behind the semicolon: the ministerial responsibility for acts emanating from the king brings about that Parliament at all times can exercise democratic control over the government’s policy, in much the same way as a minister’s political accountability for the civil servants in his ministry makes sure that Parliament can exercise political control over them. So if ever the king messes up, one or more ministers will be held accountable in Parliament. In practice, that means that the council of ministers has an incentive to rein in the king. At the same time, article 42 protects the king from political controversies and scandals; it puts him above the parties.

A strong argument in favour of a non-elected head of state is that the current king Willem-Alexander is arguably the best-prepared man for his job in the entire country: he has enjoyed a whole 33 years of training and education by the very best tutors and teachers there are to be found in the Netherlands. All that in view of a position for which there is no specific education – just like the position of president. When the people vote a man or a woman into the highest office of the state, he or she has considerably less time to prepare for the job at hand. Of course, a good preparation offers no 100% guarantees for successful kingship, but it certainly won’t harm.

And after all, in a constitutional monarchy such as the Dutch, the highest political office, the office that is most likely to make a real difference in the country, is not that of king, but that of prime minister. And to that office, (almost) every Dutchman can be called…

Photo: Photocase / time

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