Can the Citizens' Initiative Revitalize Dutch Representative Democracy?

Can the Citizens' Initiative Revitalize Dutch Representative Democracy?

The Petition Committee is currently holding an internal review of the citizens’ initative. This instrument may only work if it is accompanied by a long-term vision of how parliament is to be re-established as the central organ of representative democracy.

Last month I took part in an expert meeting evaluating the so-called citizens’ initiative. A citizens’ initative can be described as an instrument with which citizens can attempt to table a new topic or proposal for legislation in Parliament. The Petition Committee of the Dutch House of Representatives is currently holding an internal review of the citizens’ initative. The Dutch Institute for Societal Innovation and Network Democracy (Platform for Democratic Innovation) took the initiative to evaluate the instrument beforehand from an external perspective, i.e. that of the initiators.

When the citizens' initiative was introduced in 2006, the expectation was that around 30 initiatives would be submitted annually and that this might lead to a rise of 5% in the workload of Members of Parliament. In reality, however, in six years’ time only 12 citizens' initiatives have been submitted, and two-thirds of those were declared inadmissible by the Committee. Obviously, having one's initiative declared inadmissible is frustrating for the initiators, who have sometimes managed to collect well over the 40,000 signatures required to submit an intiative.
Looking at the primary reason why so many citizens' initiatives were found inadmissible by the Committee, the evaluation report of both the institutes referred to above points in the direction of the 'two-year rule' that states that the subject of a citizens' initiative may not have been dealt with by Parliament within the last two years. Moreover, it is not clear when exactly a subject is considered to have been dealt with by Parliament.

One of the recommendations the evaluation report makes is therefore to abolish the two-year rule. In addition, the report refers for example to the information available about the recently introduced European citizens' initiative as a possible best practice from which lessons can be drawn nationally.

One, rather fundamental, question the evaluation report does not address is whether the citizens' initiative as such is a good instrument to enhance representative democracy. There are at least two possible answers to this question. The first answer relates to what a report by the Dutch Council for Public Administration on trust in democracy (2010) called the horizontalized society. In a society in which citizens increasingly want to represent themselves, the citizens' initiative may well constitute one of several means for the still vertically organized political institutions to connect in new ways with the citizens.

The other, more pessimistic, answer can be derived from the 2012 Democratic Audit carried out in the U.K. The Audit found that ‘almost all available indicators suggest that representative democracy is in long-term, terminal decline'. Given this situation, the Audit warns that simply introducing more participatory elements 'represents an insufficient basis for democratic renewal' and 'that political and constitutional reforms will only succeed if they are guided by a long-term vision of how parliament, local councils and other organs of representative democracy are to be re-established as the centrepiece of our political system'.


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