Radboud Centrum Sociale Wetenschappen

Postacademisch Onderwijs voor een Veerkrachtige Samenleving
AMID Young Professional

Stay Home. Don’t Vote. Save Democracy.

Lauren May & Jannis Giesen

In the Netherlands, elections are due. The weeks leading up to voting day are truly a guilty pleasure. The polls, the gossiping, the awkward one liners, and of course the quarrels. However, beyond its entertainment value, democracy in the Netherlands is displaying some serious symptoms undermining its mandate. Societal concerns around the performance of our political system are increasing. To name just a few: in early 2023 Dutch citizens’ level of trust in the Tweede Kamer (our house representatives) was the lowest ever recorded (CBS 09.05.2023). A large majority of the Dutch population is worried about the current level of political polarisation and 75% of Dutch citizens perceives polarisation in society as increasing (SCP 29.12.2022). The Tweede Kamer is currently comprised of 21 independent political parties/entities - that’s another all-time record and the majority of Dutch voters think its too much[1]. Our political system is prone to populism, short-termism, passivity, lack of deliberation… Enfin, I think you get the gist.

            Don’t get me wrong. Democracy is the best way to govern our nation. However, are elections the only way to govern democratically? If you were to ask Dr. Mosima, the answer is quite simple. No, elections are not the only way to realize democracy. In our last AMID lecture Pius Mosima gave examples of alternative democratic practices. In his country of birth, the village elders gather to make decisions by consensus. He argues that culturally specific, indigenous practices such as this one should continue to be valued today. This poses the question, what democratic alternatives to national elections do we have in the Netherlands? Let’s think outside the ballot box.

Recently Ecuador’s referendum splashed across headlines as a landmark success for direct democracy by referendum and support for indigenous citizens. Over 60% of the population voted to prohibit oil drilling in the country’s protected Amazonia (Aljazeera 21.08.2023). Is there an argument for more direct as opposed to parliamentary democracy in the Netherlands? The organisation “meer democratie” argues yes. They campaign for referendums and a more direct voting system where representatives are accountable to the mandate their voters chose (meer democratie n.d.).

Some cite the UK’s BREXIT referendum as a prime example of why direct democracy doesn’t work. Critics condemn the outcome, critique the spread of false information during the campaign or question the general public’s ability to make a wise decision. Rikkie Dean, a researcher at London School of Economics, disagrees. He argues that if we can’t trust the general public to make a decision between status quo and a new policy we are either elitist or naïve. Choosing between two policies is infinitely less complex than voting for a party representative with a complex manifesto. Besides, the Eton Boy’s Club that governs the UK is not in a league above the average Brit.

            In "Against Elections" (Tegen Verkiezingen in Dutch), David van Reybrouck advocates for another alternative: the ancient Greek concept of a citizens' assembly. These assemblies consist of randomly (!) selected citizens who are mandated to make decisions on demarcated political topics. For example, how to disperse windmills and the legality of abortion. Assemblies vary from 30 to 60 citizens and should be guided by professional moderators who make sure everybody’s voice is heard. Topic experts educate the assembly which has the agency to invite the experts they wish to hear out.

The beauty of this approach lies in its ability to bring diverse voices to the table, regardless of factors like education, ethnicity and network. In other words, a lottery system can guarantee that a decision-making body truly represents a society. Van Reybrouck also demonstrates that lottery selected citizen assemblies answer the abovementioned problems. Without elections, there is no incentive for a short-term over long-term vision. Many well-studied pilots and experiments[2] demonstrate that these citizen assemblies are very effective in nuanced and effective decision-making. They could combat polarisation because instead of making hard one-liners, people sitting in assemblies are much more likely to listen than to scream to one another.

            It's time to embrace alternative democratic means like citizens' assemblies in combination with lottery-based democracy. Let us breathe new life into our political system and ensure that it truly serves the diverse needs and concerns of our society. By doing so, we can work towards a more inclusive, deliberative, and trustworthy democracy that addresses the pressing challenges of our time.

            Oh yeah, in the meantime, forget about the title. That was just to get your attention. Please go and vote on November 22nd.

D. Van Reybrouck. 2021. ‘Tegen Verkiezingen’. De Bezige Bij Amsterdam.

R. Dean. 2016. ‘The “How I learned to stop worrying and love the EU referendum… (sort of)’. LSE Blog. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying...


[1] In 2021, 17 political parties where elected. In the meantime, 5 politicians left their political party, but kept their seat in the house of representatives. Two of them grouped, the others continued individually. Hence we have 21 political entities. For clarification. The 17 political parties was the highest number of political parties every to be voted in to parliament. Crushing the 1971 record of 14 political parties.

[2] Most well-known pilots/experiments were in France, Canada, Ireland, the US, Australia, Belgium and the UK.