Parliamentary democracy in the Netherlands started in 1848. This was the year the new constitution was introduced. From 1815 until 1848 the Netherlands was ruled by the king, but king Willem II, warned by the various rebellions in Europe, decided in one night in 1848 to become a liberal and introduce various reforms. He asked the well-known Dutch liberal Thorbecke to create a new constitution. The four major points in this new constitution were:
In 1879 the first political party appeared: the ARP (Anti-Revolutionaire Partij/Anti-revolutionairy party). It was founded by Abraham Kuyper. This party represented mainly the strict Dutch protestants (Gereformeerden), who had split from less strict protestants (Nederlands Hervormden). Other parties soon followed:
These political parties led to the pillarisation, a system of segregation where the Dutch people usually only had contact with people within their own political and religious beliefs. They had their own political party, newspapers, labour unions, Broadcasting organisations, schools, Scouting groups etc. These parties, newspapers, unions etc still exist in the Netherlands, even though the pillarisation is over.
The pillars consists of the protestants (including both the ARP and the CHU), the catholics and the socialists; the liberals considered themselves not a pillar, but effectively were one anyway. These pillars were more or less equal in strength, which meant no-one could rule without the support of another pillar. So the Dutch tradition of coalition governments was born. After the second world war the pillarization declined in influence and in the '60s it was effectively gone.
Important issues in those days were the schoolnstruggle, in which the catholic and protestant pillar demanded the right to found catholic and protestant schools, which would get the same amount of money the public schools got. In 1917 they got what they wanted. Another major issue was universal suffrage, which both the liberals and the socialists wanted. This introduced in 1917 when all men were allowed to vote. In 1919 Women’s suffrage was introduced.
The Netherlands is a monarchy, which means they have a king or queen as their head of state. The monarch has only limited power. The Dutch monarch appoints various people, like mayors, but generally is only allowed to pick those people the Dutch government tells him or her to. She has to sign all laws created by the government, but is not allowed to refuse to sign. The most important task is to appoint the formateur and the informateur, the people responsible to create a new government. In this way she still has some influence in Dutch politics. Some people want to remove these functions from her, so she only has a ceremonial function.
The Dutch parliament consists out of two parts, the eerste kamer (first chamber) or senate and the tweede kamer (the second chamber). Contrary to its name, the tweede kamer is the most important of the two. Its 150 seats are chosen directly by the people in elections, which are either held once every four years or sooner if the government resigns. The senate's 75 seats are chosen by the members of the provincial parliaments. Some people think the senate is redundant and want to get rid of it.
The Dutch election system is a system of proportional representation. Everyone in the Netherlands votes at the same people and parties. The political parties all appoint a lijsttrekker (“List puller”). He will become the face of that party during the election. He appears on top of the list of names of the other members of his party on the ballot. It is also possible to vote for the other people on that list.
After an election for the tweede kamer the monarch appoints an informateur. He tries to find the best combination of parties to form a government. If such a combination is found a formateur is appointed, usually the leader of the largest faction in the tweede kamer. He starts to negotiate with the leaders of the other parties with whom he will form the government. During this negotiations the general policies for the next four years are decided. In the end it is decided which party gets which ministrial department and who will become a minister. The formateur usually becomes prime minister.
There are various ministers all with its own portfolio. The prime-minister has the portfolio of general affairs and is the leader of the government. Most ministers lead their ministry. Some ministers don't have their own portfolio and share a ministry with another minister, like the minister of development aid, who shares with the minister of foreign affairs (who leads the foreign affairs ministry). Some ministers have a secretary of state (staatssecretaris), who is sort of a deputy minister, who specializes in certain subjects, for example the minister of foreign affairs has a secretary of state who specializes in EU affairs.
Except for the elections for the tweede kamer, once every four years an election is held for the provincial parliaments. The members of these parliaments elect the members of the senate. Out of these provincial parliaments a provincial government is formed, the gedeputeerde staten, the chair of the gedeputeerde staten is the Queen's Commissioner, who is appointed by the queen and has no formal power. Many people don't care about these provincial parliaments and few people are bothered to vote for them. Because of this, some people want to get rid of them.
Also every four years an election is held for the city council. These are a lot more popular than the provincial elections. A coalition is formed between various parties and they appoint the wethouders, the government of the city. The chair is the mayor, who is appointed by the queen and has little formal power. There is a lot of discussion of changing this system. Some parties want to elect a mayor directly, some want a mayor to be elected by the city council, some do not want any change of the current situation. As a compromise a (optional) mayor referendum was introduced, where the city council chooses two candidates who would run for mayor. After the failed referenda in Utrecht and Eindhoven, where two candidates of the same party ran for mayor and less then 10% of the people decided to vote, this referendum will most likely be abolished in the future and the discussion will continue.
Other elections in the Netherlands are the election for the European Parliament (even less popular than the provincial elections) and the elections for the waterboards in which almost no one votes.
CDA (Christen Democratisch Appel/Christian Democratic Appeal): When the pillarisation ended in the 1960s, the protestant parties ARP, CHU and KVP lost a lot of voters. Because of this they decided to cooperate and in 1980 formed a single party. It is at the moment the largest party in the Netherlands and it (or its predecessors) have been part of all the governments since 1918, except for the period between 1994 and 2002. It is usually a middle party, between the leftwing PVDA and the rightwing VVD, which made it easy to form a coalition with those parties, the reason it has been part of so many governments. It is a moderately Christian party and includes a left wing, with more social Christians, and a right wing with more conservative Christians.
PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid/Party of Labour): the labour party that evolved out of the SDAP. It is very big in the large cities (although it looks like that is going to change). It has often been part of the government. It includes old fashion socialists, but more moderate social democrats have the majority.
VVD (Volkspartij van Vrijheid en Democratie/People’s party of Freedom and Democracy): The Dutch liberal party, which also includes a large conservative faction. It evolved out of the old liberal parties. The only serious rightwing party of the Netherlands. Also, its called ´The People´s´ and ´Freedom´ in one party name, What´s up with that?
D’66 (democraten 66/Democrats ’66): Another Dutch liberal party. Smaller than the VVD and more leftwing, usually considered a middle party. This party formed the glue between the VVD and the PvdA during the purple governments between 1994 and 2002.
Groenlinks (greenleft): a small leftwing Dutch party, which was formed when various small Dutch leftwing parties (including the communist party, a pacifist party, and even a progressive Evangelical party) decided to cooperate. It has an emphasis on environmental issues and tolerance.
SP (Socialistische Partij/Socialist Party): As the name says, the socialist party from the Netherlands. Started out as a Maoist splinter group, and still is lot more extreme leftwing than PvdA. Used to be small, but now it rivals the PvdA in size.
Christen Unie (Christion Union): A small leftwing Christian (protestant) party. Socialy Conservative. Formed when two small Christian parties merged. A third small Christian party (the SGP) decided not to merge with them. Unlike the SGP, the CU tries to appeal to a rather broad range of Christians, and its supporters include many Baptists and Evangelicals, as well as many traditional Reformed Protestants who disagree with the SGP (unsuprisingly, many of them are young women).
SGP (Staats Gereformeerde Partij/ State reformed party): The oldest continually existing political party in the Netherlands, and also by far the most conservative, traditional and religious party in the Netherlands. In 1917 and 1918, this party staunchly opposed the proposal to give women the right to vote and become active in politics. The SGP's official position on the role of women in politics has yet to change, although there are a few dissidents within the party. It has a lot of supporters in the Dutch bible belt, but almost none outside it.
PVV (partij van de vrijheid/Freedom party): Founded by Geert Wilders, an unhappy former VVD member. He left the party because the VVD didn’t want to exclude Turkey from the EU. Tries to profile itself as a right-wing liberal party, but is really only known for advocating anti-Islamic policies and Wilders' anti-Islamic rethorics.
TON (trots op Nederland/Proud of the Netherlands): Another party founded by an unhappy VVD member: Rita Verdonk. A populist party, whose ideas are unclear except that everything is wrong, but Rita will solve it.
LPF: (Lijst Pim Fortuyn/List Pim Fortuyn): populist party founded by Pim Fortuyn. It gained a lot of votes thanks to Pim Fortuyn's charisma, controversial opinions on quite a few controversial subjects (for example, he openly criticised Islam, the government's immigration policy, environmentalism, and other issues that were previously not openly criticised in Dutch politics), and general criticism on the political establishment. After Fortuyn was murdered by a radical environmentalist, the party completely collapsed.
Because of the Dutch way of electing people small parties are founded and disappear again quickly. Various other parties that have coloured the Dutch political landscape were:
At city council level (also on provincial level) various local parties exist, which have a lot of influence at a local level, but none at national level.