The rather unpopular provincial elections in the Netherlands show substantial decreases in voter turnout rates by every election year. Although the low numbers seem to be creating a sort of panic amongst Dutch authorities about future turnouts, citizens remain hesitant to vote.
The provincial elections which take place every four years, resulted in only a 43.6 percent voter turnout in 2015, which is much less than a slightly higher turnout of 55.9 percent in 2011. Southern provinces like Limburg are doing worse than the northern provinces. With a look on current polls and statistics, estimates for elections this month don’t seem to be too high either. Until 1970, Dutch citizens were legally obligated to vote, but not any longer. This is still the case in Belgium, where turnouts are much higher.
“Almost nobody knows what it is that they do (provincial government), so people think they are very uninteresting” says professor Klaartje Peters of Maastricht University, also author of Het opgeblazen bestuur, a controversial book on the Dutch provincial elections that lies on the table in front of her, as we sit in her home office. She taps it gently and takes a moment, “people, especially the youth, think what difference it makes at all if they don’t go out and vote.”
According to literature on elections, younger generations do not fully understand their civil duty and vote in lesser numbers than their parents and grandparents who felt and feel obligated to vote. Klaartje, who still holds the same views as when her book was published shortly before provincial elections in 2007, is of the opinion that these elections don’t make much of a difference in the political ecosystem. “The manifestos of the political parties are rather similar, so it is not easy to make a choice. She points to the illustration on her book, where on the front the ‘S’ for superman is replaced by a ‘P’. “I don’t blame people who don’t go out and vote, life for them isn’t going to change very much if the seats are divided differently.”
Abolish the elections
She asks an important question. “What would happen if we would just abolish the elections and bring them under control of the national government? How bad would it be if we don’t vote but have them actually work for the benefit of the citizens of Limburg and other provinces?”
Many seem to agree with Klaartje’s views on the role of the provincial government. Afke Groen, a PhD candidate at Maastricht University says every time she tunes into media, she sees a lot of mainly older white men in suits arguing over important issues, but only focusing on small details. She says it is understandable that this does not make it very appealing for people to vote.
Dr. Nico Baakman, a Professor of Political Sciences thinks that even though there’s unawareness amongst people about what the province actually does, the problem of low voter turnouts lies among the political parties themselves. “Most people have no idea what the province does, why it matters and why it’s there. As a matter of fact, the provinces themselves hardly know why they are there.”
On the other hand, not all hope it lost for the future of provinces.
Younger people, who do vote, seem to do so with a reason. Recent protests for climate change in high schools for instance, are spreading more awareness about the provincial role for public intervention and climate control.
The provinces are generally known as being responsible for matters such as public transport and the environment. To some political parties, railway connections between Aachen and Maastricht are important, while to some, it is the environment and emission of greenhouse gases. The latter seems to resonate more with the youth.
Despite contrary views, Lotte Meerhoff, a student of Liberal Arts is concerned about these low voter turnouts. She sees voting as a way to make improvements in the system and encourages the youth to take the opportunity to vote. “After the recent climate strikes, the Dutch government said that they are already doing enough and that students should not ask for more, but they can do so much more.”
The youth like Lotte are determined for change, “by voting for green parties we can show the Dutch government that we need them to act for our future, we need to show them that the climate is really changing, and effects can be overwhelming if we don’t act now.”
After parties have been elected in the provincial elections, they take seats in the Dutch first chamber, which gives them the responsibility to go on and vote in the senate. In a country where the turnout for national elections is extremely high, it may be important to consider all steps of voting prior to see change especially in important matters like climate change. Perhaps the province can count on the Dutch youth for different results than predicted in the future.
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