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What is the state of the Dutch voter? Are we seeing a crisis of confidence between people and politics? Are we on the verge of serious problems and will institutional reforms be inevitable if our country is to remain governable? What about political parties, both in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe? How can we expect the social democrats to evolve in future? How great is the divide between these parties and the electorate? These questions may well be more relevant than ever, as we near the upcoming elections for the House of Representatives on 15 March.

Two newly appointed UvA Political Science professors, Tom van der Meer and Sarah de Lange, went in search of answers. They will be focusing on the electorate and political parties, respectively.

Prof Ton van der Meer
Tom van der Meer (photo by Dirk Gillissen)

Van der Meer has been named professor of Political Science, with a focus on Legitimacy, Inequality and Citizenship. He will be conducting research on the relationship between citizens and government bodies, with an emphasis on the role of citizens and citizenship in relation to the state and the political process. This concerns aspects such as political support, confidence and participation, as well as the various inequalities in this regard. Amongst other factors, he will be assessing the importance of confidence in the political system in terms of ensuring a functional democracy, the effects of our electoral system's structure – built around elements such as referenda, electoral thresholds and districts – on this sense of confidence in the system, and the extent to which new forms of civic participation can offer a solution for existing inequalities in the area of political participation. His research will juxtapose the Netherlands against other representative democracies in order to offer a comparative perspective.

Prof Sarah de Lange
Sarah de Lange (photo by Dirk Gillissen)

De Lange has been named professor by special appointment on the Dr J.M. den Uyl Chair, established on behalf of the Wiardi Beckman Stichting (Wiardi Beckman Foundation). She will be analysing the ideological, organisational and strategic challenges facing Western European social democratic parties and will also be exploring possible solutions and assessing their effectiveness. The emphasis will be on assessing social democratic parties' various responses to the success of radical right-wing populist parties and the popularity of green and social liberal parties. Her comparative research will focus on Western European nations that resemble the Netherlands in political terms, such as Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway, Austria and Sweden.

Legitimacy and governability

‘We've been all too eager to proclaim a crisis in Dutch democracy for the past fifteen years’, Van der Meer explains. 'But those statements are far from the truth. Voters have actually started doing their job. The enormous shifts in the Dutch political landscape over the past fifteen years are characteristic of a mature democracy, although the long-term effects of these developments are still unclear at present. Voters' sense of confidence in the government and parliament has not declined in any meaningful way; in fact, the electorate now actually has more faith in the democratic process. The alleged crisis of confidence is often accompanied by a call for changes to our constitutional system through the introduction of referenda, electoral thresholds or lottery voting. That's why I think it's important that we start by conducting thorough analyses on the challenges of democracy and relevant solutions before we start making claims about a perceived lack of legitimacy and taking any measures.'

‘I couldn't agree more; today's electorate is emancipated. It's important to assess the political parties' responses to this development', de Lange adds. 'Especially the reactions of our social democratic parties, which are historically regarded as broad people's parties. How are they approaching emancipated voters? Are they managing to reach out to less educated voters who also feel attracted to radical right-wing populist parties? If so, how are they going about this? It's also important to assess the implications of these changes. How are the electoral losses suffered by social democratic parties and the simultaneous rise of green and social liberal parties on the one hand and radical right-wing populists on the other affecting the formation of new government coalitions and governability of European countries? I will be assessing these aspects in various Western European countries. In view of the many parallels between our political system here in the Netherlands and countries such as Belgium, Sweden and Austria, our analyses of the Dutch electoral process will undoubtedly also be relevant from a European perspective.'

Logical extension

Van der Meer and De Lange have been collaborating for years. De Lange: 'My new area of focus connects seamlessly to my previous research work, and the same applies to Tom. Our specialisations are also perfectly aligned with one another', De Lange explains. Van der Meer: 'Our research areas are logical extensions of one other, so there's every reason to continue and intensify our collaboration. We will also be focusing explicitly on the aspect of interaction between voters and political parties.'