Parliamentary diplomacy as a significant cornerstone of (further) democratisation
By Khadija Arib, President of the House of Representatives of the States General.
Before her appointment as President of the House of Representatives in January 2016, Khadija Arib served as an MP for 18 years and spent many years as a member of the Council of Europe. In this capacity, she worked as an election observer on numerous occasions, including in Indonesia, the Palestinian territories and Morocco. ‘I was moved by how eager people are to exercise their democratic right to vote. The Dutch parliamentary system can play a role in the democratisation, or further democratisation of these countries, with parliamentary diplomacy playing a pivotal role.’
Dutch parliamentary democracy has a lengthy history. On 1 March 1796, Pieter Paulus opened the inaugural formal session of the National Assembly (Nationale Vergadering); at the time, the Netherlands still went by the name of the Batavian Republic. Even then, the members embraced the notion of a unitary state based on a constitution, the separation of church and state, and the conviction that members of parliament should be democratically elected. These are concepts that continued to be adhered to in the years that followed; in the Constitution of the Netherlands that was drafted in 1814 by a committee headed by Gijsbert Karel van Hogendorp, in the bicameral system of checks and balances that was introduced in 1815 with the first joint sitting of the States General, and in Johan Rudolph Thorbecke’s sweeping constitutional amendments of 1848.
For us, democracy is a matter of course. Our political transactions are rooted in fundamental, shared convictions, such as equal treatment in equal circumstances, freedom of expression and lifestyle and an independent judiciary system – all focused on an inclusive, fair society. Our system of representation also ensures that parliament is a reflection of society. While that used to relate primarily to established religious or ideological movements, nowadays, ‘representative’ means that the voice of new, sometimes one-issue interest groups without historical ties is also represented in parliament. For example, there are parties in the House of Representatives that specifically represent the interests of Christians and the elderly, and the Netherlands is the only country with a party that specifically represents the interests of animals.
Many countries lack these democratic foundations, and the first stones are now cautiously being laid. During my time as an MP, I worked as an election observer on numerous occasions. I visited places including Indonesia and the Palestinian territories, but also my native Morocco. I witnessed long queues, which people joined early in the morning to spend hours waiting in the rain or searing sun in order to exercise their democratic right to vote. There were often not enough polling stations, and it was not always guaranteed that the elections would be conducted honestly. I remember an elderly woman in Indonesia – she must have been in her nineties – who was absolutely delighted, especially as a woman, to witness a free election during her lifetime. It made me appreciate all the more what a great asset it is that our Dutch democracy functions as it does. It may seem perfectly normal to us, precisely because our system is centuries old, but many countries have yet to gain some rudimentary democratic principles.
I believe that the Dutch parliamentary system can play a role in the further democratisation of such countries. They have started on the road towards democracy and can learn from the best practices of countries and parliaments that, like ours, are democratically elected and work based on the confidence and mandate of their voters – consider, for instance, our neighbouring countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Parliamentary diplomacy will be pivotal in such efforts. Not as an objective in itself, but as an instrument that we – as parliamentarians – can use to share experiences and learn from each other. This takes place during organised conferences linked to the Council of Europe, the EU, NATO or the OSCE, for example, as well as through bilateral relations. We discuss specific policy areas and mutual relations, but I believe that these discussions should also address the matter of how we can contribute to the realisation of a democratic process in countries where this is not a matter of course.
The Netherlands has long had a reputation as an outward-looking country. It is in our nature to share our experiences with countries that intend to work towards becoming a democratic constitutional state, with elected MPs who act in accordance with a written constitution. That is not something that will happen overnight. We know from experience that democracy is something that develops organically. It did not emerge out of nothing in the Netherlands either; repeated steps were taken towards a more open, transparent and accessible system, with equal rights for all. In this regard, the introduction of universal suffrage in 1917 and women’s suffrage in 1919 are two significant milestones. And our political system remains in a state of flux. For example, the constitutional amendments of 1983 determined that the term of office of the Senate would be reduced to four years and that all senators would be appointed at the same time, while the decision was recently taken to appoint a government committee for ‘constitutional review’.
Democracy is not static and can take many forms. In mutual relations, open dialogue is required, with due respect for each other’s political history and landscape, and culture. I believe that these are the most significant cornerstones of parliamentary democracy: mutual understanding, combined with an intrinsic desire to help each other advance and learn from each other.
Photography by Hans Kouwenhoven.