On Tuesday, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands will abdicate and her eldest son, Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, will be inaugurated as the new king. It’s expected to be a major event that will be celebrated across the country by a supportive public.
But just a few days ago, some 500 yards away from the Dam Square in central Amsterdam where the abdication and inauguration will take place, a small group of Dutch republicans met to discuss how best to call for the abolition of the country’s 200-year-old monarchy and instate a true republic.
The workshop was organized by the movement #HetIs2013 – Dutch for “It’s 2013” – which was started in February when a student protester named Joanna was forcibly removed by police from an event in Utrecht that the queen was attending.
Joanna had been holding up a sign that read “Away with the monarchy, it’s 2013” – which the policemen took to be a violation of the Netherlands’ lese majeste law, which still prohibits insulting the royal family despite the country’s general support of freedom of speech.
Willem-Alexander later said during a TV interview that the policemen had made “a mistake” by removing her. But the incident spurred like-minded Dutch to call for a royal-free future.
“I intend to visit the Dam wearing white and carrying white balloons,” says one of the attendants of the workshop. The republicans have called on people to dress in white instead of orange – the Dutch national color, derived from the royal family’s last name Van Oranje – to show their opposition to the hereditary form of rule.
To be sure, the anti-monarchists numbers are small. The workshop in Amsterdam was attended by nine republicans – they were almost outnumbered by journalists.
Yet more and more people are becoming republican, says Anjo Clement, president of the New Republican Society. The organization, unrelated to but supportive of #HetIs2013, was established in 1998. At the beginning of this year it only had 1,200 members, but that number has more than doubled since Queen Beatrix announced her abdication plans. “The society has almost three thousand members now,” says Mr. Clement.
The goal of the society is to establish a Dutch republic. “We prefer an elected head of state,” says Clement. “Every government official should be subject to scrutinizing by voters. Our democracy is not finished yet.”
An unusual monarchy
The Dutch monarchy, established exactly two centuries ago this year, is something of an oddity in Europe. While many European nations had a monarchy first and then a republic, the Netherlands took a different, anachronistic route.
At the end of the 16th century, during a decades-long struggle against the Spanish king, seven northern provinces decided that they needed no ruler above them. They, in rather de facto fashion, formed a decentralized federation: the Republic of the Seven United Provinces.
In the following centuries, the Republic was alternately ruled by oligarchies and the descendants of nobleman Willem van Oranje (1533-84), who had led the revolt against Spain. Towards the end of the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the region and set up a satellite state, to be governed by his brother. Louis Bonaparte became king of Holland in 1806 and actually became rather popular with the Dutch. But after a series of military defeats elsewhere in Europe, Napoleon decided to pull out his troops from Holland in 1813.
Dazed and disillusioned, the Dutch once again looked to a descendant of Willem van Oranje as their savior. Three self-proclaimed Dutch rulers sent out messengers to find the Prince of Orange, another Willem (1772-1843), and offer him the sovereignty of the Netherlands, on behalf of the Dutch people.
On December 2, 1813, he was inaugurated as King Willem I in Amsterdam, which became the new capital. Willem I was given substantial powers, and the monarchy received international legitimacy when the great powers of that day decide the Kingdom of the Netherlands should be expanded with Belgium, as a buffer state against France.
But just 30 years later, his son Willem II saw revolutions everywhere in Europe, and preemptively decided to give up many of his powers. Under the new constitution that Willem II ordered, the government would be led by a cabinet of ministers answerable to an elected parliament.
However, the monarch remains a part of the government up to present day. Queen Beatrix held weekly meetings with the prime minister, and Willem-Alexander has said he will continue that tradition, to the disapproval of the republicans.
“Those meetings are secret. Why? Do they have something to hide?” Clement asks. “We want to know what influence the king exercises and we call for an end to this sneakiness.”
Recently though, the most important remaining political power was removed. Until 2012, the monarch had the authority to appoint a person to lead coalition talks after an election. Last year, parliament decided that they no longer needed that help.
A cultural monarchy
Willem-Alexander “would obviously accept it,” if the Dutch parliament decides to take away all political powers, the upcoming king said in the recent interview.
However, there is no parliamentary momentum for a so-called “ceremonial monarchy.”
Left-wing parties, which were much more vocal in their republicanism some decades ago, now acknowledge the affinity the Dutch people have with the royal family. If Willem-Alexander proves as popular as his mother, politicians will likely not see the need for change: an attitude towards the monarchy that Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad described as “rationally against, emotionally in favor.”
The public seems similarly unmotivated. In a poll that was released in mid-April, three out of four respondents said they would choose to maintain the monarchy if they had to make a yes-or-no decision. The same amount thinks monarchy is “part of Dutch culture.”
What doesn’t help the republican cause is that the elected official who would replace the monarch as head of state would most probably come from a political party. While 67 percent of those recently polled have confidence in Willem-Alexander, only 12 percent have confidence in “politics.”
The monarchy also has the added appeal of all the traditions that come with it – many of which are highly popular with the public, and even with the activists present at the workshop in Amsterdam. One young woman who plans to protest says she hopes not to be arrested on the day of the abdication, which is also Queen’s Day, a popular national holiday.
“I don’t want to miss the party and the [Queen’s Day] flea market,” she says.
Gepubliceerd op de Christian Science Monitor op 29 april 2013.