The Netherlands: A Quiet Crisis

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To the rest of the world, Dutch politics seems as sane and stolid as a Rembrandt burgher — and most of the time it is. Every few years, however, The Netherlands is gripped by a Cabinet crisis that leaves the country rudderless for even longer than customary in Italy or pre-Gaullist France. In 1956 the governmental vacuum lasted for 122 days, while the old Cabinet carried on as caretaker. By last week, when Queen Juliana flew back from an Italian vacation to swear in new Prime Minister Victor Marijnen, the government had taken Dutch leave for 70 days.

Government crises in The Netherlands result from a proliferation of parties, reflecting the Dutchman's jealous insistence on separate factions to represent every shade of political opinion and religious dogma. No single party has commanded an outright majority since 1894, and quadrennial elections only upset the delicate balance of power between the leading parties that make up the coalition governments.

Last May 6,000,000 voters went to the polls to choose among 17 political groupings (including one brand-new faction, the Farmers' Party, led by a politician whose name is Koekoek, pronounced cuckoo). In the outcome, the dominant Catholic People's Party gained only one parliamentary seat, while the socialist Labor Party, the nation's second biggest, lost ground. Also involved in the jockeying for position: the right-wing Freedom and Democracy Party, the Calvinist Anti-Revolutionary Party, and another, like-minded Protestant faction, the Christian Historical Union.

In repeated attempts to piece together a new government, outgoing Prime Minister Jan de Quay and other leading politicians were unable to devise acceptable compromises on the major issues that split the parties: bigger old-age pensions, the housing shortage, lower taxes for middle-income groups. After one party leader had suffered a nervous breakdown and the careers of two able ministers had been wrecked because they tried and failed to end the crisis, Queen Juliana called on up-and-coming Agriculture Minister "Vic" Marijnen, 46, who finally succeeded, lined up the youngest Cabinet (average age: 46) in the nation's history. One of the few former ministers who kept his old job was The Netherlands' best-known statesman, hardheaded Foreign Minister Joseph Luns, 51.

By the time the new Cabinet was announced, most of the phlegmatic Dutch voters who precipitated the crisis had lost interest in politics for another four years. In fact, according to a Gallup poll, 23% of all Dutchmen were unaware that there was a crisis at all.