The executive branch of government is officially headed by the Monarch, who (in name) appoints the Ministers and State Secretaries of the cabinet. The prime minister of the Netherlands (Dutch Minister-president or premier) is the head of the cabinet, and as such, coordinates the policy of the government. Although formally no special powers are assigned, the prime minister is a primus enter pares and functions as the "face" of the government to the public. Usually, the prime minister is also minister of General Affairs (Minister van Algemene Zaken). Until 1945, the position of head of the council of ministers officially switched between the ministers, although practices differed throughout history. In 1945, the position was formally instituted.
In practice the cabinet requires the support of the lower house (otherwise it would not have any influence over legislation), so the Monarch will ask the representatives to form a coalition which will select a cabinet. The Constitution of the Netherlands does not permit somebody to be a member of both cabinet and the lower house, so any cabinet members appointed from the house are replaced from the party lists.
The present constitution--which dates from 1814 and has been amended several times--protects individual and political freedoms, including freedom of religion. Although church and state are separate, a few historical ties remain; the royal family belongs to the Dutch Reformed Church (Protestant). Freedom of speech also is protected.
The country's government is based on the principles of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary government. The national government comprises three main institutions: the Monarch, the Council of Ministers, and the States General. There also are local governments.
The Monarch. The Monarch is the titular head of state. The monarch's function is largely ceremonial, but he does have some influence deriving from the traditional veneration of the House of Orange--from which Dutch monarchs for more than three centuries have been chosen; the personal qualities of the monarch; and his power to appoint the formateur, who forms the Council of Ministers following elections.
The Council of Ministers (Ministerraad) plans and implements government policy. The Monarch and the Council of Ministers together are called the Crown. Most ministers also head government ministries, although ministers-without-portfolio exist. Dutch ministers cannot simultaneously be members of parliament. Formally the Council is collectively responsible to the States General (parliament), which means parliament cannot dismiss individual ministers. However, it is standing practice for a minister to step down, once he does not enjoy the support of the majority in the Second Chamber anymore.
The Cabinet consists of the ministers and junior ministers, called "state secretaries". The Cabinet has the power to take decisions to a limited extent, as far as specified by parliament.
The Council of State (Raad van State) is a constitutionally established advisory body to the government. The Council must be consulted by the cabinet on proposed legislation before a law is submitted to the parliament. The Council of State also serves as a channel of appeal for citizens against executive branch decisions. It's members are appointed by the Crown and are mostly distinguished judges, politicians, high-ranking civil servants and university professors. The monarch is the official president of the Council; in practice the vice-president acts as the executive head. Apart from the monarch, other members of the royal house may obtain the right to attend meetings without having the power to vote. At present Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and his wife Princess Máxima have that right.
The The Prime Minister (Minister President) is the head of government and active executive authority of the Dutch Government. He or she is usually the leader of the largest party within the government coalition, and is a member of the Council of Ministers.
The States General (Staten Generaal) is the Dutch Parliament and consists of two houses, the First Chamber (Eerste Kamer) and the Second Chamber (Tweede Kamer). Historically, Dutch governments have been based on the support of a majority in both houses of parliament. The Second Chamber is by far the more important of the two houses. It alone has the right to initiate legislation and amend bills submitted by the Council of Ministers. It shares with the First Chamber the right to question ministers and state secretaries.
The Second Chamber consists of 150 members, elected directly for a 4-year term--unless the government falls prematurely--on the basis of a nationwide system of proportional representation. This system means that members represent the whole country--rather than individual districts as in the United States--and are normally elected on a party slate, not on a personal basis, although it is possible for citizens to cast their vote for an individual MP. The only election threshold existing for small-party representation is for parties to obtain at least 1/150th part of the vote, as for parties receiving less votes there is no round-up of votes when votes are transformed into seats. Campaigns usually last 6 weeks, and the election budgets of each party tend to be less than $500,000. The electoral system and the strength of the three major parties makes a coalition government almost inevitable. The last election of the Second Chamber was in January 2003 (early elections).
The First Chamber is composed of 75 members elected for 4-year terms by the 12 provincial legislatures. It cannot initiate or amend legislation, but its approval of bills passed by the Second Chamber is required before bills become law. The First Chamber generally meets only once a week, and its members usually have other full-time jobs. The current First Chamber was elected following provincial elections in March 2003.
Courts. The judiciary comprises 62 cantonal courts (kantongerechten (pl.)), 19 district courts (rechtbanken (pl.)), five courts of appeal (gerechtshoven (pl.)), and a Supreme Court (Hoge Raad) which has 24 justices. All judicial appointments are made by the Crown. Judges nominally are appointed for life but actually are retired at age 70.
Local government. The first-level administrative divisions are the 12 provinces, each governed by a locally elected provincial council and a provincial executive appointed by members of the provincial council. The province is formally headed by a queen's commissioner appointed by the Crown.
The smallest administrative divisions are the gemeenten (municipalities) governed by a town council chosen by all adults for a four years term, and a burgemeester (mayor) appointed by the Crown. The appointment procedure was recently brought for dicussion. The appointment procedure is considered undemocratic and alternatives are:
* Direct election of the mayor by the people: two candidates are nominated by the Crown.
* Appointment by the town council from a nomination made by the Crown.
Given the consensus-based nature of Dutch Government, elections do not result in any drastic change in foreign or domestic policy.
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