The vulnerable sides of our democracy

NWO research programme Contested Democracy presents final results

13 June 2013

How stable is our democracy? What are its vulnerable sides and where are the seeds for renewal? For the first time we now have a coherent and scientific analysis of fundamental issues that affect the core of our constitutional state. That is the result of the NWO research programme Contested Democracy that will be concluded on 20 June 2013 with a congress and the presentation of an overview volume.

Although many people think otherwise, the attention paid by the media to politics has actually become more focused on the content and less on politicians as people. The tone of the news is also less aggressive than 15 years ago.

Western democracies are threatened from within due to ‘interactive metal fatigue’: citizens feel that too many demands are being made on them because they are co-responsible for a growing number of decisions.

European agencies are mushrooming and have far reaching competencies even though they have not been elected. Their directors have gained a considerable degree of autonomy.

Outside the parliament a sort of representative insatiability is occurring: a feeling that interests in the Dutch House of Representatives are insufficiently supported is leading to the call for intervention from ‘independent’ experts. Where these experts fail, the demand arises for new forms of representing interests.

These are a few findings from the NWO research programme Contested Democracy, which dozens of political scientists, sociologists, public administration researchers, lawyers, historians, philosophers and communication scientists have contributed to over the past seven years. In this programme, democracy was broadly defined as a system of relations in which legal certainty, equality and controllability have a place and in which power conflicts are resolved in a peaceful manner. The research programme was established because Western democracies were entering stormy waters and elsewhere in the world new states did not automatically embrace liberal democracy as had been expected. 'Compared to five years ago we have a far sharper view of what is happening in society,’ says initiator professor Remieg Aerts.

Practical solutions

The Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, the Scientific Council for Government Policy, the Council for Public Administration and the Dutch Council for Social Development participated in the Contested Democracy research programme. One of the objectives was to use the research results to contribute to the solution of political and public administration issues.

Democracy in a period of crisis

European countries are currently confronted by an economic crisis. History teaches that democratic systems are particular vulnerable during recessions. Uncertainty and dissatisfaction put the constitutional state under pressure, and cynicism and radicalisation threaten to undermine it. Democracy cannot be taken for granted, also not in the Netherlands. To mark the completion of the Contested Democracy research programme NWO is organising a congress around the theme Democracy in times of crisis, renewal or decay? On 20 June, scientists, administrators and active citizens will enter into a dialogue with each other. The speakers include Alexander Rinnooy Kan, Frank Hendriks, Karin Spaink, Saskia Dekkers and Marco Pastors.

During the congress Kars Veling, former member of the House of Representatives and Director of ProDemos, will receive a copy of the volume Omstreden Democratie, over de problemen van een succesverhaal [Contested Democracy, about the problems of a success story]. This volume, which is also interesting for non-scientists, describes the most in-depth research projects from the Contested Democracy programme. The volume was edited by Remieg Aerts, professor of political history, and Peter de Goede, senior researcher at the Scientific Council for Government Policy.

About NWO

The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) is the national research council in the Netherlands and has a budget of more than 500 million euros per year. NWO promotes quality and innovation in science by selecting and funding the best research. It manages research institutes of national and international importance, contributes to strategic programming of scientific research and brings science and society closer together. Research proposals are reviewed and selected by researchers of international repute. More than 5000 scientists can carry out research thanks to funding from NWO.

Source: NWO

Further information

NWO, Information and Communication Department, tel.: +31 70 344 07 41