2 April 2013 in Statement and topic of the month
In the Netherlands mayors are not directly elected by the people. Participants of courses at The Hague Academy are often surprised by this fact, especially because they view the Dutch example of strong local governance as a best practice.
The first reaction “well that’s not really democratic, is it?” is understandable.
And of course in a sense this is true, the most democratic way to elect a mayor is to hold direct elections and let citizens decide which person in their view is most suitable for the job. The advantages of a directly elected mayor are quite clear; the mayor has a strong democratic legitimacy and can be held directly accountable if promises made during his election campaign are not being realised.
This is how ever not the way Dutch mayors get their job. Dutch mayors are indirectly elected by the municipal council and appointed by the Crown. This has everything to do with the historical background of Dutch local governance but if it is not democratic then why has it not changed untill now? Because there are also some rational reasons to indirectly appointed Dutch mayors. It could for example be the case that a directly chosen mayor is elected because he or she is quite popular for different reasons like for being an artist or actor. Popularity does not mean this person is qualified for the job. Another reason to keep the status quo is that mayors in the Netherlands will actually not be powerful enough to realise promises made during direct elections, because most power on the local level resides by the municipal council. Furthermore by involving the city council in electing the mayor a good cooperation between the mayor and the council can be assured, which cannot be guaranteed if a mayor is directly chosen by the citizens.
The issue remains a subject for debate in the Netherlands but until now the procedure has not been changed. At the moment efficiency is clearly favoured over democracy but this might change in time.
Question of the Month: Are there cases in your country on the local level where it is hard to find a good balance between efficiency and democracy?