Blog: Missed opportunities: Why Dutch institutions fail in the Caribbean

By Wouter Veenendaal

Upon the attainment of a new status in 2010, the Dutch Caribbean islands kept the political institutions they inherited from their former colonial power. According to Wouter Veenendaal, these institutions are particularly unsuitable to the Caribbean small island context, and produce persistent instability.

After an intricate coalition formation, the new government of Curaçao will be installed on the 15th of December. The elections, held on the 5th of October, resulted in parliamentary representation for eight parties, a record number. As a result of this marked political fragmentation, the new Curaçaoan government will be made up of four parties that, together, have the support of only a bare majority of MPs in Curaçao’s 21-member parliament. It is unlikely that the new coalition will bring the much-needed political stability to the island: since becoming a separate country within the Kingdom in 2010, Curaçao has already had five different governments, a depressing average of one government per year. And Curaçao is not alone: since 2010 St. Maarten and St. Eustatius have had a similarly extreme rate of executive turnovers, and while Bonaire has long been more stable, earlier this month the third coalition since the elections of March 2015 was formed on this island.

The seemingly mindless adoption of the Dutch model
Instability has been the central feature of post-2010 politics in the Dutch Caribbean, and has become the main obstacle to economic and political development. Paradoxically, the root cause of this instability is the islands’ choice to retain Dutch political institutions even after they attained the status of country in 2010. While the birth of the new countries of Curaçao and St. Maarten was widely hoped to mark a new milestone in these islands’ decolonization process, alternatives to the colonially inherited Dutch system of government were never really debated. Instead, despite all the talk about political emancipation and nation-building, Dutch institutions were seemingly mindlessly adopted. On Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba, which in 2010 were constitutionally integrated into the Netherlands, the administrative model of Dutch municipalities was implemented almost without adjustment, as if after centuries of divergent  economic, political, and societal development, these islands could instantly be turned into Caribbean Texels or Terschellings. Both the islands and the Dutch government now reap the consequences of their lack of institutional creativity.

Why Dutch institutions do not work in the Caribbean
The Dutch political system – characterized by extremely proportional elections that produce a multiparty system and coalition governments – is the product of highly specific cultural, demographic, and historical dynamics in the Netherlands. It developed incrementally over the course of centuries, and although it is increasingly under stress, in the European Netherlands it largely succeeded in producing a stable and functioning democracy. But in the small-scale context of the Dutch Caribbean, in which all politics is personal, ideology is virtually absent, and patron-client linkages between citizens and politicians are ubiquitous, the system is exceptionally inappropriate. The lack of ideological coherence within parties and the increased focus on personalities means that party split-offs, coalition break-ups, and the emergence of new parties are the order of the day. Due to the smaller number of parliamentary seats, government majorities often rely on a single MP, who can at any point decide to stop supporting the government and put the opposition in power.

Looking at comparable cases
Small islands around the world are likely to copy the political institutions of their former colonial powers. As a result, the Anglophone Caribbean island nations have retained the British Westminster system that produces two-party systems and single party governments. While this system is certainly not without its flaws, it does provide a level of political stability that is now badly needed on the Dutch islands. As long as institutional reforms that better reflect the small island context continue to be shunned, political instability in the Dutch Caribbean will endure.

(Wouter Veenendaal is a postdoctoral researcher at KITLV working as part of the NWO-funded research project ‘Confronting Caribbean Challenges’. His research project focuses on the impact of the new municipal status of the smallest Dutch Caribbean islands on the opinions and behavior of local citizens, public servants, and politicians.)

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