Rumours of a royal abdication grip the Netherlands

Princess Máxima, crown prince Willem-Alexander and their three daughters Ariane, Amalia and Alexia (left to right) in July 2008.
By Emilie van Outeren

Dutch crown prince Willem-Alexander turns 42 this Monday; the same age his mother Beatrix had when she ascended the throne in 1980. The queen is now 71 and many are asking when she will retire and let her son, his Argentinian wife Máxima and their three daughters move into the Huis ten Bosch palace in The Hague.

Rumours about queen Beatrix' abdication typically surface in the month of April, when crown prince Willem-Alexander has his birthday on the 27th and the Dutch celebrate Queen's Day on the 30th. But they have been particularly persistent this year, with many media speculating that a succession is imminent. Unlike some European monarchs, the Dutch royals tend to make room for their successors well ahead of their own death. Now that queen Beatrix is 71 and the crown prince 42, the time seems ripe for a succession.

"It is the third time in the past four months that there’s been such a hype," a spokesperson for the government information service RVD told reporters. "But there is nothing to announce."

The rumours have also fueled the debate about what kind of king Willem-Alexander will be. The Netherlands has been a monarchy under the house of Orange-Nassau since the French were driven out of the United Netherlands in 1815, but royal powers were limited to a parliamentary constitutional monarchy in the 1848 constitution.

Groomed for the job

Still, queen Beatrix has been deeply involved with the running of government. Constitutionally, she chairs the council of state, the government's most important advisory body that scrutinises legislation before it is proposed to parliament. She also appoints the formateur, the politician whose job it is to form a coalition government after general elections. And she holds weekly meetings with the prime minister - currently Jan Peter Balkenende, the fourth in Beatrix' 29-year reign. When Willem-Alexander ascends the throne, he will inherit all these responsibilities.

One reason to postpone the succession could be that Willem-Alexander has three very young daughters, Amalia (5), Alexia (3) and Ariane (2). Beatrix has indicated that she wants to give her son time to enjoy his young family before he starts his demanding job as king. But no one doubts that Willem-Alexander is ready to take over. He has been steadily groomed for his position as monarch.

When he was in his twenties there were doubts about his capacities as king. He was known then as "Prins Pils" (the beer prince) because of his reputation as a party animal during his student years. His long-time bachelor status did not make him appear very king-like either. But in the past decade, Willem-Alexander has succeeded in completely turning around his image. He has made an international name for himself as an expert on water management, and his marriage to the glamorous Máxima Zorreguieta did wonders for the popularity of the Dutch royal family in the eye of the public.

After initial controversy about Máxima's father's role in the Jorge Videla junta, where he served as deputy minister of agriculture, the charismatic princess has stolen the hearts of many Dutch people. She is part of the reason why the monarchy can boast a 85 percent approval rating today.

No active debate

Constitutional monarchy

On paper, a majority of parliament (at least 77 of 150 lawmakers) wants to limit the power of the royal family.

In the written principles of the Labour party (currently 33 seats) it says the head of state should be an elected official.

Left-wing liberals D66 (3 seats) is against "power obtained through birth."

The Party for Freedom PVV (9) wants to abolish the queen from the government.

The Socialist Party (25) says there is "friction" when Willem-Alexanders speaks about political issues.

The Green party GroenLinks (7) wants to be rid of the monarchy altogether, until that time, its role should be "purely ceremonial".

It is unclear what the Party for Animals (2 seats) thinks, but the royal's love for hunting doesn't make the royal family very popular in those circles.

On the other side of the spectrum Christian Democrats CDA (41 seats) are not in favor of a purely ceremonial kingship, according to member of parliament Liesbeth Spies.

Right-wing liberal VVD is "not interested in big discussions about constitutional issues", says parliamentarian Willibrord van der Beek.

This wide-spread popularity makes it hard for politicians who want to put the role of the monarchy up for discussion. Peter Rehwinkel, a senator for the Labour party and a constitutional law expert, says politicians are "afraid to burn their fingers" if they raise the issue of limiting the power of the head of state. Despite the fact that - on paper - a majority of parliament wants power taken away from the Orange-Nassaus, there is no active debate about this issue in parliament.

Rehwinkel thinks it is now too late for a substantial discussion. A debate now would leave the impression that it is the person of Willem-Alexander who is the source of controversy rather than the institution of the monarchy. "I have a feeling the abdication will be announced sooner rather than later," says Rehwinkel.

Willem-Alexander has made it perfectly clear that he is not interested in holding a purely symbolic office, like the king of Sweden. He sees his responsibilities go beyond cutting ribbons and waiving at the crowds during Queen's Day festivities.

The symbolic importance of the royal family is acknowledged by most lawmakers. Particularly their presence as a source of identification with Dutchness is a strong argument these days, at a time when the Netherlands is struggling with its national identity. Nationalist politicians such as the late Pim Fortuyn, and more recently the anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders, seem to have raised the importance of symbols of Dutchness. At the same time, the royal family is popular with ethnic minorities, who especially like Máxima, herself a recent immigrant. She has focused on the issues of integration and language skills, in particular when it comes to the inclusion of women from ethnic minorities.

Vulnerable king

But while members of parliament seem to have reconciled with the status quo of the constitutional monarchy, they do not necessarily stand up for its members. The government has been pressured to be more open about the cost of the royal family to the Dutch treasury. And ministers have also been reluctant to defend members of the royal family in the face of controversy.

When Máxima, in a speech about identification with the Netherlands held in 2007, said there was no such thing as the Dutch identity, because it was too diverse to capture in one cliche, she was attacked for it left and right. Under Dutch ministerial responsibility, the prime minister is solely responsible for public remarks by members of the (nuclear) royal family. Yet, it took two weeks for Balkenende, a Christian Democrat, to defend the princess.

Rehwinkel thinks the lack of official support for the monarchy and politicians' unwillingness to stand up for it could make the new king "vulnerable". "Politicians refuse to take responsibility for the monarchy, but as soon as Willem-Alexander makes a mistake, they will be ready to criticise him because the media will demand it."

Rehwinkel thinks the future king is aware of that. "A few major mistakes could put the monarchy on the line."

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