Political institutions, trust, and security

Political institutions, trust, and security

How does trust in political institutions influence citizens' feelings of security?

Political trust matters for security. Citizens who trust politics tend to feel less at risk and are less likely to commit illegal acts. This makes political trust an important factor to consider from a security perspective. The question then is: what determines political trust? I will focus here on the role of political institutions: can we design political institutions in such a way that they promote political trust among citizens and, consequently, feelings of safety and law compliance?

In the Netherlands, the question of political trust recently has been connected to the process of coalition formation. According to a report issued by the State Commission on the Parliamentary System (SCPS), coalition formation in the Netherlands is still a “black box” – citizens are only informed about the outcomes of lengthy and largely secretive negotiations. When citizens are then presented with agreements that do not reflect the standpoints of the parties before the negotiations, “people don’t get it” as the SCPS points out. A recent point in case is the decision in the coalition agreement of last November to scrap the dividend withholding tax, costing the state approximately €1.4 billion, while none of the party manifestos contained a pledge on the respective measure. This shows a clear strain on the voter-policy linkage and likely feeds citizen distrust in politics. So could we open this up? Could we have a more transparent formation process? And what would that mean for people’s trust in politics?

In his letter to Parliament last week, Prime Minister (PM) Rutte defended the secrecy of the coalition formation by arguing that confidentiality is required to generate trust among the negotiating parties. Only because of consistent pressure to disclose information, the PM was willing to make an exception and release some of the memos used during the negotiations on the dividend withholding tax. But what would truly happen if the rules of the game would be reshuffled and the coalition formation would become an open board game? In any case, the PM is probably right that the formation process would become more complicated and even lengthier as negotiating parties would need to disclose more and justify (some of) their decisions. The record-holding formation period in Belgium, which started in 2010 and lasted for 541 days, illustrates how such a lengthier process could spell disaster for citizens’ trust in politics. As King Albert of Belgium lamented at the time, “this crisis creates among a sizable part of the population miscomprehension regarding politics which fails to find a solution to the problems.”

At the same time, the PM and other government representatives now often seem to suggest that everything would need to become public – memos, internal party documents, etc. As coalition party leader Gert-Jan Segers (CU) commented, “When everything becomes public, free thinking is impossible and the country cannot be governed” (Volkskrant, April 28 [print only]). But even in regular Dutch parliamentary affairs which are by and large open to the public not all documents and considerations are (or can be) reported. The point is that the process could benefit from more openness because it would force the negotiating parties to explain their decisions to the public. To come back to the example, the PM stated that he knew “with every fiber in his body” that this was the right course of action and Gert-Jan Segers (CU) said that they had thought of this proposal by “looking outside and reading the newspapers” (Volkskrant, April 26 [print only]). Coupled with shaky evidence that the measure would lead to increased employment, this made the justification dubious to say the least. We know from research on parliamentary deliberations that higher levels of justification are required in public compared to non-public settings. In public settings, people have something to lose and want to appear consistent. Making the negotiations more transparent could therefore add to the extent to which politicians are required to explain and justify their decisions to the public and establish a closer link with the electorate.

While the choices involved in redesigning the formation process are not easy, its potential to (partly) restore trust in politics should encourage us to explore its possibilities. Given the relation between political trust and security, this question should interest a wide range of academics and policy makers.