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Jakarta Post

The Orange land: A republic with a new king

  • Aboeprijadi Santoso

    The Jakarta Post

Amsterdam   /   Mon, May 6, 2013   /  09:00 am

The Netherlands may have been a kingdom for two centuries, but the way the state and the public behave makes it appear as if it was a republic.

Its constitution reduces the head of state, be it king or queen, to a symbolic figurehead; even so, some political parties still want to make the institution purely ceremonial.

Its rituals and ceremonies, far from being pompous and religious, are definitely modest as members of the Royal House of Orange tend to behave more informally compared to their counterparts in the United Kingdom and Spain. Nowhere other than in Holland would the monarch be happy to be addressed simply by his name rather than by the title, '€œYour Majesty'€.

Indeed, they are even ready to indicate '€” with some subtlety '€” that they may someday be useless if and when a new Zeitgeist arrives and the political parties push toward the abolition of the kingdom.

In other words, royal legitimacy is not static: It rests more on its symbolic significance and, above all, on popular sentiment rather than its ancient history, which in fact shows that the country has actually existed far longer as a republic than a monarchy.

But neither has the Netherlands truly manifested itself as a republic '€” demonstrating its significance as implied in the concept, res publica, as a structure or way of life that is felt as both owned by and serving the public '€” as when the country turned orange, the color (and name) of the Dutch royal house.

And that is precisely what happened when Queen Beatrix after 33 years on the throne abdicated in favor of her eldest son Willem-Alexander who, on April 30, became the country'€™s first king in 123 years.

Millions watched on television throughout the day, while hundreds of thousands celebrated on the streets and another 30,000 or so flocked to the capital, Amsterdam, and into Dam Square to watch the former queen, the new king and his queen and their three daughters appear on the palace balcony after the inauguration. Most revelers wore something orange, and many shed tears of happiness.

Even the next day, thousands of people queued to see for themselves the site of the royal ceremony.  

The House of Orange has become enormously popular during the last two decades, thanks in particular to Queen Beatrix and her late husband, Prince Claus, a somewhat leftist prince with a great interest in development cooperation and Africa.

The royal house'€™s popularity was boosted in 2002 when then Crown Prince Willem-Alexander married Maxima Zorreguieta, an Argentine girl who quickly mastered the Dutch language and way of life.

This is not to say the royal house has been without problems.

Until the early 2000s, a powerful lobby of former soldiers who had fought in Indonesia had resisted attempts by the Dutch state to offer some form of apology for what were termed '€œpolice actions'€ in 1947 and 1949.

Any concept or image of '€œaggression'€ was what they desperately hoped to avoid. With the support of Beatrix'€™s father, Prince Bernhard, and the conservative party, the VVD, the veterans'€™ lobby was generally successful.

One consequence of this was that Queen Beatrix had to stay two days in Singapore rather than arriving in Jakarta in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Indonesian independence on Aug. 17, 1995, as originally planned.

At home, not only was Prince Bernhard involved in Westerling'€™s 1950 attempt to topple Indonesia'€™s first post-independence president Sukarno and vice president Mohammad Hatta, creating a headache for then prime minister Willem Drees, but also his corruption scandal with Lockheed in the 1970s severely damaged the royal house'€™s standing.

Likewise in the case of Maxima, whose father'€™s past as a senior official in Gen. Videla'€™s regime, caused problems for the house'€™s image among the Dutch public, for there is little doubt that Jorge Zorreguieta knew about thousands of disappearances during Argentina'€™s '€œDirty War'€ in the late-1970s. As a consequence, he was persuaded not to attend his daughter'€™s marriage in 2002 or, now, her ascension to the Dutch throne.

Such is the great popularity of the House of Orange today that Dutch media, often critical of the monarchy, are now noticeably uncritical of almost every aspect of what has occurred concerning the royal abdication and crowning.

Little has been reported about the counter festivities organized by a few anti-monarchists at Waterloo Square. The Nieuwe Republikeins Genootschap (New Republican Society), comprising students and anarchic groupings with a few hundred supporters, has pointed out how undemocratic and expensive the monarchy has been and how much the House of Orange allegedly owed to their links to the British-Dutch oil giant, Shell.      

Beatrix is now popularly referred to as the '€œmother of the nation'€. Ironically, it was her crowning as queen in 1980 that turned Amsterdam into a battlefield, as a section of the population protested against a lack of housing in contrast to the wealth of the House of Orange, which is reportedly the second-richest royal house (after the
Windsors) in the world.

Now with the more informal King Willem-Alexander, who aspires to be Royal Business Ambassador, no major change should be expected anytime soon.

Anything a Dutch monarch says or does is the political responsibility of the ruling administration. Given the constitution, all one can expect is a change in style of rule and diplomacy.

As with most European constitutional monarchies, change that occurs will likely come from the royal house itself or from parliament. Kings and queens, commonly linked to some business interests, should be wary of any involvement in potentially sensitive matters.

To survive, modern monarchies need to constantly correct their courses.  

From an Indonesian point of view, William-Alexander is the first Dutch monarch free from any shadow of the Dutch colonial past '€” a tabula rasa.

As he has a great interest in water management sciences and Queen Maxima is an expert on micro-credit, the House of Orange may be about to begin a new chapter in international relationships.

The author is a journalist residing in The Netherlands.