Dutch parliament wallows in royal scandals

A unique relationship between the monarchy and parliament makes fitness to rule a source of public debate.

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One wonders what Dutch Queen Beatrix might have been thinking over the past years, as she watched her British royal cousins involved in endless humiliating scandals.

Her crown must have nearly slipped off her head as she shook it in disbelief. But these days, as controversy follows her every move, one can hardly be blamed for thinking that Beatrix's crown might slip off her head entirely if she fails to put her own house in order.

After a series of controversial events, the Dutch are searching their souls over the future of the monarchy. Unlike other European monarchs, Queen Beatrix is an actual member of government as well as head of state. Not only that, but there's a twist: the prime minister and his cabinet must answer for anything the Queen does or says which is in the public interest.

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The most recent royal drama, which peaked this month, involves the Queen's middle son, Prince Johan Friso, and his fiancée, human rights activist Mabel Wisse Smit. After weeks of media speculation, Ms. Wisse Smit admitted that she had once been friendly with one of the Netherlands' most violent gangsters, who was executed gangland style in 1991.

Although the exact nature of their relationship still remains unclear, Wisse Smit said that she had not been entirely truthful about the past after one of the mobster's bodyguards told Dutch TV that the two had been lovers.

Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, visibly perturbed, immediately went on national television and announced that his cabinet would not submit the couple's marriage to parliament for its approval, a prerequisite for succession to the throne.

He explained that his government, including the queen, had not been given "complete and accurate information" and that "there had been a breach of trust." Since Friso still plans to wed next April, he has lost his right to become king. The prince was second in line to the throne behind his brother Crown Prince Willem Alexander, but he would have moved one position further from the succession in January, when Willem Alexander and his wife, Maxima, are due to have a baby.

For decades, the House of Orange was one of the most Teflon-coated royal families in Europe. But things got sticky two years ago, when Willem Alexander announced his engagement to the Argentine Maxima Zorreguieta, whose father had served in a military dictatorship. The subject stirred so much passion that the Dutch parliament even conducted an open debate on whether the couple could marry. They did - but without Maxima's parents present at the nuptials.

A year later, there was a bitter public argument between the queen and her niece, Princess Margarita. The latter accused her aunt of ordering the country's secret service to tap her private conversations with her husband.

She alleged that the queen disapproved of her choice of husband and hoped to use the information to ruin his name. Again there was much heated debate as parliament demanded to know whether the queen uses the secret services and, if so, for what purpose.

The Netherlands' lawmakers are not the only ones focused on the royal scandals. On Amsterdam's streets there has been little talk of anything else. At a cafe across from the Royal Palace, Neeltje Dirksen, a teacher, says, "I like our system. The Windsors [the British royals] don't do anything useful. Let Beatrix have power and let us have the right to ask if she isn't abusing it. At least here we can all have our say."

Her husband Jan, a sociologist, disagrees. His suggestion: "The aueen abdicates in favor of the crown prince, who immediately announces that he will be only head of state. The prime minister is no longer responsible for him and parliament will stop debating. Everybody wins: We'll have a royal family and they can lead more dignified lives."

After "Mabelgate" as the latest affair has been dubbed, several opposition lawmakers have been asking similar questions, namely whether the queen should play just a ceremonial role. But although almost all the leftist parties support the idea of an elected head of state, few dare to raise the subject because of the queen's popularity.

So the status quo is unlikely to change. Even this time, the queen's teflon coating is only slightly scratched. The country's largest independent pollsters, TNS NIPO, found that in the aftermath of "Mabelgate," 86 percent still support the queen.

It's not hard to see why: who wouldn't sympathize with a woman who was deceived by her own son and future daughter-in-law?

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