Dutch Elections: Wilders & Beyond

An in-depth analysis of the Dutch general elections of 2017, by Ignyaz Degtyarov.

Elections for the Dutch House of Representatives will be held on Wednesday, March 15. The Netherlands is a significantly smaller player on the European political field than France or Germany. Still, should the so-called ‘populist wave’ (the rise of political parties sceptical of the EU, immigration and the political establishment) also sweep the Netherlands, this sweep would spell trouble for the administrative elite of the European Union, and for the globalist, neoliberal worldview the EU preaches from its bulwarks in Brussels and Strasbourg.

geert_wilders_op_prinsjesdag_2014

Geert Wilders with his wife on Prinsjesdag, 2014.

Riding the top of this populist wave is Geert Wilders, who at the head of the PVV (Freedom Party) has fully embraced his role of anti-establishment candidate. Since Wilders is an anti-Islamic eurosceptic who is shunned by the political establishment, it is tempting to view him as a Dutch Trump. By cancelling television debates and using Twitter to bypass the mainstream media, the PVV leader is consciously trying to live up to that comparison. And not without success: his soundbites, tweets and videos circulate in conservative and alt-right circles on Twitter and Facebook, where he is now heralded as one of the saviours of Western civilisation alongside Trump.

Should Wilders emerge from the elections as the Netherlands’ new prime minister, his victory would indeed be another blow to the pro-EU, pro-immigration establishment of European politics.

A win for the Eurosceptical parties would not be the first time the Dutch electorate had put the EU into hot water. In 2005, in a consultative referendum, a resounding 61.5% of Dutch voters rejected the proposition for a European Constitution. Last year, 61.1% of those who came out to vote in a new EU-themed referendum said ‘no’ to an association agreement with Ukraine. In both cases, the Dutch government and the EU were able to circumvent or even outright ignore the results. Now, however, with the ever-growing voice of Euroscepticism in Dutch politics, as well as the fresh experience with Brexit, the pro-EU camp cannot afford to wait until the problem solves itself.

Still, what many foreign media outlets (such as Express and Sky News) fail to realise is that, even if the PVV wins the elections, a PVV victory is far from a guarantee that Wilders will become Holland’s next prime minister. The Low Countries’ scattered political landscape has created a culture of co-operation and compromise, an obligation that could be the perpetual outsider’s undoing.

Let us therefore take a more careful look at Dutch politics, the role and nature of Wilders’s party, and the European and geopolitical implications of his ideology.

Dutch politics: what you need to know

In order to understand what is at stake next month, there are a couple of things you should know about the Dutch political system.

First of all, there are so many political parties in the Netherlands that a ‘winner takes all’ scenario – wherein one party can execute its plans without hindrance – is impossible at this point. The 150 seats of the House of Representatives are currently divided among eleven parties and another six groups or individuals who after the last elections have split off from their respective parties.[1] For the March elections, a whopping 28 parties will compete for a share of the parliamentary seats.

At least 76 seats (the majority) are needed to pass laws through the House of Representatives and thus to govern effectively. Seeing as it is rare for a single party to even get close to 50 seats, different parties are forced to co-operate and form a coalition: the so-called cabinet. The current cabinet is Rutte II, an alliance of VVD (Popular Party for Freedom & Democracy; centre-right liberal) and PvdA (Labour Party; centre-left) that is named after incumbent prime minister Mark Rutte, who led his VVD party to its second consecutive victory during the previous elections in 2012. It is customary (though not obligatory) for the leader of the biggest party to become the prime minister.[2]

Mark Rutte with Barack Obama

Mark Rutte with Barack Obama.

Forming a cabinet between two or even three parties naturally requires each party to make concessions on its political plans. The negotiators will need to reach a compromise on each issue where the different parties differ in opinion. This need makes it difficult for parties on the more extreme ends of the political spectrum to take part in government, since it would be considerably more difficult to find common ground between them and moderate negotiation partners.

Indeed, virtually all of the cabinets that we have seen since the late ’70s have consisted of political parties close to the centre. Geert Wilders’s PVV could be considered a notable exception to this rule, as they politically supported cabinet Rutte I (2010–2012), though not formally a part of it.

Geert Wilders and the PVV: what are their chances?

If recent opinion polls are to be believed, the PVV is set to become the largest party come March. With its platform of anti-Islam, anti-immigration and Euroscepticism, as well as its centre-left plans for the economy, the PVV’s support base is surprisingly diverse.

A recent study by sociologist Koen Damhuis divides the PVV voters into three main groups:

  1. The poor underclass, which feels it has to compete with low-skilled immigrants;
  2. The lower middle class of workers and small business owners, who have to work hard to make ends meet but feel that the Dutch political establishment is more concerned with bailing out poor EU countries;
  3. Higher-educated conservatives, who agree with Wilders on a more abstract, ideological level.

Damhuis goes on to conclude that the broad appeal of Wilders is comparable to that of France’s National Front and its respective leader, Marine Le Pen.

In accordance to that similarity, the significant international coverage that Geert Wilders has gotten over the past year in European and American media often mentions him in the same breath as Le Pen, as well as Alternative for Germany leader Frauke Petry. These comparisons are not far-fetched, seeing as the three met at a conference in Koblenz just last month, but the nature of the Dutch political system already makes the situation of Wilders comparatively complex.

Wilders with the leaders of VVD and CDA after the 2010 election

Wilders (right) with the leaders of VVD and CDA after the 2010 election.

With the reality of cabinet formations, it would be wrong to assume that an electoral victory for Geert Wilders would rock the boat as much as a Le Pen presidency. All of the other major parties have stated their unwillingness to co-operate with Wilders in a cabinet formation, with Rutte even going as far as saying there is ‘zero’ chance that his VVD will form a governmental alliance with Wilders after the upcoming elections. Even though Rutte has by now accrued a penchant for breaking promises, it is likely that a third (and maybe even a fourth) party would be required to carry a potential PVV-VVD alliance past the post of 76 seats, which further diminishes the odds that we will see the rise of a Prime Minister Wilders after the upcoming elections.

PVV: a far-right party?

Now that we have learned what is at stake for Wilders in the upcoming elections, it is time to look at what he and his party actually represent. Is it a far-right party, as is often suggested by English and American media? Or is reality more nuanced?

An in-depth analysis of the PVV’s ideology is difficult, because the party offers little documentation to elaborate on the foundation of their political stances. Whereas other parties lay out their plans across dozens of pages before each election, the conceptual party programme of the PVV is – at press time – a single sheet with the party’s ten most important stances.

What we do know is that the PVV started out as an offshoot of the VVD in 2004, when then-VVD MP Wilders refused to commit to the party’s positive stance toward an eventual EU membership for Turkey. Wilders kept his seat in parliament (see note 1) and continued his political activities there as a one-man party, which would later evolve into the PVV.

In PVV’s liberal origins also lies the problem of classifying the PVV as a far-right party. Whereas Le Pen’s National Front started out as a socially conservative far-right party that softened over the years to attract more voters, Wilders instead shifted from mainstream, centre-right liberalism to a stance that was farther right, but not quite comparable to the hardline nationalism that is traditionally associated with the term ‘far right’.

Wilders’s liberal origins become more obvious when we take a look at the essence of his most controversial stances. Wilders wants to ‘de-Islamise’ the Netherlands; Wilders wants to close Islamic schools and mosques; Wilders wants to ban the Quran. Undoubtedly, these sound like harsh stances to a centrist, and they sound like proper nationalist policies to those on the far right.

But why does Wilders want all these things?

At the core of Wilders’s rejection of Islam lies his conviction that, rather than a religion, Islam is an ideology that is incompatible with what he refers to as ‘Western ideals’. When Wilders discusses the core values of the Dutch – and by extension European – society that he wishes to protect from Islamic influence, there is little to indicate that his movement is socially conservative: his exemplary traits of Western culture are ideals commonly associated with progressivism and the Enlightenment.

In a speech in Koblenz, Wilders said, ‘Day in, day out, we witness the decline of our dearly held values. The equality of man and woman, freedom of thought and speech, tolerance of homosexuality, it is all on the way back.’[3]

The PVV leader frequently puts his money where his mouth is in this regard: Wilders declined an invitation to the premiere of an American movie that is critical of homosexuals, and his party supported a motion that made it impossible for civil servants to refuse to co-operate with gay marriages out of conscientious objection. (Compare the Kim Davis case in the USA.)

While Geert Wilders’s virulence against Islam has earned him such ever-popular labels as ‘racist’, ‘fascist’ and ‘xenophobe’, his ideal vision of society hardly sounds like that of an adherent of the far right.

Geert Wilders is more accurately understood as the same centre-right liberal he was during his spell at the VVD, but with a few twists. His opposition to migration is not rooted in a nationalistic fear that his country’s ethnic or morphological composition will be changed beyond repair. Rather, Wilders sees open borders as a catalyst for growing Islamic influence, which would in turn threaten those liberal values that – to this day – stand at the centre of his political ideology.

In addition to the PVV’s inherent liberalism, its zealous, proactive dedication to Israel also prevents it from being classified as a proper far-right or nationalist party. The reason is not that the far right is anti-Zionist by definition (there is a far right in Israel itself, after all), but that Israeli interests are closely tied to a foreign policy whose orientation is globalist rather than nationalist.

With Wilders denouncing boycotts on Israeli products as ‘anti-Semitism’, and persistent rumours of the PVV itself being partially funded by American Zionist lobbyists, the party’s dedication to the Israeli cause is not to be taken lightly. As a consequence, it is anyone’s guess whether the PVV would break with the establishment’s tradition of military adventures in the Middle East – adventures that usually benefit Israel in one way or another.

In any case, the alt right, nationalists and other associated groups should think twice before throwing their weight behind Wilders: he ultimately represents a brand of conservatism from which, in any other situation, they would not hesitate to distance themselves.

Alternatives for Wilders?

Even if the field of 28 parties seems to indicate otherwise, the Dutch political spectrum is not terribly diverse. Many parties are eyeing the same voter demographics, and their decision not to co-operate with one another is not rooted in fundamental disagreements over policy, but rather is the result of personal differences.

To illustrate: the new parties Nieuwe Wegen (New Roads) and DENK (THINK) are both offshoots of PvdA (Labour), and Artikel 1 in its turn is an off-shoot of DENK. These are four parties going for exactly the same demographic. In addition to these four, SP (Socialist Party) and GroenLinks (Greens) are trying to gobble up the leftmost flank of the PvdA.

Even so, there are some viable alternatives for Wilders and his PVV to form a cabinet:

VNL (For the Netherlands) is a new party that thinks the VVD has scooted too far to the left on economic issues. Party leader Jan Roos has set his sights on the classical liberal, who prioritises low taxes and minimal government interference. The question is whether many such people exist in the Netherlands.

GeenPeil is a party that favours direct democracy. While this party also emerged from a milieu of Euroscepticism (it was among the initiators of the Ukraine referendum, along with VNL’s Jan Roos and the soon-to-be-mentioned FVD), its idea is to consult its members on each parliamentary vote. Simply put, the party’s members can vote yes or no on a given proposition, and the MPs will honour the opinion of the party’s majority. In its essence, GeenPeil represents Utilitarianism put to practice in everyday politics.

FVD (Forum for Democracy), with its harsh stances against the EU, migration and Islamisation, may seem like a PVV offshoot at first. The surface, however, hides a much more ideologically mature party than the populist PVV. Led by the erudite 34-year-old Thierry Baudet, the FVD sports a list of accomplished candidate MPs, ranging from famous lawyer Theo Hiddema to Dutch Army captain Susan Teunissen and various professors, entrepreneurs and journalists. Where PVV is (unjustly) plagued by its anti-intellectual tokkie (‘chav’; underclass) image, FVD instead has the problem of perhaps being too intellectual for its own good, something which Baudet has publicly acknowledged might be a ‘handicap’.

20120910thierrybaudet

Thierry Baudet, Dutch journalist, broadcaster and author.

Unlike the PVV, the FVD has elaborated on most of its stances, giving the voter a much better idea of what he can expect, should the party obtain any seats in the House of Representatives. For instance, the FVD has said that it is opposed to regime change in the Middle East, and in favour of ‘normalising’ relations with Russia. In expressing this stance, party leader Baudet has even used the term multipolarity, which may indicate that he is familiar with the geopolitical framework of Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin. In addition, the FVD intends to support Christians in the Middle East, and wants to offer Afrikaners the possibility of returning to their European homelands – at least as far as Holland is concerned.

Conclusion: beyond Wilders

While Wilders is undoubtedly the most flamboyant figurehead of the Dutch anti-establishment movement in the upcoming Dutch elections, he is frustratingly one-dimensional when it comes to distinguishing himself from said establishment. His aversions toward both Islam and the EU are rooted in Dutch chauvinism rather than in a genuine, consequential desire to restructure the Netherlands, Europe and the world according to nationalist (or anti-globalist) principles.

While the envisioned success of the PVV would be a definite blow to the EU establishment, Wilders enthusiasts should realise that – like Trump – he is at best a stepping stone toward a new, more sovereign mentality in politics. For both ideological and practical reasons, comparisons to Austria’s Norbert Hofer or France’s Marine Le Pen – while understandable – are ill-advised, and Geert Wilders should in fact not be considered a far-right politician at all.

In contrast, Thierry Baudet and his FVD offer a platform that would genuinely contribute toward a change in vision in global politics, a substitution of sovereignty for today’s American hegemony: a veritable Weltenwende of which Trump was but the first indicator. This is an anti-establishment party not only in appearance, but in its root ideology. Contrary to the PVV, FVD’s desire to curb migration does not descend from a naive attempt to defend a banal interpretation of so-called Western values, but instead incorporates a coherent set of policies that demonstrates Baudet’s understanding of geopolitics. To be sure, the FVD is not a traditional nationalist party either, as it is unlikely[4] that its views on gay rights, feminism and other social questions differ that much from those of Wilders. Even so, the practical implications of the FVD’s comparatively fleshed-out worldview would contribute toward a world order in which nations could determine their own fates once more. Wilders’s geopolitical stances, meanwhile, are mostly determined by what will sound tough on Muslims. Hence, Baudet’s FVD is the most interesting party to watch from an anti-globalist point of view, even if it is thus far marginal in size.

Which party the alt-right, nationalists and associated groups should back on election day is open to debate. The answer depends on whether voters and sympathisers favour the short-term shock of a Wilders win or the long-term vision of Baudet’s sovereign politics – if they even believe either has any chance of ever getting into a position of power. One thing is certain: the Battle for Holland does not end on March 15, 2017.

Notes

[1] In the Dutch electoral system, a seat belongs to the individual rather than the party he belongs to. Should an individual member of the House of Representatives choose to distance himself from his party, he is allowed to keep his seat, should he desire to do so.

[2] In the Netherlands, a prime minister is not directly elected by the people.

[3] From the speech transcript on the PVV website: ‘Tag für Tag erleben wir den Verfall unserer liebgewordenen Werte. Die Gleichberechtigung von Mann und Frau, Meinungs- und Redefreiheit, Toleranz von Homosexualität, all das ist im Rückzug.’ Translation my own.

[4] So far, the FVD party programme has not elaborated on these topics, but the reader must understand that the Overton window differs per country, and in the Netherlands it would be political suicide to question gay rights.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s