Thierry Baudet: The Rising Star of Dutch Politics

Why Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy is good news for right-wing Holland – even Geert Wilders. By Ignyaz Degtyarov.

Thierry Baudet, leader of Forum for Democracy.

On the eve of the Dutch general elections, commentators foreign and domestic still focus on whether or not Geert Wilders’s PVV (Freedom Party) will emerge as the ‘winner’.

As we have explained in a previous article, ‘winning’ is a nebulous concept in relation to the Dutch electoral system. To recap: the Dutch political spectrum is so fragmented that it is impossible for a single party to win more than half of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives. Parties therefore have to form coalitions – also called cabinets – to obtain a governmental majority.

What this system of co-operations and compromise means for the situation at hand is that, even if the PVV ‘wins’ the elections by gaining the most seats, it will need to find at least two, but probably three other parties to form a government coalition with. All other major parties – including the right-liberal VVD of incumbent prime minister Mark Rutte – have excluded the possibility of partnering with the PVV after the March 15 elections.

At this point, the most likely scenario is that the VVD will become either the biggest or the second-biggest party, and Mark Rutte will be able to remain prime minister by forging a cabinet with several centrist and centre-left parties: D66 (progressive centrists), CDA (centrist Christian-democrats), and GroenLinks (centre-left greens).

New hope for Holland: Thierry Baudet

With Wilders’s outlook on the prime-ministership being exceptionally bleak, it is easy to lose hope. There is, after all, no realistic scenario that would end Holland’s long-standing hegemony of liberalism and its pro-immigration, pro-EU tendencies.

Enter Thierry Baudet. This 34-year-old publicist and intellectual, in the summer of 2016, reluctantly transformed his Forum For Democracy (FVD) from a think tank into a political party.

Thierry Baudet and Jan Roos (leader of VNL).

An adept speaker, debater, and writer, Baudet has, in a matter of months, relieved hardline stances such as closing the borders, leaving the EU/Eurozone and introducing binding referenda from their image of being extremist pipe dreams, and delivered them with enough eloquence and intellectual prowess to seduce Dutch voters who think Wilders has a point, but see him as too lowbrow or unrealistic.

To understand the added value of Baudet and his differences with Wilders, it is less interesting to compare their stances on each issue than to analyse the way in which their respective parties and campaigns are structured.

Lessons learned from Trump’s campaign

That the campaign of Wilders is inspired by Trump should not raise many eyebrows. Wilders rose to international prominence by identifying himself with Trump (as one of the few major European political figures) and even attending his inauguration in the United States. On the surface, Wilders seems to follow a similar pattern as the current US President. Brusque comments on Twitter, cancelling debates, and accusing the mainstream media of bias: all ingredients are there.

Except, so far, it does not seem to be working. Even though the PVV’s campaign may be cosmetically similar to Trump’s, Wilders fails to capture the essence of what made Trump, for lack of a better phrase, get away with it.

A concrete example is how Trump cancelled one of the Republican primary debates at FOX, but still managed to dominate headlines by organising his own event concurrent with said debate, thus drawing away attention from his competitors and continuing his domination of the news cycles. In contrast, during Wilders’s absence from the big television debate, the only distraction he offered was a tweet in which he happily announced that he was watching a popular Dutch dating show instead. To the average voter, he was invisible that night.

Accordingly, the polls have not been kind to Wilders and his PVV over the last month, and were it not for the diplomatic crisis between Holland and Turkey (Wilders has always been a vocal critic of Turkey, Turkish migration, and Erdoğan), the PVV’s chances of becoming the top dog of Dutch political parties would have been even slimmer than they are now.

PVV leader Geert Wilders debating incumbent prime minister Rutte
while wearing a bulletproof vest.

While Wilders copies the optics of Trump’s campaign, Baudet and his FVD are closer to capturing its very essence by doing a considerable portion of its campaigning online.

Forum for Democracy is currently polling at a seemingly unimpressive two seats, but for a new party to get any seats at all in the Dutch elections is uncommon in itself. Moreover, as Brexit and Trump have taught us, traditional polls are based on dated models that fail to anticipate new trends in politics. While establishment parties rely on newspaper and television ads, FVD’s campaign team does most of the heavy lifting on social media, which is also where Trump thrived.

Seeing as only parties who already hold seats in parliament are regularly invited to the big debates and shows, new parties such as the FVD have to be more creative when it comes to reaching the eyes and ears of potential voters. The FVD does this remarkably well. Thierry Baudet’s Forum is the fastest-growing party on social media in terms of new followers gained, and the reach and interaction of their updates regularly trump those of establishment parties by staggering numbers of about 500%.

In addition to sharing articles, statements, and calls to action, FVD uploads live video content almost daily. The party compensates for its absence from big debates by posting live streams of campaign events, Q&A sessions, and television appearances.

While the bombastic Wilders may remind outside observers of Trump more than the intellectual and endearingly snobbish demeanour of Baudet, the latter’s campaign has a much better grasp of what stood at the basis of Trump’s success. Granted, it is unrealistic to expect Baudet to become as overwhelmingly successful as Trump from the get-go, but the party’s polling at all just a few months after entering the race is an indication of its future potential: over the past decade and a half, countless right-wing initiatives have crashed and burned with no prospect of parliamentary representation. During these upcoming elections, too, Thierry Baudet is set to leave a number of competing political startups – such as the classical-liberal VNL and the pro-direct-democracy party GeenPeil – biting the dust.

Wilders’s weakness: the fear of chaos

Another aspect of Wilders that international commentators gloss over is the peculiar structure of his PVV.

In the Netherlands, your typical political party has a leader, a chairman, an administration, party summits, a scientific bureau, local departments, a youth department: in short, a complete organisation.

However, the PVV only has one member: Geert Wilders himself. There is no scientific bureau, there are no congresses where members of the party can come together to discuss its future course, and the party barely takes part in municipal and provincial elections.

Wilders’s restrictions on his own party are understandable when seen in the light of Holland’s chaotic political landscape of the early 2000s, when Pim Fortuyn’s right-wing populist movement descended into chaos and internal struggles. Fortuyn himself was assassinated by a left-wing radical shortly before the elections. His party, the LPF (List Pim Fortuyn), still entered the next government coalition, but the cabinet fell after a mere 87 days (a post-WW2 record) through internal power struggles and the overall incompetence of the party’s inheritors.

Pim Fortuyn, the populist leader who was assassinated in 2002.

The total and sudden collapse of the LPF left a vacuum on the right, and in the next few years, countless splinter parties tripped over themselves trying to fill that gap. They did so to little avail, plagued as they were by the same amateurism and internal rivalry that had led to the implosion of the LPF.

When Geert Wilders left the VVD to form his own party in 2006, his PVV was initially seen by many as yet another splinter group with no hope of success. But Wilders – already a shrewd, experienced politician at that point – avoided the startup problems of the Fortuyn spinoffs by implementing a strict hierarchy that made him the absolute and undisputed leader of the party from day one.

Through his absolute control over the PVV, Wilders succeeded where many others failed, and he managed to turn his party into a mainstay in Dutch politics. Dissenters were rooted out, and those who were in danger of causing a scandal through dubious personal affairs were removed from the election list.

Though the Freedom Party’s authoritarian structure has resulted in some much-needed order on the populist right, eleven years later it is starting to hold the party back.

A common criticism of the PVV is that its House of Representatives delegation consists solely of Wilders and his yes-men. With a PVV politician’s ranking depending largely on his loyalty to Wilders, the party may not have enough meat on its bones to form part of a government and supply it with ministers.

Martin Bosma, PVV MP and de facto party ideologist.

The PVV, having started out as a radical new force in Dutch politics, a decade later comes across instead as stagnant. Voters let their decision on whether or not they are prepared to vote for the party depend largely on whether they like Wilders. After all, apart from the de facto party ideologist, the charismatic MP Martin Bosma, there is little else to the PVV than the man Geert Wilders. And with Wilders’s limited talents as a speaker and a campaigner, this structure is now hurting the party considerably.

Even those who sympathise with the PVV will know that, the moment Wilders steps down, his party will likely be in shambles. Putting all your money on this one-trick pony is, therefore, a gigantic risk.

Thierry Baudet and the long march through the institutions

When taking into account the limitations of the PVV, one sees more easily why voters who sympathise with Wilders’s cause are beginning to look for alternatives.

Throughout the years, there have been several attempts to provide new options for right-wing voters, the most famous of which was former VVD minister Rita Verdonk’s Trots op Nederland (Proud of the Netherlands). These new parties, however, all failed to secure even a single seat in the House of Representatives, and their failure was due in large part to their amateuristic leadership, or in their transparently trying to copy Fortuyn and Wilders without ever thinking to develop a clear vision of their own.

How is it, then, that Baudet’s Forum for Democracy operates out of this same niche, yet is within serious reach of winning multiple seats in parliament?

Apart from Thierry Baudet’s reputation as an articulate and intelligent man, an important aspect of his success is that his FVD might be a new party, but it is not a new organisation. Starting out in 2015 as a think tank, Baudet and his Forum have already had their share of political battles.

Forum for Democracy was among the initiators and organisers of last year’s consultative referendum on the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. Earlier this year, Thierry Baudet and Theo Hiddema (the famous lawyer who is the FVD’s second-in-command) held a speech in the House of Representatives to plead for a parliamentary inquiry on the introduction of the euro.

The Forum’s initial objective was to influence politics from the outside. It attempted to influence public opinion through publications, through education, and through initiatives such as the aforementioned Ukraine referendum.

By the summer of 2016, however, the FVD’s figureheads had concluded that they were never going to sway the political climate while standing on the sidelines, and that their options were reduced to taking part in the elections or simply admitting defeat and leaving the Netherlands. They went with the former.

Despite the FVD’s transformation into a political party, Thierry Baudet has not completely abandoned his vision of a think tank. He envisions the Forum as much more than a parliamentary entity, educating young, talented people for future positions in the fields of politics, science, and academics.

To explain his vision, Baudet invokes the concept of the ‘Long march through the institutions’, referring to the slogan used by communist activist Rudi Dutschke to describe the slow political-cultural penetration of society. Baudet aims to take Dutch institutions back from the left-wingers who infiltrated them in the first place, thus breaking through the cultural hegemony of social-democracy in the Netherlands.

Thierry Baudet, who openly supported the PVV for years, is all too aware of the shortcomings of Wilders. He realises that, if the ‘party cartel’ (his terminology for the clique of establishment parties) is to be broken, the right must manifest itself culturally and academically, not just politically.

Even on a political level, the FVD aims to cover the bases that Wilders has been neglecting for the eleven years of his party’s existence. The Forum allows members, plans to organise party congresses, and wants to establish a scientific bureau. In short: FVD has an ideology similar to that of the PVV, but embeds it into a traditional party structure.

The Patriotic Spring

Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy is a right-wing movement that has finally managed to free itself from the ghosts of the Fortuyn-era chaos. This will enable it not to replace the PVV, but to enrich the patriotic end of Holland’s political spectrum.

Over the past decade, Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party have been true vanguardists in discussing such problems as immigration, integration, and the EU. They will probably remain on those frontlines for a few years to come.

Even so, while putting issues on the political agenda has always been one of the PVV’s strong suits, the PVV has thus far been unable to do much to solve them. To make matters worse, by now the Dutch electorate is divided between pro-Wilders and anti-Wilders, with the latter group far outnumbering the former.

Hence, what is needed to break the deadlock is a fresh impulse: a party has the will to co-operate with the PVV, as well as the ability to come up with workable solutions. The FVD qualifies in both areas, which makes it all the more important for the party to get a good result in today’s general elections. Thus, whether Geert Wilders’s party will become the biggest is not the question that foreign observers should be asking themselves at this point.

Forum for Democracy is Holland’s best and perhaps only bet at realising a ‘Patriotic Spring’ that may finally begin to clean up the ruins left behind by the generation of ’68. But it must happen now. Before it is too late.

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