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A history of Dutch populism, from the murder of Pim Fortuyn to the rise of Geert Wilders

Yves Herman/Reuters

A history of Dutch populism, from the murder of Pim Fortuyn to the rise of Geert Wilders

The 2017 Dutch election has taken on a significance for the international media that we haven’t seen for a long time here in the Netherlands.

Placed in the context of other European elections in France and Germany this spring and summer, the elections in the Netherlands are now often perceived as the first step in a populist revolution which has been shaking up Europe and the rest of the Western world.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s unexpected victory in the United States, populism now seems destined to conquer Europe’s mainland, starting with the Netherlands.

But all this analysis comes as somewhat of a surprise for the Dutch. There is no reason for us to talk about a new populist revolution at all. Ever since Pim Fortuyn’s revolt in the early 2000s, we have become all too familiar with the problems and anxieties of populism.

How Pim Fortuyn changed politics for good

Fortuyn, an openly gay sociology professor and publicist, rocked the boat of Dutch politics significantly more than the current representative of populism, Geert Wilders, is expected to do this time around.

Fortuyn ran on an anti-Islam, anti-immigrant platform. He claimed that Islam presented a threat to Western values of openness and liberalism, and wanted to restrict all immigration to the Netherlands.

He was killed on the campaign trail in May 2002 just days before the election. His assassin, Volkert van der Graaf, was an animal rights activist, who said he feared the effect Fortuyn would have on minorities in the country.

Fortuyn transformed Dutch politics. Paul Vreeker/Reuters

Fortuyn’s party, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), went on to win 26 of the 150 available seats in the May 2002 elections, more than 17% of the electoral vote and enough to form a coalition with the Christian Democratic Appeal and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. But the government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende was very short lived, mainly because of internal frictions in the LPF.

Fortuyn and the LPD broke open the political system with a force that still baffles Dutch political scientists and commentators.

At the time there was no indication that the centrist parties which had been in power for eight years, a coalition of social democrats and liberals (the Purple Coalition), were headed for a major defeat.

And the populist wave did not subside with the demise of the LPF – Wilders, a former conservative parliamentarian, has picked up where Fortuyn and his friends left off.

21st century populism

The central themes of the early 21st century right-wing populism of Fortuyn and Wilders have been fierce criticism of the political elite (usually portrayed as left-wing) combined with a steady flow of anti-Islam rhetoric and anti-EU sentiment.

Geert Wilders has repeatedly courted controversy, with his 2008 film Fitna, which compared Islam to Nazism, and a recent trial over his call to reduce the number of Moroccans in the Netherlands, expressed during a party rally just before the 2012 election, for which he was found guilty but not punished.

Look what the cat dragged in. Dylan Martinez/Reuters

To acknowledge the fact that populism has been around in the Netherlands for quite a while already is not to underestimate its profound influence. As well as the far-right, it also affected some centrist parties, such as the and the Christian Democrats and People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.

The famous Dutch tolerance and progressiveness, if ever it existed, has turned into intolerance and a prolonged and painstaking search for Dutch identity.

Public debate has taken a nasty turn, blaming and shaming “foreigners”, Muslims mostly, but also the elite and Europe for the problems people experience. This opened up tensions and rifts which had previously been covered by a soft blanket of “political correctness”, which used to be regarded as civilised behaviour but is now seen as treason and deceitfulness.

Wilders’s first taste of power

Wilders has played a role in the Dutch government before. He won 24 seats (16%) in 2010, which gave him a role as a minor partner supporting a coalition between the Christian Democrats and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the first cabinet of Mark Rutte. In 2012, Wilders refused to accept major budget cuts which the cabinet had to take in order to meet EU requirements. The government collapsed.

Since 2012, another Purple Coalition between the Labour Party and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy has been in power, headed again by Rutte. The current government can claim credit for financial and economic measures which helped the Dutch economy through the recent economic crisis.

But both parties, especially the Labour Party, are probably going to be punished by voters for the austerity measures they imposed on welfare and health care, as well as raising the retirement age from 65 to 67.

What to expect in 2017

This time around we can expect success, again, for Geert Wilders, despite the fact that his numbers in the polls have been dropping slowly since early January. The Dutch electoral system’s threshold of 0.7% makes it very open to new parties, so we may see a few new right-wing parties getting some seats alongside Wilders.

A low election threshold means more right-wing minor parties could gain seats among a crowded field. Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Wilders’s success however is not going to bring him into government, because none of the other centrist parties wants to collaborate with him. Another condoning role for Wilders in a right-wing coalition is highly improbable; everyone remembers the debacle of the first Rutte cabinet, when Wilders backed away from his responsibility to the government.

A left-wing coalition is also highly improbable, because even the most flattering polls show a collection of left-wing parties falling short of a majority.

The Christian Democrats, recovering from the 2012 debacle, have already made it clear they will not get on board with a left-wing coalition. So, the remaining centrist parties will have to build a new coalition which will probably take a considerable amount of time to materialise.

The new nostalgia

Most scholars tend to interpret populism as a reaction to increasing inequality in the Netherlands, both in terms of income and of education. However, the Netherlands is still one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, and the rift between levels of education is not a new phenomenon either.

The so-called “losers of globalisation” are not the only ones who vote for Wilders these days. Nor do these voters in many cases seriously believe that Wilders should rule the country. What matters is that he is tapping into the anxieties of many voters.

It is better to see these rifts and the turbulent public debate as the right-wing of the country calling to be heard and taken seriously. It involves people who don’t believe that things are going to get better. They long for the return to an imaginary former Dutch culture in which migrants, minorities and women don’t challenge the status quo and where the debate about blackface is not, as they see it, undermining Dutch culture.

Nostalgia is what moves them into the belief that new Dutch dikes are needed: to keep an ever-more-threatening outside world out of this low country.