“My cat scratched me in the eye a few months ago. It was pretty bad”, said my colleague as we stood outside a bar one evening in Amsterdam last week, “But, you know, he’s had a hard time. He was an orphan basically from birth.” With that, she got on her bike and rode off down the cobbled streets to go home and feed the young offender.
There just seemed something so Dutch about the moral of this cat’s tale: “You need to understand the underlying and complex reasons behind actions before making judgements.” It fitted perfectly with what used to be my view of the country: a place that was socially aware and tolerant. Whether in relation to the misnamed “coffee shops” filled with stoned tourists or, more importantly, with regard to the religious and ethnic diversity which large-scale immigration has brought. To the outsider, the Netherlands seemed a society shaped by consensus politics and compromise, which was open and at ease with itself.
Much has happened so far in the 21st century to change that view. First of all, Pim Fortuyn and his “Pim Fortuyn List” (LPF) emerged, presenting themselves as the defenders of the people against the elites and of Western culture and liberal values against the alleged threats posed by Islam and Muslim immigrants. After Fortuyn was assassinated during the 2002 general election campaign (the first peacetime murder of a Dutch politician), the LPF came second with 17% of the vote. This earned the party a place in a centre-right coalition government, although that quickly collapsed due to infighting between the LPF’s representatives who were unable to handle the pressure of being in office without their founder and leader. The List began to list. And then sank without trace.
Any notions that the LPF had simply marked a blip on the Dutch political radar were dispelled however when an even more explicit radical right populist started dominating headlines just a couple of years later: Geert Wilders. Having taken 5.9% in the 2006 general election, his Party for Freedom (PVV) rose to over 15% in 2010. Like Fortuyn, but without the erudition, Wilders portrayed the presence of Muslims in European societies as a tsunami that would eventually wipe away culture, values and freedoms if something were not done urgently to stop it. This of course is a typical populist tactic: cast the “others” in society as a danger which will overwhelm “the real people”. And cast yourself as the “real democrat” who is the only possible saviour of the people from those “others” and the self-interested, distant elites.
Unlike the LPF, the PVV did not enter government, although it did agree to provide essential parliamentary backing for the minority centre-right coalition led by Mark Rutte in 2010. Indeed, as the brilliant Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde explained, Wilders’ success and support for the Rutte administration may have helped save him from prosecution in 2011 on charges of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims. Had he been convicted, argued Mudde, it would have left the government in the unsustainable position of relying for its majority on a politician recognised by the judiciary as holding ‘anti-democratic’ views. Certainly, the case against him was strong even though Wilders has always been careful to walk the semantic tightrope of saying he despises Islam as a totalitarian ideology, not Muslims as individuals.
When Wilders withdrew his support for the government in April 2012, many commentators were quick to predict his demise. The BBC, for example, asked: “is this the beginning of the end of the Freedom Party?” Such views were repeated when the PVV saw its vote share slip in the general election later that year to just over 10% after a campaign which opposed austerity measures and called for Dutch withdrawal from the EU failed to ignite. However, as so often seems to happen with non-mainstream parties when they suffer a setback, wishful-thinking journalists had begun writing the obituaries far too soon. Geert is back. According to recent opinion poll averages, the PVV is running in second place at around 15.5% - exactly what it got in 2010.
In fact, if we look at the results for the LPF and PVV over the past decade, along with the recent poll figures, what we can see is that – although there have been ups and downs – there is clearly a lasting market for radical right-wing populism and its message in the Netherlands, just as there is across Europe. Intolerance sells. Even in societies noted for their tolerance.
Right-wing Populists in Dutch General Elections and 2013 Opinion Poll Averages
What makes Wilders particularly interesting though is that he is not satisfied just with increasing his share of the domestic market. Far more than any European populist before him, he looks beyond his own borders. His appearances in the UK, Australia and the US have attracted the controversy and huge media attention they were designed to. Like a travelling preacher, armed with the gospel of impending doom, Wilders has warned people across the West that they are in danger. For example, in March 2011, he told an audience gathered in a Tennessee church that “America is facing the stealth jihad – the Islamic attempt to introduce Sharia law bit by bit” and therefore “we must stop immigration from non-Western countries”.
His most significant international trip however may prove to be the one in April this year to Paris where he met Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Front National. This is particularly intriguing since, normally, right-wing populists adopt the “only sane person in the psychiatric ward” tactic and shout “I really shouldn’t be here!” when you put them in the same category as similar politicians in other countries. Indeed, Wilders himself previously claimed he would never link up with the likes of the late Jörg Haider in Austria or Marine’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Presumably his views on the latter did not come up over lunch with Marine and Wilders said afterwards that “we think the same about 90% of things, perhaps more”. Clearly, his intention is to establish a transnational alliance with the Front National and other radical right populists before next year’s European Parliament elections. Wilders appears to be trying to position himself as the first leader of the European radical right, a group which until now has been very divided. A fitting – yet paradoxical – role for someone from the land of consensus.