A lot was made of Geert Wilders’ chances in the Dutch general elections of March 2017. Although it was often pointed out that he would not garner 25 percent, or even 20, of the electorate, his profile was the headline of international election coverage. Was it unjustified to focus reporting on the Freedom Party’s leader?
As the headline to a news item, Mr. Wilders’ appeal is clear. The leader of an openly anti-Islam party who seeks to overturn a political elite for the benefit of “all those people”, the ‘real’ Dutch, is a clear newsgrabber. Add a somewhat striking appearance into the mix — weird hair, like President Trump — an you’ve got readers and viewers paying close attention.
Mr. Wilders is a calculating attention seeker
Mr. Wilders adds more peppery ingredients. He is not racist towards any other population groups, although his defense of the Bĺack Pete tradition can be viewed as racist by some. He has an advanced vocabulary and dresses with reasonable style for a Dutch politician, yet claims to speak for and finds support among the lower-wage, lower-educated members of society.
Wilders has no qualms in addressing groups that have their roots in Nazistic nationalism
Mr. Wilders is a calculating attention seeker, who knows that his voters generally appreciate politically incorrect positions, such as favoring discrimination to increase security over individual freedom and the burden of proof. He has found himself in court, and used that as an opportunity to raise doubts. Doubts over the impartiality of judges, and doubts over prioritizing trials on (near-) political subjects like insults over trialing (and harshly sentencing) young thieves and thugs with Islamic backgrounds.
His anti-EU stance guarantees attention from foreign media, as this represents an international dimension to his story. In above-average English, Mr. Wilders gladly displays his fondness for fellow nationalist-deterministic politicians, especially if they share his fondness of Israel, like Messrs. Farage and Trump. On mainland Europe, that fondness is, at best, seen as quirky, whilst more radical nationalists find that this clashes with their hidden anti-Semitism. In his genuine love for Israel and thereby link to Jews, Mr. Wilders finds a strong display of his non-racist nature, as well as valuable detachment from traditional racist nationalists, who are often highly anti-Semitic. However, Wilders has no qualms in addressing groups that have their roots in that Nazistic nationalism.
His general policies put him in the same European boat as the French Front National and alternatives for Germany (AfD). The UK Independence Party has declined his attempts at a coalition, as UKIP believed that Mr. Wilders was, in short, too racist for their liking. He has sought a connection with Mr. Trump as well, as he has financial ties to backers from the US that supported Trump over there.
The news media cover Geert Wilders because of all of these things. He stands out, and likes to stand out. His policies are similar to those of other relevant populist / nationalist-deterministic politicians. He speaks well, in English as well as Dutch, and he is the most radical politician from a country that is viewed as tranquil, peaceful and free. But it is exactly his protection of Dutch freedoms which has fueled his radicalism. Mr. Wilders has no problem with the LGBT-community, where he in fact finds many voters who feel that Islam opposes their way of living, even within the Netherlands.
Mr. Wilders does not judge by skin color, but by religion — and even there he makes a point of saying that Islam is more an ideology and not a religion at all. He cleverly states that he has “nothing against Muslims, but against Islam as an ideology”. He is, in short, money in the bank for news media.
Among the voting public, significant political bad news surrounds the image of Geert Wilders. This costs him votes. Mr. Wilders has brought his ceiling down in a number of ways.
Mr. Wilders upends democratic values, tickling an underbelly.
Firstly, he has built a party without internal democracy. He is the only member of the PVV, and has refused attempts by his followers, including parliamentarians, at changing the party structure to make it more democratic, with a member structure and a wider range of internally appointed / elected officials. This refusal has already cost him dearly, with several capable or renowned politicians, including Mr. Sörensen who was in several international media reports, to leave the party. A lack of internal democracy or even structure gives Geert Wilders more control over his party and its ideological positions and direction. This is important when skirting the edges of decency and the law. But the added control has high costs. Limited levels of democracy make a party less attractive to Dutch voters.
Mr. Wilders runs on a platform that seeks to terminate a few key elements of the Dutch judicial system, similar to the changes Donald Trump started proposing and in recent times imposing. A Muslim suspect is in his view guilty until proven innocent. The security advantage of this is, at least on first reflection, apparent. But it goes against the foundations of Western law and is a very debatable idea. Here too, he upends democratic values, tickling an underbelly.
Because his party is essentially a one-man-band, Wilders has had trouble attracting sufficient numbers of politicians to stand with him. As a result, the PVV is not represented in all but a handful of municipalities. This makes the party invisible at the local level, a huge missed opportunity in terms of media exposure. Municipal politics is also where political parties find new talent and can increase engagement of their supporters.
At the same time, it has become highly apparent why Mr. Wilders has little or no activity at the local level. Exactly because he is the absolute key to his party, he has had a hard time with the representatives he did find. They fall into four groups: the egoists, the moderates, the extremists, and the fraudulent. Mr. Wilders has had to deal with each category.
Moderate defectors have cost Geert Wilders precious parliamentary influence
The egoists are people who consider themselves potential successors to Mr. Wilders. They join his party for access to the populist platform, but criticize Wilders, believing they can do a better job. These people end up leaving the party, with or without some supporters, and join or set up another movement where they can try their luck at leading, and getting elected. They generally fail, but nonetheless draw votes that might otherwise have gone to the PVV. Thus, Geert Wilders shoots himself in the foot every time he mistakes an egoist for a follower to join his ranks.
Wilders has also been plagued by moderates. These people joined his party out of sympathy for his political ideas, but then chickened out — for reasons good or bad — on the basis of later quotes from the party leader, or their failed attempts at democratizing the movement. When these have been members of parliament, they have held on to their seats as independents (which is their right, but not their obligation). They have thus cost Geert Wilders precious parliamentary influence, even if they often continued to vote more or less along the same lines as the PVV. Louis Bontes and Joram van Klaveren were the most important in this group, setting up their own party VNL and running against Wilders in these last elections. Although they failed to win a seat, they took votes from Wilders on his slightly more moderate side. Their principal objection to Wilders was that, although they too were wary of Muslims, they objected to his general hatred of Moroccan people, as well as to the other political policies of the party, which they viewed as too leftist.
Extremists are the group Wilders has been looking to avoid from the start. He has been successful at this. Because he disgusts being called a racist, Wilders avoids members of other Dutch extreme-right groups joining his official ranks. Convicted racists have no place in his party, as they make his party vulnerable to accusations of extremism. Although they vote for him, members of “partisan” groups are not welcome to work for the PVV.
Finally, fraudulent behavior has been a distinct problem for the PVV. Several staff and representatives have been found stealing or profiteering. Wilders was never himself implicated, but that is not enough to remove the stain. The fact that Wilders has not managed to eradicate such bad behavior reflects negatively on his judgment. This has cost him votes.
The nature of our politics
Dutch politics has always been fractured, although to a lesser extent than in recent years. Traditionally, there have always been several significant groups in the country, originally known as the “columns”. There was a Roman-Catholic column, which failed to see eye-to-eye with the reformed Christians, or with the socialists. In fact, there were several protestant Christian columns, with different degrees of free-thinking. Some saw Roman Catholics as sinners, others saw all Christians outside their column as sinners. That all resulted from some 350 years of protestant Christianism and religious freedom.
As intermarriage and other forms of mixing have increased, Dutch society has become more modern, the columns fading away and people feeling more free to switch allegiance at each election. But the plethora of opinions and attitudes remains, with, for instance, a large labor party competing with the socialist party and the green-left party, as well as with the leftist liberals. They then compete with the rightist liberals. Each gets a slice of the cake, including the PVV.
Wilders’ party stood no chance of ruling this time around
Because each election is like the division of a cake, the PVV, like any other party, is extremely unlikely to get half of it. Populist parties can usually appeal to the non-voter, but getting them to change their behavior is difficult. And with turnout rates between 75% and 85%, non-voters that do come in can hardly be the deciding factor. And then there are those demanding a slice, even if only a small one. There is still representation for each of the old major columns, there is the factor of loyalty to the incumbent government, there is representation for minorities who feel hard done by Mr. Wilders and who will never turn to support him. This includes most Muslim groups, but also black anti-slavery activists. There simply isn’t enough room for any party, let alone one with this many opponents, to take half the votes or more. So any party needs to find a place in a coalition government if they want to govern.
Mr. Wilders’ party stood no chance of ruling this time around. The PVV blew up the cabinet they were not even a part of in 2012. Because the party was so much against the general taste of the political establishment, the liberals and the Christian democrats could only form a minority government in 2010, with the expressly formulated support of the PVV, who took part in the negotiations and had input into the government’s policy program, but who would not join in the actual cabinet. After withdrawing support, the cabinet collapsed. Since then, the Christian democrats and liberals have felt that they could no longer trust Mr. Wilders and his party to take responsibility for strong measures and cuts when they needed them to. For that reason, the only two larger parties that could fathomably be partners to the PVV declared clearly in the 2017 campaign that they would not form a government with Mr. Wilders.
Painting fire-breathing dragons
In the 2012 elections, the liberals and the labor party became entwined in a very close race. This caused voters to start behaving strategically, moving away from smaller parties they actually supported to supporting one or the other of the two that could win the election. They would choose the one they hated the least to block the other. In this way, both parties became larger than their actual support merited. Mr. Rutte, leader of the liberals, found himself with 26% of the votes. He liked this so much, he sought to repeat it in the 2017 elections.
The negative depiction of the Freedom party by Mr. Rutte did not create the polarizing effect he sought
For that race between two front runners, he needed to create a clear and present danger that the projected other front runner could win it. The PVV was that party, ahead of the liberals in polls for much of the 2012–2017 period. Mr. Rutte and his campaign strategists determined that the PVV, with some of its policies in direct conflict with the constitution, would be a very good opponent. During the campaign, he focused on the differences between his party and that of Mr. Wilders, hoping to turn events into another two-horse race.
The PVV was portrayed as a fire-breathing dragon that would eat money by stepping out of the Euro and the European Union, as well as treating people unfairly. Whilst mostly accurate — Mr. Wilders did not deny the policy proposals, only their effects would be positively different in his view — this depiction by Mr. Rutte did not create the polarizing effect he sought. But it was the depiction taken over by the foreign media, who saw the story of a populist near-racist rising to the government of a small and usually tranquil democracy. But Mr. Wilders turned out not to be another Haider or even Trump.
Mr. Rutte’s party itself took over some of the anti-refugee and anti-terrorist rhetoric that Mr. Wilders used, so that the prime minister was not a polar opposite of his proposed favorite opponent. The result was that both parties started to decline in the polls from the start of the campaign in late 2016, the PVV losing more seats and its lead. This was not what Mr. Rutte was looking to achieve, but it nevertheless was the best he could do. He stood to lose many seats, but was edging closer to at least a win. (The Turkish diplomatic crisis, whilst not in any way orchestrated by the Dutch government, would prove to bring prime minister Rutte the final push, giving him an 8% lead over the number two party, which did turn out to be the PVV.)
Perhaps less so than a couple of years ago, but it is socially unacceptable to be a PVV-voter. The Freedom Party is still the enemy of intellectuals and, more obviously, the establishment. In social spheres where people discuss their political preferences, being a Wilders supporter is not a tenable position. Although his support among the educated has increased, it’s best not to admit to being a Wilders fan if you are highly educated. This makes it difficult for him to expand his support in this part of the electorate — a significant part in a country where almost half of the 30 to 34 year olds are now holders of a tertiary degree.
Being a Wilders supporter is like being part of a secret society
The upswing of this social structure is that being a Wilders supporter is like being part of a secret society. If you meet fellow supporters, a brotherly bond is forged that will possibly cement support for the Freedom Party for a longer time. However, if the party is deemed inexcusable and unacceptable in such a large part of Dutch society, it cannot expect to progress as far as Geert Wilders would like.
Like his hair, Geert Wilders’ political advance suffers from overexposure. He cannot command the support he craves and has as yet failed to identify a game changing event or position. Unless he changes his approach or stumbles upon a political goldmine, his progress will turn into a standstill, or into a somewhat newsworthier yoyo-effect. Cast him as a side-lined angry know-it-all or as a comeback kid who always stumbles, but he has no credibility as the lead man.
This piece originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission.
Photo: Metropolico.org/Creative Commons