It is rare that Dutch politics ever makes the news in the UK. Compared to the adversarial bloodsport that is Westminster politics, the Dutch system of coalition and consensus can make for fairly stale viewing. But if politics is measured by what you achieve, then Dutch politics has been a great success when judged against the low-grade, childish squabbling that is the daily fare in Westminster.
But the anonymity of Dutch politics might be about to change. Dutch voters are gearing up for an election on 15th March and there is a wild card in the pack, somebody who is trying to usurp the established order. His name is Geert Wilders and he wants to be the new sheriff in town.
He’s part of the populist (whatever that over-used word now means) movement that is currently sweeping across the western world. He’s from the finger-jabbing, rabble-rousing, far right school of populism. Think Nigel Farage without the faux bonhomie and his pint-drinking-man-of-the-people bollocks, and mix it with the outrageous statements and belligerence of Donald Trump (and the same barber) and that’s Wilders. He seems a man who is permanently angry, the sort of person who gets out of bed irritated and goes to bed furious. But his Freedom Party (PVV) is currently heading the polls and could receive over 20% of the vote. After years of voting for rather dull, if competent, politicians, the idea of voting for somebody who says what he thinks and does what he says is beginning to appeal to increasing numbers of Dutch voters.
But his policies and ideas are abhorrent to many. Wilders’ party, the PVV, have produced a one page manifesto for the upcoming election, and it focuses on their long term concerns of immigration and de-Islamizing The Netherlands. Titled Make The Netherlands Ours Again, it states that Dutch people have had ‘enough of mass immigration, asylum, terror, violence and insecurity’ and proposes that ‘instead of financing the entire world and people we don’t want here, we’ll spend the money on ordinary Dutch citizens’. Its policies call for the closure of all mosques and Islamic schools, a ban on the Koran, a ban on Islamic headscarves in the public sector, no more immigration from Muslim countries, closing the borders, no more asylum seekers and the withdrawal of residence permits for asylum seekers already living here. These measures would, apparently, save the country €7.2 billion.
Wilders has long had form for disliking Islam and, only a few months ago, was tried for promising to reduce the number of Moroccans in the country. His trial was triggered by remarks he made during municipal-election campaigning in The Hague in 2014. At a rally he asked supporters whether they wanted “fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands”. When the crowd chanted back “Fewer! Fewer!” a smiling Mr Wilders responded: “We’re going to take care of that.” He was convicted of insulting a group and inciting discrimination.
But it’s not just Muslims he dislikes. Several years ago his party set up a website encouraging people to make complaints about Poles and other Eastern Europeans. I suspect he might be the sort of man who dislikes almost everybody and everything, particularly those who disagree with him. His own brother said that Wilders’ “doesn’t accept any opposition, whether family or not, and rules his world like an emperor”.
Other parts of his manifesto might help to explain his popularity. Alongside the Islamophobic hatespeak are: returning the retirement age to 65; lower rents for social housing; more money for defence and police; lower income tax and no more money for development aid, wind farms, art, innovation and broadcasting. The net cost of this manifesto magically being zero is a fairytale of which Hans Christian Andersen would be proud.
Wilders also wants to withdraw from the EU, despite the fact that 70% of Dutch exports go to other EU countries. Much of Dutch history and most of its economic prosperity has been derived from its openness to the rest of the world. They are a nation of traders and an export powerhouse. The crown jewel of the Dutch economy, the port of Rotterdam, is the gateway to the rest of the EU and is totally reliant on open borders and no trade barriers. It would seem self defeating to vote for someone whose policies might well jeopardize this economic prosperity, but politics is not currently following the usual script. At the present time, nationalism, economic or otherwise, rules! OK!
But if many of his views are so toxic, and his policies insular and economically damaging, then why is his party leading the opinion polls?
The fault lies squarely with established politicians. Contemptuously dismissing the concerns of some voters by either consistently telling them they were wrong, or worse, completely ignoring them, has left a large chunk of people felling completely unrepresented.
The void has been gleefully filled by characters like Wilders. Through expert use of social media to spread his outrageous statements, his ‘alternative facts’ and simple but very effective slogans, he has exploited their fears. He has succeeded in uniting these voters behind him by creating common enemies for them to despise, people who they can blame for all their problems. And the more outrageous he becomes, the more his supporters see it as evidence of his authenticity.
Predictably, current politicians have decided to combat him by lurching to the right themselves, rather than by using force-of-argument to rightly address these voters’ concerns (and their own failings). Current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has talked of “hating” the idea of a multicultural society and, in an open letter to the Dutch media, said people should “act normal or leave”. None of them have realised that you won’t beat nationalism by pandering to nationalists. It only emboldens them. Overweening Tory supertit David Cameron pandered to UKIP, and the extremists in his own party, and that worked out well didn’t it?
All this has made for a very unpleasant atmosphere. Twitter used to be the forum where you could dump your racist, xenophobic, sexist turd, but the rise of populists like Wilders has emboldened his hardcore followers so much that these sentiments have spilled over into daily life. Many now think they can say what they like, to whom they like and whenever they like, all under the aegis of free speech. “I have the right to offend you” they say, but free speech also means you have the right not to offend me – an choice which is rarely exercised. Ignoring what is said is no longer an option, as these views are expressed with increasing frequency, with increasing volume and by increasing numbers of people. The PVV do believe in democracy, as long as democracy means getting your own way, and if you have the temerity to disagree with them they talk loud enough so that nobody else can be heard.
Alternative facts now upstage any form of hard evidence and persuading people otherwise is, apparently, futile. In a Europe-wide survey, all European nations grossly overestimated the size of their Muslim population. Dutch people thought 18% of the population was Muslim, when the true figure is 6%. When presented with the disparity, people tend to question the facts rather than their own assumptions. Combatting this mentality is currently proving all but impossible.
However, translating all those votes into power could be difficult. The Dutch coalition system requires cooperation, consensus and compromise to form a government – qualities that are an anathema to a party of bridge burners led by a man who is always right. Additionally, other parties have said they won’t work with the PVV. But we all know what a whiff of power can do to politicians’ principles. I’ve no doubt that if Wilders is shut out of the coalition, that hoary old cliché will be aired – namely that the will of the people has been denied.
The great irony in me writing about this election is that I have no vote, as I’m still a British national. But I’ve grown to love this country very much in the years I’ve lived here, so I think that gives me some stake in the outcome. This scapegoating of minorities, and the mix of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance being pushed by Wilders and his party is not reflective of the country I now call home.
But let’s finish on a positive note. Wilders and his party might be heading the polls, but 80% of Dutch voters are voting for candidates other than Wilders. Brexit, the election of Trump and the rise of Wilders, Le Pen and the Alternative für Deutschland have made it crystal clear what the current political direction of travel is. But it is up to all us, especially voters, to determine the distance to be covered. Starting here on 15th March.