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Populists in Europe (5/8) : Extreme centrism in the Netherlands

Friday, 16 May, 2014 - 10:37

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The Dutch Party for Freedom or PVV is changing the face of the far-right in Europe. Anti-Islam but against homophobia, Geert Wilders’ party is leading the way for a softer form of nationalism.

Populist parties have often unified around a central figure. In the case of the Party for Freedom or PVV, it is undistinguishable from its founder. The PVV is built as a non-profit organization or “vereniging” whose sole member is Geert Wilders.

Philo-Semitic islamophobia

Geert Wilders was born September 6th 1963 in Venlo, a small town in southeast Netherlands. After secondary school, he specialized in social insurance, soon becoming an expert. After his military service he lived in Israel for two years and travelled through the Middle East. What he kept from this experience are an unbound love for Israel – which he considers his second home – and a near-pathological hatred of Arab countries and Islam.

As an activist for the right-wing VVD party, he became the leader’s right hand. But Frits Bolkenstein left national politics to become a European commissioner. Soon after in 2004, Geert Wilders left the VVD to create his own movement, the Wilders Groep. He published a manifesto entitled A Declaration of Independence which became the future party’s platform.

In line with Van Gogh and Fortuyn

Political analyst Paul Lucardie from the University of Groningen makes a distinction between populist parties’ “thin” ideology and traditional parties’ “thicker” stance.

In the case of the PVV, the very heart of the ideology can almost be boiled down to its founder’s Anti-Islam obsession. Geert Wilders has said on several occasions that he had been assaulted by young Moroccans, even though this was denied by his brother who even told people not to vote for his brother in a highly popular talk show.

After Islamophobic movie director Theo Van Gogh was murdered on November 2nd 2004, Wilders lived the life of an outcast. He kept his address secret and was under constant protection by the Dutch police. As a skilled manipulator of the media, Wilders never ceased to describe himself as the victim of Muslims. His hatred of Islam was even the subject of the movie Finta, which he directed himself (see below). It includes Quranic surahs illustrated by clips of violent demonstrations by fanatics.

He is now the sole heir to Pim Fortuyn who was murdered on May 6th 2002. Even though his style is not as flamboyant as that of this university professor who was an admirer of Mussolini, an advocate for gay rights and a master in media manipulation, Wilders has understood why he should break from the affected attitudes of Dutch politicians, whom Fortuyn used to compare to “grey mice”.

From the 2006 elections, the PVV platform included proposals such as asserting the “superiority of Judeo-Christian and humanist cultures and traditions” in the Dutch constitution. All of Wilders’ political career has been marked by sensational declarations as when he wanted to ban the Quran, which he compared to Mein Kampf, or when he shockingly asked “do you want more or fewer Moroccans?” during the municipal elections last March.

He reaffirms the same stance around the world, for instance during his visit to the Danish parliament in 2008 where he was invited by the Danish Free Press Society (see video).   

The impossible antidote to what cannot be grasped

The PVV describes its stance as “new realism” and aspires to “restore Dutch people’s pride in their culture”. The party is particularly difficult to pin down on a traditional political board separated between right- and left-wing because their economic policies of free enterprise and universal social security come from a right of centre perspective but they also advocate traditionally left-wing principles such as gender equality and gay rights.

Dutch political analyst André Krouwel from the University of Amsterdam uses a chart based on the one drawn up by Political Compass to classify political parties. “This mix of ideas from both the left and the right gives the PVV a slightly conservative position but places it at the exact centre of the diagram.”

A great part of the public opinion would agree with this statement. People may well call out Wilders’ exaggerations, but most do not consider the Party for Freedom a far-right group. The majority of politicians often say that “the PVV is no the NSB”, the latter being a Nazi party. Historians Edwin Klijn and Robin te Slaa have a hard time convincing their countrymen that “Geert Wilders and his movement are a prototype of contemporary fascism”.

Accusations of fascism directed towards him by some political enemies such as philosopher Rob Rieme have often been counterproductive. Wilders turned these attacks on their heads, often ridiculing his opponents in the process.

There has been one exception with the Wij Amsterdammers or We Amsterdammers initiative launched by the city of Amsterdam with the following four-point plan:

  • combating terror
  • combating radicalisation
  • preventing polarisation, mobilizing positive forces
  • managing internal communication and organization at the city level

This initiative played a great part in hindering the propagation of PVV ideas but has not been reproduced elsewhere.

FOCUS : When the PVV is in power

At the national level, the PVV supported the Rutte Cabinet from October 1st 2010 to April 23rd 2012, when it broke from liberalist politics. In spite of this, some proposals by the populist party have been implemented since it left, including reducing development assistance, making the right to asylum stricter, hardening repression against criminality and raising the speed limit on highways.

Contrary to what happened in France with the National Front, the PVV has never won the majority of votes in any Dutch city. Despite getting 15% in the legislative elections in 2010, the PVV has never managed to turn this into a municipal success. Even in cities where the party has a strong support base, as in Almere, it has failed to form a coalition. Even though it won the highest number of seats in the March 2014 elections with a total of nine, it is part of the opposition government while the ruling coalition is made up of parties having won only one to six seats each.

But the PVV’s attitude when it was supporting the Rutte Cabinet gives an idea of what a populist-run city would look like, starting with harsh cuts in cultural subsidies, especially for institutions with a different ideology. €200 million were cut in 2011, which forced 14 out of 15 outdoor festivals, 21 theatre productions and three opera companies out of business, reduced post-academic teaching from eleven to two options and caused five out of eleven projects for the promotion of young artists to be abandoned.

(Translation: Clemence Grison)