Talk: The Netherlands and right-wing parties

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On September 5th, I held a talk for a conference titled “Erscheinungsformen und Positionen der Neuen Rechten in Europa. Mit neuen Ideen gemeinsam gegen den Rechtsextremismus”. It took place in Berlin and was organized by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung and the Schwarzkopf-Stiftung Junges Europa.

Below you find the summary from the conference map. Click here for the slides of the presentation.


The Netherlands and right-wing parties: an uneasy relationship

The brutal assassination of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 by an Islamic extremist, which was followed by a wave of attacks on mosques and Islamic schools that swept through the country, definitely shattered the image of the Dutch multicultural success story. It unleashed debates across Europe about cultural values and the integration of Muslim immigrants; since these events, politicians throughout Europe have used the tolerant Dutch integration policies as a symbol of the failure of multiculturalism.

However, until about fifteen years ago, the Dutch concept of the multicultural society provided an exemplary model of the successful integration of people from different backgrounds and religions for other European countries, especially for Germany. At the same time, the Netherlands enjoyed a reputation as haven of tolerance because it seemed immune to the political backlash of social unease about immigration and growing cultural diversity seen elsewhere in Europe. During the 1980s and 1990s, Dutch radical right-wing parties have remained only marginal phenomena: the Centrumdemocraten (CD) and Centrum Partij (CP’86) never succeeded in obtaining a strong voice in the public debate, nor in mobilizing and retaining a considerable amount of support among the Dutch population. With the benefit of the hindsight, however, academic scholars and political observers now widely acknowledge that the fact that these parties signally failed did not imply at all that the Dutch were hardly susceptible to anti-immigrant sentiments at that time.

The turning point in Dutch politics in this regard occurred in 2002. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections of May 2002, a new political entrepreneur, Pim Fortuyn, running on a platform in which immigration and Islam in particular were central, rose like a comet in the polls. He was shot by a left-wing activist a week before the elections, but his party Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) nonetheless won fifteen percent of the votes, but far the most impressive result ever for a new party. The enormous amount of publicity that the newcomer LPF attracted during the campaign was also exceptionally high. Because of the stunning breakthrough of this right-wing populist, one can conclude that the Netherlands were ‘normalized’ in 2002, in the sense that the Dutch political system was brought in line with the situation of most other Western European countries, which have generally faced similar socio-economic conditions, but experienced significant performances of radical right-wing populists much earlier.

In fact, it can be argued that the situation in the Netherlands now again remarkably deviates from most other Western European countries, but for the opposite reason: since 2002, the balance seems to have completely turned around in the favour of radical right-wing challengers. Fortuyn’s heir, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) of Geert Wilders has succeeded to achieve and maintain a substantial level of electoral support. Moreover, it often attracts widespread media publicity, for instance after the PVV launched a website that urged the public to file complaints about people from eastern Europe residing in the Netherlands. Amidst the public commotion, prime-minister Rutte complained that the attention that Geert Wilders provokes by the issues he puts forward have increasingly grown out of proportion, asserting that “it is unwise to jump all together on every piece of red meat that is thrown in the arena”.

Thus, in sum, Dutch political history depicts a remarkable and uneasy relationship with right-wing parties: from a Zeitgeist of ‘political correctness’, in which disapproval with multiculturalism and discussions about actual problems linked to immigration and integration were strongly delegitimized, and all political actors associated with right-wing extremism were ‘hushed up’ or demonized, the pendulum has swung wildly. The country now faces the completely opposite situation were politicians and journalists all ‘jump’ together on every provocative statement or action of Geert Wilders. And, more importantly, his party has steadily grown since its foundation and been able to consolidate its electoral success.

In my talk, I will elaborate this central claim about the uncomfortable way that the Dutch deal and have dealt with the far right in the Netherlands. More specifically, I will first discuss the political careers of the two main figureheads of the populist right, Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders. The questions addressed include the causes and consequences of the political upheaval that took place in 2002, as well as the more recent developments related to the emergence and rise of the PVV. Here, I will also discuss the fact that Wilders stood trial on charges of inciting hatred against Muslims in June 2011.

Second, I will devote some time to explicate the positions and ideologies of the Dutch radical right parties. The electoral successes of Fortuyn and Wilders are often ascribed to the fact that the ideological outlook of their parties sharply contrast with the sometimes plainly racist statements of the party leaders of the CD and CP’86. It is highly debatable to what extent the LPF and PVV have a clear affinity at all with these radical right-wing predecessors. In fact, the breakthrough of Fortuyn marked the beginning of a new era in European right-wing politics, which fuses liberal elements (such as the defence of gay – Fortuyn himself was a flamboyant homosexual – and women’s rights, freedom of speech, and opposition to anti-Semitism) with a critique of what is seen as a cultural threat to these liberal values of particular groups of immigrants, particularly Muslims. Similar shifts within the populist right can be observed in the Scandinavian countries, and perhaps also in a more incipient stage in Germany.

Thirdly, and finally, my talk will focus on the question to what extent right-wing ideas are actually present among the Dutch population. Hereby, I will focus mainly on the current situation. Needless to say, we need to move beyond observations about the performances of populist right-wing parties, as besides ideological proximity, there are numerous other reasons why people decide to cast their votes for a particular political party. As expected, Wilders’ constituents are often attracted to the PVV because they are worried about issues related to immigration and cultural diversity. What are they precisely worried about? And to what extent do they actually agree with the sometimes rather outspoken exclusionist views of party leader Wilders? The answers to the central questions posed in this final part have, in my view, important implications for the debate about how established politicians can deal best with far right contenders. Therefore, in this final part, there will be ample opportunity for discussion.