It is said that the German writer Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) once remarked that if a revolution were to break out in Germany, he would flee to the Netherlands, since there everything happens fifty years later. Whereas this insight might have had some relevance in the mid 19th century, today it seems out of date.
Not only is the Netherlands well connected to a global political network; in some respects it has turned out to be the forerunner of many of today’s political developments, whether we like them or not. This is most certainly the case when it comes to a new wave of radical right movements that has swept across the European continent since the turn of the millennium. The Netherlands has had more than its fair share of these movements. We witnessed the rapid rise and subsequent fall of Pim Fortuyn and his movement in the early 2000s, and subsequently have seen the rise of Geert Wilders and his movement, support for which grew enormously in the 2010 national elections, where his Party for Freedom (PVV) acquired about a sixth of the votes, enough to give it a pivotal position in the current political landscape. Although the PVV is not a formal member of the government, it actively endorses the minority government of Christian-Democrats and centre-right Liberals.
In return, this government has promised the PVV to enact strict policies on immigration and integration. But what then explains the success of the PVV? To what extent are they specific to a European context? And what would be a potentially successful strategy for the left in opposing the agenda of Wilders and his allies? These are questions we will attempt to address.
The Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart used to characterise Dutch society and its political representation as a system of “pillarisation”. During the first twenty years after the Second World War the Netherlands was divided into different societal groups based on class and religious divisions. These groups had their own newspapers, radio broadcasting, business and trade-union organisations, feminine and youth organisations, cultural activities and even sport clubs. These pillars of society scarcely interacted: only the political leaderships engaged with each other in a reasonably constructive manner in order to facilitate the rebuilding of a war-torn society. This led to a political system in which there was only a limited exchange of votes in evrey election and where Social-Democrats, Christian-Democrats and Liberals divided power between them. At the same time, the system left no room for any serious opponent of the existing political order, either on the right or left of the political spectrum.
This political stalemate has, however, dramatically changed since the 1970s, when processes of secularisation and emancipation undid the societal order. Student movements, the second feminist wave, the peace movement and a rising environmental movement altered the political constellation. Electoral volatility increased, resulting in 1994 for the first time in a government without the Christian-Democrats, which had always been the leading party. Electoral volatility increased even more in the early 2000s. First, Pim Fortuyn led a revolt against the existing political class, resulting in increasing politicisation of cultural issues, such as the role of Islam in Dutch society. His assassination, an unprecedented event in Dutch political history, did not prevent his party from obtaining one sixth of the vote in 2002 even without a leader.
However, without serious leadership this movement crumbled after his death, as various contenders publicly fought over his heritage. The political pendulum then quickly moved in favour of the Socialist Party (SP), which acquired twenty-five seats in the 2006 election, a share of the vote comparable to that of Fortuyn’s party four years earlier, almost tripling its score from the previous general election.
Neither the Christian-Democrats, who had re-emerged in the early 2000s, nor the Social-Democrats, were willing to enter into a coalition with the SP and chose a smaller coalition party with which to form a government. The 2010 elections then saw the rise of Geert Wilders and his party, which benefited above all from a landslide defeat of the Christian-Democrats.
These high volatility rates have led many commentators to conclude that the Dutch electorate was adrift and that “the populists” on both ends of the political spectrum were succeeding in mobilising discontent. And whereas such conclusions might contain some elements of truth, they fall short of a real understanding of what has been happening in the Netherlands, and probably elsewhere in Europe as well. Without making any attempt to give a complete account, a few deeper trends do jump to the eye in trying to understand the political turmoil of the last decade.
First, we find the rise of a new division in Dutch society, or better a re-configuration of the old class division in the light of processes of Europeanisation and globalisation. Bluntly speaking, these last two processes have sharpened the distinction between the “haves” and “have-nots” in Dutch society. At the same time, the more highly educated part of the Netherlands’ population, who in general have better incomes and suffer less from unemployment when the economy faces problems, as it did during the early 2000s and during the recent financial and economic crisis, have a reasonably positive view of their position in society and of the challenges of economic restructuring in the light of a new economic order.
Consequently, they see globalisation and the Europeanisation as represented by the European Union as positive developments in the sense that these processes increase self-determination and open up new opportunities in the Netherlands and abroad. On the other hand, we find a large section of the population which is struggling in the face of these developments. They see jobs disappearing to Eastern Europe or Asia, while they have a hard time finding new ones. Consequently, they see globalisation and Europeanisation, and thus the European Union, primarily as a threat. This division – among others – came to light during the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution, which was rejected by a two-third majority of the electorate. Here we clearly saw that the higher income groups of the Netherlands tended to be more in favour of the Constitution than were the lower income groups.
Most of the existing parties, whether Liberal, Christian-Democratic or Social-Democratic, have for quite some time ignored the rise of this new division and were shocked by the results of the referendum, having all campaigned in favour of a “yes” vote. In general, we find that these parties applaud the blessings of European integration and globalisation without addressing the issues of uncertainty among many Dutch citizens or the increasing divide within Dutch society between those for whom these processes offer new challenges, and those who lose from them. This neglect has opened the door for new political movements to focus on the widespread anxiety in society. In combination with processes of secularisation and emancipation, as well as neoliberal policies which stress the interests of the individual rather than society as a whole, this has paved the way for parties like Geert Wilders’ PVV to enter Dutch politics.
Interestingly enough, Geert Wilders, once a member of the Dutch Liberal party (VVD) started as a dissident in the mid 2000s with a position that can be characterised as economically libertarian. Wilders advocated, among other things, the abolition of the minimum wage, along with a hire-and-fire culture in which laws protecting workers from dismissal would be relaxed. However, as time passed, the PVV completely changed its socio-economic agenda. During the 2010 campaign, Wilders campaigned in favour of the minimum wage and against any changes in the legislation protecting workers from summary dismissal. Moreover, he declared that his party would only participate in a government if it did not change the pension age of 65, a promise that he abandoned, however, a few hours after the polls closed. With these positions, normally considered to belong to the left of the political spectrum, the PVV actively sought the support of workers who fear the consequences of globalisation. The PVV therefore also campaigned against the European Union, which it considers to be an elite project which infringes on Dutch sovereignty and benefits only a limited number of people. Also, on issues like health care and education, it actively took a stance in favour of the workers in these sectors.
These positions seem to have contributed in an important respect to the popularity of the PVV. In combination with fierce criticism of Islam and the problems associated with what Wilders has labelled “mass immigration”, the PVV accurately gauged the sentiment of a large part of the Dutch electorate. Wilders seems to have captured the feelings of both economic and cultural anxiety in the context of the post 9/11 wars on terrorism and the acclaimed clash of civilisations, combining fear of Islam, insecurity in the public in response to the anti-social behaviour of immigrant youths, the marginal position of women and gays in Islamic religion, and fear of strangers in general in times of insecurity.
Whereas the anti-Islam position has probably, and not without reason, caught most attention in the public debate in Europe, it is not the only explanation for Wilders’ success. Rather, it seems to be the combination of the two, drenched in a rhetoric of alienation which takes aim at a Dutch elite that takes good care of its own interests, but neglects forgotten parts of society, that has given Wilders the boost that he sought when he left the Dutch liberals. Although a Member of Parliament for 13 years, he succeeded in creating an image as an anti-establishment figure opposed by elitist politicians of the right and the left who were preparing a total sell-out of the Netherlands.
The reasons for the success of the PVV demand an intelligent answer from the left. In our view, it is too easy to focus only on the PVV’s anti-Islam and anti-immigration stance. Rather, what is needed is an approach that on the one hand seriously engages with the reasons behind Wilders’ success, and thus the blind spots of the other political parties, and on the other hand actively seeks answers to the hopes and fears of many in Dutch society who feel that they are not taken seriously by the political representatives in the Hague.
In this respect the entrance of the PVV in the role of endorser of the current minority government of Liberals and Christian-Democrats is a good starting point in establishing what the PVV is in reality delivering in fulfilment of its social promises. Here we find that within the first four months of this government, the PVV has broken more than sixty of its promises and indeed voted in complete contradiction of its electoral programme. It now supports the compulsory privatisation of local public transportation in the major cities and has voted against caps on salaries for managers in healthcare, a policy that it has in the past always defended. We then also find the beginnings of disappointment among bus drivers and people in the healthcare sector, who earlier considered the PVV a viable alternative to the existing parties. And although it is still in its early days, it is surprising that the PVV, in contrast to earlier elections such the European Elections in 2009, was unable to mobilise its electorate during the provincial elections in March 2011. Whether there is a clear relationship between the broken promises of the PVV and this decline of support is still to be determined, but it seems that the party’s popularity is declining to some extent.
In this respect, the challenge is not only to demonstrate which promises in its social agenda the PVV has not delivered on, but also to seriously engage with this social agenda, one which is to a large extent actually copied from parties such as our own, making the struggle of those people our own. This can only be successful, however, as long as we can also demonstrate that such a struggle is worth fighting. In this respect, the challenge is to come up with a clear list of examples where social struggle has indeed led to success and thus to improvements.
The same serious analysis ought to be made for the anti-Islam agenda. Here we find that Wilders has been able to influence the national debate on this issue, but that his success rate with regard to policies will probably not be as impressive. What is to be demonstrated is that the Islam is not the problem and that even if every Muslim were to convert to Catholicism, the problems would not disappear. Instead, what is needed is a strategy that would actually support the integration of newcomers in our society. This would include decent housing and a good education system. But also in this case, it comes down to demonstrating that such an alternative strategy is more successful than the one Wilders proposes. In this respect, left parties from all over Europe ought to learn from each other, establish critical cases in which they made the difference and develop alliances with the people they wish to represent in order to bring about a better future. This means that we should identify the basic interests of ordinary people, fight together to defend people’s interests and show who is on their side and who is not. If people recognise you as their ally, they are willing to discuss with you the dark side of right-wing populism and xenophobia. But don’t start preaching, be practical.