What do you do when people favor your ideas but your party is shut out of government? That’s the dilemma faced by the far right in the Netherlands. The Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, settled for second place in the national election held in March. Forum for Democracy (FVD), a new far-right party founded by Dutch public intellectual Thierry Baudet, arrived in parliament by winning two seats.
Dutch elections do not typically draw global attention. But after Brexit and Trump, the Netherlands was considered a bellwether for the future of populism. There was a real chance the Dutch might make Geert Wilders their new prime minister. In the end, however, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, led by incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte, got the most votes. The global mainstream media and political elite were quick to call this a “defeat” for Wilders and for populism. But is it?
The Netherlands uses a proportional-representation voting system. This means that results are more complex to understand than a simple winner-loser dichotomy. The Dutch ballot this year featured 28 parties, and when we consider how each of them fared, the inescapable conclusion is that opposition to Muslim mass immigration and skepticism about Dutch membership in the European Union and the euro won the election. These are ideas that Wilders has been pushing for years and Baudet has recently started echoing.
One of the biggest winners in the election was the Christian Democratic Appeal party. They picked up six seats after they added some of Wilders’s ideas to their platform. Prime Minister Rutte’s party lost eight seats, but they hung on to their top spot mainly because Rutte shifted his rhetoric sharply to the right by starting to talk tough about immigrants: If they don’t like Dutch values, they should leave. Labor lost 29 seats, the worst defeat of any political party in Dutch history. They embraced globalization and immigration, and thus lost touch with their traditional base of blue-collar voters who see those things not as mere political bullet points but as threats to their jobs and communities.
How can the PVV and FVD translate the popularity of their ideas into more votes in the next election? Each faces a different challenge. Wilders’s PVV has proved to be a highly effective opposition party. But now Wilders needs to convince Dutch voters that the PVV can also be a governing party. By contrast, the FVD, with two parliamentary seats, needs to establish itself on the political landscape.
No sooner had the dust settled after the national election than Geert Wilders announced his next move: He plans to field candidates in 60 municipalities in the local elections scheduled for March 2018. This represents a major change of course. Up to now the Party for Freedom has fielded candidates in only two municipalities. This expansion presents both opportunities and risks.
The recent election showed that a large segment of Dutch voters have some sympathy for Wilders’s ideas. However, they can’t bring themselves to pull the lever and make him prime minister. If one of the mainstream parties sounds just enough like Wilders, the Dutch will vote for that party instead.
Wilders already dominates the Dutch news cycle. Nothing he does goes unnoticed. When he opened a Twitter account for his two cats, most major media outlets covered the “story.” And when he is unhappy with the coverage he receives, he takes to social media to speak directly to his hundreds of thousands of followers.
Since Wilders already has popular ideas and communicates them effectively, some political analysts think he has gone as far as he will go. “The populist party of Geert Wilders has reached its ceiling. It will not get bigger than it is now,” says Jan van Benthem, a foreign commentator with the Nederlands Dagblad. That assessment may be overly negative, but it is clear that the PVV needs to try something new in order to grow.
The move into local government is a logical step. Some of Wilders’s proposed legislation could be enacted at the local level. Dutch voters will see the PVV at work in their town halls, represented by people from their own communities. The goal is for Dutch voters to start seeing the PVV as “just like any other party.”
Up to now, Wilders has held the reins of his party very tightly. The PVV has a unique structure in that it has only one member: Geert Wilders. The other parties in parliament have thousands of members. Wilders founded the PVV in 2006, joined it, and then closed the membership rolls. He had witnessed the infighting that destroyed the Lijst Pim Fortuyn after Pim Fortuyn’s assassination and decided this was the best way for the PVV to avoid a similar fate.
Wilders runs his party in an autocratic style. Last year several PVV parliamentarians complained that they received the party’s election platform via email just one hour before it was published. They were never consulted for input. Wilders wrote it mostly by himself, with help from two trusted advisors.
Wilders has no plans to allow more members to join. However, when large numbers of local candidates take office under the PVV banner, they will inevitably reduce the amount of power concentrated in his hands.
The biggest challenge the PVV faces is finding good candidates—large numbers of them—and getting them ready to run for office in less than a year. The risk associated with new, unknown candidates is the main reason the PVV has participated in only two municipalities up to now. After making his initial announcement, Wilders backpedaled, admitting he might have to settle for 50 municipalities instead of 60.
Wilders acknowledges it is virtually inevitable that at some point he will appear before the cameras to explain how on earth some candidate made it through his party’s vetting process. But he believes that by now the PVV is strong enough to weather the storm. He is trying to reduce the risks by letting the PVV’s local organizations handle the vetting process. “I’m leaving it to our people in the provinces, with our assistance,” he told Dutch media. “They will be writing their own platforms and doing their own selection and training of candidates. We are happy to help, but we won’t be arranging it from The Hague.”
The PVV’s work is made somewhat easier by the fact that the Netherlands has a large number of local parties that operate in only one municipality. At least seven of these have signaled interest in becoming part of the PVV. They are an ideal option because their candidates are known quantities with governing experience.
The Freedom Party of Spakenburg, led by Peter Frans Koops, is almost certain to make the switch. He approached the PVV seven years ago about running as their local candidate. When his offer was declined, he started his own party. Koops is nicknamed “the local Wilders” and tried unsuccessfully to introduce a burka ban in Spakenburg. He told Dutch media, “I see Wilders as a sort of prophet. He is like Elijah.”
Candidates will need that level of devotion to Wilders to withstand the social pressure they will face. While the PVV is now the second-largest party in parliament, openly supporting the PVV is still unacceptable in much of Dutch society. Koops says his views have damaged his career as a teacher: “I have trouble applying for jobs. When people Google me, the management quickly says, ‘That guy is with the PVV. That will cause problems with our Muslim students.’”
Nico Uppelschoten, PVV chairman for the province of Drenthe, told Dutch media that he actually discourages younger PVV supporters from becoming candidates. It would harm their life prospects too much: “I tell them don’t run for office with the PVV for the time being. It’s only when we’re bigger and a major force in the Netherlands that you can come out for us.”
Wilders acknowledges the problem but puts a more positive spin on it. During rallies with supporters, he speaks in terms of “having the courage” to run for local office with the PVV.
The PVV’s search for good candidates is important on several levels. The party has existed for over a decade, but Wilders keeps drawing from the same small group of trusted PVV stalwarts for all the jobs he needs to fill. These individuals usually hold more than one function at a time, and also frequently rotate. Local government is a great place for the PVV to identify and train promising candidates. If Wilders’s new strategy is successful, some of them may become cabinet ministers.
With the global media fixated on Geert Wilders in the recent election, little attention was paid to Thierry Baudet. His Forum for Democracy won two seats in parliament, an excellent outcome for a brand-new party. Of the 28 parties on the Dutch ballot, 15 won no seats at all.
Baudet and Wilders are both far-right Dutch politicians, but that’s where the similarities end. Wilders comes from a blue-collar background, and blue-collar voters are his strongest supporters. Baudet was a public intellectual long before he ran for office, and he initially founded Forum for Democracy as a think tank. He earned a doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Leiden and brags of going fox hunting with conservative philosopher Roger Scruton. He plays classical music on his grand piano, which he has moved to his new parliamentary office.
Baudet’s goal is to become a more palatable alternative to Geert Wilders—someone white-collar Dutch voters can support openly without social stigma. Thus, FVD competes less with the PVV and more with the mainstream parties that have adopted some of Wilders’s ideas.
The central tenet of FVD’s platform is increasing direct democracy. Dutch law allows referendums on laws recently passed by parliament. Baudet would like to go much further: “We want to broaden the law to enable the Dutch to have referendums on issues like the Euro and mass immigration,” he says.
Baudet likes to call the Dutch mainstream parties a “cartel.” He told Dutch media,
The way companies agree on prices, that’s how political parties make opinion agreements. They divide the market up amongst themselves. They’ll say you go a bit more to the right, and I’ll go a bit further left. And after that they come together again and keep power in their own hands . . . [T]here has to be a check on these types of internal agreements. There’s only one way to achieve that: regular referendums that check government policy.
The PVV’s platform does not call for more direct democracy, but beyond that Baudet shares many of Wilders’s views. He opposes mass Muslim immigration. “We are admitting too many people from a completely different background. They have such different values,” he argued. “We’re seeing parts of our country that look like Africa, and it’s not home anymore.”
Like Wilders, Baudet believes the E.U. and the euro have been devastating for the Netherlands. “Everything the EU does is so dramatic and so bad,” he declared. “The political elites are not paying the price. The people and entrepreneurs are facing the consequences of terrible policies.”
Baudet argues that the most important difference between the FVD and the PVV is in their respective tones. “We focus on the positive shared values that we have in the Netherlands. It’s clear what they [the PVV] are against but not so clear what they’re for,” he said. “It’s a very negative message they are constantly sending out.”
In his speeches and interviews, Baudet frequently mentions the importance of “Western values,” but he does not mean Christian values. FVD supports a proposal by D66—the most aggressively secular party in the Dutch parliament—to liberalize the euthanasia law. Baudet bases this on the “Western value” of self-determination.
Moreover, while Baudet says Dutch culture is being “diluted” by mass immigration, he does not connect that to the country’s extremely low birthrate:
It’s not necessarily such a bad thing for our population to shrink a bit. This country is overcrowded. We have lots of traffic jams. We have cities with prices like London. It would not be such a bad thing to have classrooms with fewer children in them.
In keeping with his academic background, Baudet is taking an intellectual approach to enlarging his party. Like Wilders, he hopes to field candidates in the local elections next year, but his focus is on spreading his ideas. “We want to change the intellectual infrastructure that has been built by the left,” said Baudet. This entails holding lectures, translating books into Dutch, launching an online channel, and eventually even founding a new university.
So far his plans have moved forward apace. Baudet is just 34 years old, and he is popular with younger voters, particularly college students. When FVD launched a youth division earlier this year, the party garnered over 1,000 members within six hours of opening registration.
Just a few weeks into his term, Baudet made international headlines when he faced off with the president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, who visited the Dutch parliament. Baudet pointed out that Draghi had said that, if Italy left the euro, she would need to repay the bailouts she has received. The Netherlands has paid a surplus of €100 billion into the ECB. Baudet demanded to know whether that amount would be refunded if the Netherlands left the euro.
The FVD is subject to the usual risks associated with new parties—infighting being chief among them. Its second parliamentarian, Theo Hiddema, is an outspoken former prosecutor. Many political commentators wonder if he and Baudet can keep working together for four years. FVD allows members to join in the normal style of Dutch parties, so it will need to be vigilant to keep out extremists who could ruin the party’s chances of becoming mainstream.
Baudet is fond of saying that the PVV is a protest party, whereas FVD can be a governing party. However, a more plausible scenario is that the PVV might become the largest party in the future and would need coalition partners to form a government. FVD would be an obvious choice.
Both parties face many potential pitfalls, but they have good strategies for the years between now and the next election. Most importantly, Dutch voters like their ideas. If the PVV and FVD work hard and exercise discipline, they may well end up forming a government together.