Is far-right populism winning in the Netherlands?

Reply Fri 24 Feb, 2017 07:10 pm
Thanks to Geert Wilders, even the Financial Times has a correspondent roaming around the Dutch countryside.

The intrepid reporter visited the village of Oude Pekela, in the far northeast of the country -- a former communist stronghold where the far-right Freedom Party has been doing well since 2010.

He dug deep, and I think he did an excellent job.

Is far-right populism winning in the Netherlands?

As Geert Wilders campaigns, Simon Kuper reports from the country’s poorest village

“In Oude Pekela they know one thing for sure: asylum-seekers are no good,” ran the headline in De Volkskrant, a Dutch national newspaper, in September.

The photograph above the piece showed a large, shaven-headed man with a neck tattoo, Paul Röbbecke, who had founded a “citizen guard” to defend little Oude Pekela against dangerous foreigners. 

It sounded like the archetypal story of the populist era. Oude (or “Old”) Pekela is a poor village of 8,000 people stuck away in the Dutch north-east, 20km from the German border. Now, the Volkskrant implied, the mostly white Pekelders (as the inhabitants are known) were telling the political elite in The Hague that they had had enough of the local asylum centre.

That’s certainly how the Dutch anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders sees it. His proposed policies include “zero new asylum-seekers”, Dutch exit from the European Union, the closing of all mosques and a ban on sales of the Koran. 

On March 15, in the first elections in a western country since Donald Trump became US president, Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom, or PVV, will probably become the Netherlands’ biggest party. After Trump and Brexit, is another domino about to fall to nativism? 

In winter in Oude Pekela, the mist rising off the flat meadows is so thick that you cycle around with lights on even in daytime. Most days when I visited in January, the sun only shone for a few minutes. Almost the only pedestrians are the asylum-seekers, shrouded in ill-fitting coats, trudging to and from the cheerless barracks where they live, just across the provincial road from the village centre, presumably wondering how on earth they ended up here.

In 2014 the Dutch weekly Elsevier placed Oude Pekela 403rd and last in its ranking of “best municipalities” in the Netherlands. It cited the large number of Pekelders on benefits, the village’s low incomes (by one measure, the lowest in the country), scant jobs, high crime and poor facilities. 

The ranking prompted the Evangelische Omroep (EO), a Dutch broadcaster, to make a documentary billed as “Six Months in the Poorest Village in the Netherlands”. The EO focused on a few jobless locals who seemed to spend their days lazing on their sofas smoking. The documentary irritated many Pekelders, who are fed up with other Dutch people stereotyping them as rural savages. 

It’s an old caricature. Ask people from elsewhere in the Netherlands about Oude Pekela, and many still spontaneously mention allegations of wide-scale paedophilia perpetrated by people dressed as clowns in the 1980s. 

No crimes were ever discovered, and the police eventually said the stories were mass hysteria, but the village’s image never recovered.

In the village

The first thing you notice in Oude Pekela is how much richer it looks than poor towns in Britain or France. If this is the poorest village in the Netherlands, then the Netherlands is in pretty good shape. The Dutch state is very present here. In the village centre there is a warm, clean public library with a coffee bar, which adjoins a sports hall. Across the parking lot are the frozen fields of the local football club, Noordster. 

Pekela’s housing stock looks well kept. I visit a jobless single mother named Rianne Kapteijn, a long-time PVV voter, in her pretty brick house with a garden in a cul-de-sac just off the canal. “I feel quite happy in Pekela,” she says. “Me too!” choruses her well-dressed daughter, doing handicrafts beside her. Kapteijn adds: “I don’t feel poor, because we can afford everything.” The minimum gross benefit for a single adult in the Netherlands is €266.40 a week, more than triple the maximum Jobseeker’s Allowance for a British singleton; Dutch child benefit is higher too. 


Rianne Kapteijn and her daughters: “You do ask yourself why all these people are here”

On reporting trips to poor towns in northern England I have encountered fierce distrust of the media. But everyone I meet in Pekela seems happy to sit down with a journalist, often over a cup of the local hemp tea (nothing to do with marijuana, they explain) and hold forth in High Dutch. (With each other, Pekelders favour the local dialect.) 

If Oude Pekela looks reasonably well off, it’s partly because it used to be well off. People began digging peat out of the ground in this region more than 1,000 years ago. They used it to bake bricks and bread, and to brew beer. Later a local river was reshaped into a canal to transport the peat. Ships constructed on the canal sailed to the Baltic and Mediterranean seas. Some of the gorgeous mansions that line Pekela’s waterfront were built 200 years ago for ship captains. Today you can get a large beautiful house here for less than €200,000.

After the peat ran out, and the size of modern ships outgrew the canal, Pekela became an industrial village. Last century, its engineered strawboards were exported around the world. Many Pekelder factory- and farmworkers were poorly paid, and they rallied behind communist leaders like local boy Fré Meis. His statue now stands by the canal, on the spot where he led a strawboard workers’ strike in 1969. Nearby are Socialist Realist-style statues of workers – one depicting a man in a cap pushing a dog-cart – of the type you might have found in East Germany. 

The centre-left PvdA (Partij van de Arbeid) has been the biggest party in Oude Pekela since 1946, and until the 1980s the Communist party was reliably second. In the last national election, in 2012, Wilders’ PVV finished third here with 14 per cent, but it expects to do better this time.

Pim Siegers, a local councillor for the far-left Socialistische Partij (SP), insists that Oude Pekela remains one of the Netherlands’ “reddest” villages. But the Pekelder strawboard industry died decades ago, and nothing much replaced it. “There are a lot of people in the **** here,” says Siegers. Some of them rely on a food bank. Much of the northern Groningen province suffers from similar neglect. Lucrative gas is pumped out of the ground, but the main effect on the province has been a series of small earthquakes. 

The asylum centre opens

It was largely poverty that prompted Oude Pekela to host an asylum centre – a source of state subsidies and jobs. The residential centre opened in spring 2001, initially with about 400 places. Suddenly Africans in long robes were walking through the village. For the first time since the Germans invaded in 1940, the wider world had come to Oude Pekela. But the timing was disastrous: months after the centre’s opening, the September 11 attacks happened in the US, and anti-immigrant populism took off in the Netherlands. 

The Dutch ruling parties had long taken immigration almost for granted; suddenly that consensus crumbled. In the anxious winter of 2001, the giant, bald, witty, gay, populist Pim Fortuyn emerged as a brand of politician the Netherlands had never seen before. He inveighed against elites and multiculturalism, and called Islam a “backward culture”. Days before the elections in May 2002 he was assassinated by a green activist, but his leaderless LPF party got enough votes to enter the Dutch government, before imploding months later. 


The recreation room at the Oude Pekela asylum centre

In the Pekela asylum centre’s early years, there was frequent irritation (and the odd fight) between local and refugee youths. Boredom is a problem in a village without a cinema or train station. A popular view in Oude Pekela held that the asylum-seekers were cosseted by the Dutch state: they always seemed to be getting money from the bank machine on the high street, bought brand-name beers in the supermarket, and later acquired smartphones. 

Rene Akkerman, a young Pekelder who admires Wilders, notes that most asylum-seekers must have passed through safe but poor eastern European countries on their way here. 

In their shoes, he says, he too would take advantage of the Netherlands’ generous government: “If I go on holiday and I can choose between a two-star and a five-star hotel, I’ll choose the five-star.” 

But over the years, tensions between Pekelders and asylum-seekers mostly diminished. Many new arrivals attended the local school or played in the village’s sports teams. A few refugees, after getting permission to live in the Netherlands, settled in the village for good.

Every now and then, some episode has revived tensions. Things heated up again in Oude Pekela last summer. Asylum-seekers were blamed for a string of incidents: shoplifting, attacks on two police officers, peeing in a resident’s garden, and a man trying to stop a 12-year-old girl on a bike and asking her to come with him. (The local rumour is that he sexually assaulted her, but police said no criminal act occurred. The girl managed to cycle away.) 

Pekela’s mayor, Jaap Kuin of the PvdA, says: “It quickly turned out that the culprits were a group of ‘safe-country’ people” – a term used to refer to asylum-seekers from relatively safe regions like the Balkans and north Africa, who almost invariably have their asylum applications rejected. Pekelders had also complained about asylum-seekers hanging around the local park, whistling at women. Kuin says: “It wasn’t accepted that others took over the village and decided what norms and values applied.”

In September a regional group called Kameraadschap Noord-Nederland (“Comradeship Northern Netherlands”) appealed on Facebook for a demonstration against Oude Pekela’s asylum centre. This was the protest reported by the Volkskrant. The photographs of angry, flag-waving, shaven-headed men seemed to confirm the national stereotype of a savage, backward Oude Pekela. 

In fact, the majority of demonstrators that day weren’t Pekelders at all, but out-of-town supporters of the Kameraadschap – which the Dutch interior minister has described as “an extreme-right group”. Mayor Kuin says: “I won’t communicate with them, I want nothing to do with the Kameraadschap.”

Still, the protesters were playing on genuine discontent. During the demonstration a police vehicle keeping watch had to race over to the Jumbo supermarket, where there had been another theft. Siegers says: “Then you think, ‘Guys, we can’t keep on like this for much longer.’ Local people who would love to take in a Syrian child, preferably in their own living room, were saying, ‘We don’t want them any more.’” 

Around the same time as the Kameraadschap demo, there was a more spontaneous protest by locals fed up with the crime wave. These people were what are now known in Dutch political discourse as “boze burgers” – “angry citizens”. 

“That’s the reason I began taking strong measures,” says Kuin. “It really was a reflection of the Oude Pekela population.” He asked the COA, the government agency responsible for asylum-seekers, to remove the troublemakers who had come from so-called safe countries. The COA refused. It didn’t want towns across the country picking and choosing who to host. 

So Kuin insisted that the COA let him move 130 of the approximately 330 people in Oude Pekela’s centre (including the small group of troublemakers) to other Dutch asylum centres. He felt he had to act, because the misbehaving group was undermining sympathy for real refugees.


It’s noteworthy that Kuin was under pressure only from “angry citizens”, and not from the local PVV. That’s because there is no organised local PVV. In almost all Dutch towns, including Oude Pekela, the PVV hasn’t yet stood in council elections, although it plans to enter the fray next year. So far Wilders has preferred to keep personal control of his party rather than turn it into a mass movement. That’s why he has chosen to remain the PVV’s only member. Like Trump during the US campaign, he controls a Twitter account rather than a party machine.

The awkward facts

Last year’s events in Oude Pekela can read like a standard story of our time: a poor white village tells an out-of-touch elite that (to use the Volkskrant’s phrase) asylum-seekers “are no good”. In this narrative, Wilders replaces the communist Fré Meis as the voice of “the people”. 

But this story doesn’t quite fit the facts. When a group of Kameraadschap demonstrators in Oude Pekela became national news, something got lost in translation. The awkward fact is – as the Volkskrant’s ombudswoman acknowledged after complaints about the original article – many Pekelders think that helping asylum-seekers is a good thing. 

Kuin’s decision to move the 130 people prompted a counter-demonstration: a protest by angry citizens in support of the asylum centre. A couple of dozen locals gathered outside the town hall holding signs that said: “I am ashamed”, “Asylum-seekers are welcome” and “Get the culprit, not the whole group”. 

National media didn’t report this protest. Many of the pro-asylum protesters were churchgoers who volunteer at the asylum centre. Jakob Zwinderman, a business coach, told me the Bible was clear: “You receive a guest, and you offer him bed, brood en bad [bed, bread and bath] so that he can go on again.” He continues: “Our church held an ecumenical service with 200 people to raise money for toys for the asylum centre. This got no attention in the press. The same day, 15 blackshirts with tattoos and caps got all the attention for their outrage over the centre.”

Standing up for refugees can be risky. Maurits Langeler, a churchgoer and businessman who lives in the adjoining, slightly wealthier village of Nieuwe Pekela, says that when he began speaking out for asylum-seekers, he got threats. 

Langeler once told anti-asylum demonstrators outside the asylum centre: “There’s a 12-year-old boy from Syria inside who walked here alone, without his parents. Do you want to come in and meet him?” To which, he says, the response was: “Get out, man!” But Langeler says he can imagine how his opponents felt: “You don’t look inside my house... I have misery too.” 


Ria Grijze, who helps at the asylum centre, was upset by the anti-immigrant protests in the village

The churches try to do their bit for Pekelders who are struggling, though a woman named Ria Grijze admits it is sometimes harder to help them than to help asylum-seekers. Local people in need, Grijze says, “often blame someone else. And they keep you at a distance, a bit. Maybe they are very embittered and can’t accept something from you. Maybe a Syrian woman can.”

Grijze was upset by the anti-asylum demonstrations. But her Syrian “buddy” told her: “Don’t get worked up about it. In our country and in the asylum centre there are also people who aren’t nice.” Some of Pekela’s asylum-seekers were relieved when the misbehaving “safe-country” youths were moved away. 

For many Pekelder churchgoers, the asylum centre has become a central part of their lives. One woman I meet had felt useless after her children grew up and left home, and had become depressed. Volunteering to help asylum-seekers gave her a purpose, she says. Another volunteer, Lenie Cannegieter, is grateful that the asylum-seekers “were placed in our path”. Muslim women, she adds, “hug you till you’re blue”.

Some asylum-seekers, in turn, try to help local people. When a church collected clothes for poor Pekelders, asylum-seekers helped sort the donations. Most of them are bored out of their minds, and keen to do something other than dwell on their own trauma. A number of Muslim asylum-seekers even attend Bible study groups. One refugee who came along to church was amazed to see female worshippers wearing short dresses, says Langeler, who thinks this kind of cultural immersion can help asylum-seekers integrate in the Netherlands.

Many Pekelders are quietly accepting of the asylum-seekers. Geert Begeman, a 91-year-old former farmer turned poet and memoirist, tells me: “It’s just the development of our time, the multicultural society. It’s simply part of everything.” 

Zwinderman, who chairs the village’s entrepreneurs’ society, emailed Pekelder shopkeepers to ask whether they had experienced problems with asylum-seekers. He showed me the responses of the three who replied:

Shopkeeper 1: “Some are nice and some not nice. You must treat them as you would want to be treated yourself… One thing is sure, they have all experienced something bad: war, dangerous surroundings, death. Traumatised – nobody wants that.”

Shopkeeper 2: “If asylum-seekers come in, they usually look around, sometimes ask prices and then leave again… They were often in the park but that didn’t give us trouble. Usually it’s Pekelder youth that leave behind lots of rubbish, especially at the windmill.”

Shopkeeper 3: “I have no troubles either from the asylum centre or from its inhabitants. As regards the ‘proletarian shopping’ [theft] by asylum-seekers in the supermarket, I don’t think it’s worse than that by some Pekelders.” (The point that some Pekelders cause trouble was made to me by many in the village.) 


Geert Begeman, 91, pictured at his home: “It’s just the development of our time, the multicultural society”

Yet Zwinderman also knows even well-off locals who are fed up with refugees. He tries to describe their feelings: “We work ourselves sick, and look at what the state does with our money!” 

‘Deserving’ and ‘undeserving’

There are undoubtedly Pekelders who believe refugees should be barred from the Netherlands. I looked for these people, hoping to give them a voice in this article, but I couldn’t find any. Almost everyone I spoke to, including three PVV supporters, drew a distinction between undeserving “gelukszoekers” (“seekers of luck, happiness”) who ought to be sent back home, and “real” asylum-seekers who should be helped.

Kapteijn, the unemployed single mother, worries that immigrant cities like Rotterdam “feel like abroad”. She says her hometown in the central Netherlands now has so many “foreigners” that she wouldn’t want to live there. She remarks that the Syrian city of Aleppo wasn’t entirely flattened, only eastern Aleppo. “So you do ask yourself why all these people are here. I certainly have an opinion about gold-diggers.” 

However, Kapteijn also volunteers at Pekela’s asylum centre, and has taken children from the centre to play at her house. She herself had to flee a relationship in South Africa. “Then you see that you need that [help], and it’s nice that we can offer that.” 

Even Akkerman, the Wilders admirer who thinks the Netherlands lets in too many people, says: “If someone has to flee for political reasons, that for me is a reason to let them in. If something happens to you yourself, you also want to be able to go somewhere.” 


Lenie Cannegieter and Maurits Langeler, photographed in front of the Christian Reformed Church, are among the residents who support Oude Pekela’s asylum centre

The local distinction between deserving and undeserving asylum-seekers differs from Wilders’ hard line. The Pekelder consensus seems closer to the view of prime minister Mark Rutte, of the centre-right VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie ) party: “Act normally, or get out.” 

Most Dutch people seem to have some degree of willingness to take in refugees. In a poll carried out by I&O Research and Twente University in 2015, 71 per cent of respondents said they would consider an asylum centre in their town “acceptable”. (Of that group, 42 per cent said it would be unconditionally acceptable, and 29 per cent under certain conditions.) 

A trope of populism is that out-of-touch elites ignore the anger of “ordinary people” until it boils over. That doesn’t seem to be what has happened in Oude Pekela. Kuin spends much of his time trying to find out what local concerns are. 

When Akkerman complains that the council doesn’t listen to Pekelders, I remind him that after Kuin became mayor he organised “coffee hours” at which anyone could drop in without an appointment. Hardly anyone showed up. Kuin still offers to meet any Pekelder wanting to talk to him. Akkerman replies: “That’s true. But I have the feeling that it would be more use talking to a wall.” I ask: “Why don’t you try?”, to which Akkerman responds: “Why does he need me to tell him what he should do?” 

When locals protested against the asylum centre in September, the Socialistische Partij – attuned to local feeling – backed Kuin’s decision to relocate the troublemakers. Afterwards, anger decreased. Freddie Boon of Pekela’s so-called citizen guard told Dutch TV he supported the move, adding: “Some would rather they had all left, but you shouldn’t do that either.” 

When I visited Pekela in January, nobody mentioned any recent incidents with asylum-seekers. Akkerman says: “The last few months it’s really quiet.” The citizen guard, which had organised on Facebook, and “walked around a bit” in the autumn, according to Kuin, seems to have melted away since. (I tried several times to contact its founder Röbbecke for an interview, but he didn’t reply.)

Since the asylum centre opened here in 2001, local anger seems to have gone in cycles. It peaks when there is an incident of violence or misbehaviour and then dissipates, whereupon the village gets on with life until the next incident. Most Dutch towns with asylum centres seem to cope. In the I&O poll, only 15 per cent of people who lived near one of the centres said they had experienced nuisance or difficulties. By contrast, 49 per cent of people who didn’t live near a centre expected that if they did, they would experience problems.

Things are currently so quiet in Oude Pekela that Kuin says he could do with more asylum-seekers. The centre now houses about 200 people but he thinks Pekela could handle 400 – preferably families, he adds, as there isn’t enough for single youths to do in the village. 

Half-empty asylum centres are now an issue across the Netherlands. Anxiety over asylum-seekers peaked in autumn 2015. There were warnings that the country would be flooded. Angry demonstrations against centres took place across the country. When the state’s Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau (SCP) polled the Dutch about their greatest concern in late 2015, 65 per cent replied: “The refugees.” It was the first time since the survey began in 2008 that any single concern was shared by more than 30 per cent of the population. But the flood never came, because Turkey did a deal with the EU to stop refugees at its border. 

Last year about 31,200 asylum-seekers and their relatives registered in the Netherlands. Now many of the country’s plans for new asylum centres are being scrapped. In the SCP’s most recent poll, concern over refugees had declined, though it remained high. Refugees are an issue in the March elections, but probably less than Wilders would have wanted.

Wilders’ nativist movement is often likened to Brexit and Trump. But proportionately it’s much smaller. Britain’s Leave movement and the Trump campaign each persuaded about half the electorate, whereas Wilders is polling at 20 per cent or under. 

Even if his becomes the largest party as forecast, that might not get him very far. Because of the Netherlands’ system of proportional representation, Dutch governments are always coalitions, which can only rule effectively if they have more than half the seats in parliament. 

But it’s hard to see who the PVV could go into coalition with. Rutte’s VVD – the most rightwing of the mainstream parties – has ruled out a deal. In addition, Dutch parties usually need to make compromises in order to form coalitions – and Wilders has never shown much interest in compromising. It looks more likely that the mainstream parties, whose differences are relatively small, will patch together a new coalition. Akkerman, for one, says he won’t be voting for Wilders in March because he doubts the PVV can get into government. 

Nor is Wilders a thrilling novelty the way Trump and Brexit were. He has been an MP for 19 years, first for the VVD and then for the PVV, which he founded in 2006. The PVV represents the “middle-finger vote” for Pekelders who are fed up with The Hague, says Siegers, but he adds that the bigger threat to his own SP party is abstention.

Wilders claims to speak for excluded Dutch people – in his phrase, for “Henk and Ingrid”. But the truth is that even in poor Oude Pekela he represents a minority. Some Pekelders do think asylum-seekers are “no good” but most hold more positive and nuanced views. The new international cliché is that the elite needs to go to places like Oude Pekela to listen to “ordinary people”. If it did, it might be surprised by what it heard.
Reply Fri 24 Feb, 2017 07:55 pm
Thanks for that read, Nimh.
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cicerone imposter
Reply Fri 24 Feb, 2017 08:54 pm
Interesting history.
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Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 11:49 am
Another good piece on Dutch politics from the FT.

The author points out that no fewer than 28 parties are on the ballot, trying to win the votes of Dutch citizens on March 15. He argues that the atomisation of Dutch politics makes the election hard to call, its aftermath potentially messy, and has serious implications for the Netherlands’ governability.

I'm a bit skeptical about how the argument centers on how many parties are on the ballot and in parliament - that's nothing new. Neither are jeremiads about how ungovernable it makes the country, but they generally fail to point out concrete adverse effects.

What is definitely true is that the balance of parties is changing. Gone are the days of a couple of large parties and a lot of small ones, all with a stable electorate. Now it's a free-for-all for between five to seven mid-sized parties, with voters flitting from one to the other, and an increasing number voting for the far right and far left, and protest parties in general. And that definitely does have concrete effects on the country's governability.

As the article notes: "The top three parties are expected to garner barely 40 per cent of votes, according to research group Ipsos, down from 89 per cent three decades ago."

Anyway, an interesting piece for anyone who happens to be curious about Dutch politics.

Splintering of Dutch politics makes election hard to predict

Growth of pop-up parties in Netherlands reflects voter fatigue

[..] Nearly half the parties in the election have been in existence since just 2014, as a mixture of renegade MPs, journalists and opportunists attempts to win over voters fed up with mainstream groups. Importantly, up to 14 parties are forecast to gain seats in the 150-strong parliament, while the largest traditional parties are expected to lose voters in droves.

The top three parties are expected to garner barely 40 per cent of votes, according to research group Ipsos, down from 89 per cent three decades ago.

Just as discontent with traditional political parties has spawned the growth of the populist Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain, the growth of “pop-up parties” in the Netherlands reflects voters’ fatigue.

“All major parties have governed with each other in some form, creating mostly bland centrist politics, which leads to people looking for any alternative available,” says Cas Mudde, an expert on European political populism at the University of Georgia in the US.

In the Dutch case the phenomenon is amplified by the electoral system, an extreme version of proportional representation. Any party that wins more than 0.67 per cent of the vote will get a seat in parliament, creating extra incentive for voters to try something new.

“We always had many parties but it was always very organised,” says Gijs Schumacher, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. Dutch politics was neatly divided along religious or class lines, he adds.

A mixture of secularisation and the dwindling power of organised labour, coupled with mass immigration, removed the foundations upon which the political system stood, Mr Schumacher says. “Newer parties have widened the ideological spectrum.”

The system lends itself to those with an entrepreneurial streak. Anyone with a public profile can go it alone with a moderate chance of success.

Thierry Baudet, the founder of the rightwing Forum for Democracy, is typical of the new wave. Although relatively well known as a newspaper columnist, Mr Baudet — tall, charming and self-confident — came to prominence in Dutch politics by campaigning vociferously for a No vote in the country’s recent referendum on an EU plan for closer ties with Ukraine. In the end, the side he was on was successful: 61 per cent of Dutch voters opposed the EU-Ukraine agreement. [...]

Polls indicate that they will get one seat — progress for a party started barely half a year ago. “Anti-establishmentism is a little in vogue,” says Mr Schumacher.

GeenPeil, an anarchic group that emerged from satirical Dutch blog GeenStijl and launched the petition that resulted in the Ukraine referendum, is also running for office. It apes the Five Star Movement, with decisions made by its members via online polls.

Special interest parties, focusing on issues ranging from the rights of immigrants, pensioners and even animals, have erupted, leeching votes from more established peers and turning electoral toeholds into sturdy foundations.

There is even the Niet Stemmers — the None Voters — aimed at the one in four Dutch people who do not vote. Any MPs elected will be obliged to follow suit and not vote in parliament. “No longer will their voice be hijacked by other parties,” declares its website.

The party stuck to its principles and did not respond to a request for an interview.

The Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’ anti-immigration, anti-EU Party for Freedom is in a strong position to emerge from the election as the leading party, is suffering from the same malaise affecting mainstream parties across Europe, argues Stijn van Kessel, a politics lecturer at Loughborough University.

“It is quite typical of other countries but due to these institutional characteristics you see it happening more extremely,” he says.

With eight parties forecast to pick up more than 10 seats of the 150-strong chamber — and only Mr Wilders occasionally polling at more than 30 seats — coalition formation after the poll will be a mess.

But Dutch politics moves quickly. There is always room for a surprise. In 2002, the flamboyant academic and polemicist, Pim Fortuyn, founded a party three months before the election, in which it won 17 per cent of seats. Fortuyn was murdered nine days before the vote. Although the party was briefly in government, by 2008 it was gone.

Mr Wilders started life as an MP in the same party as Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, before splitting from the group and founding the PVV in 2006. Now the PVV is forecast to pick up roughly one in five votes. [...]

Holland’s special interest parties


Formed in 2009 as a party aimed at the elderly. It scraped two seats in 2012 but could gather five times as many this election because of discontent with proposed pensions reform.

The Party for the Animals

The party does what its name suggests, and campaigns on animal rights. It boasts a 16-year-old and a 91-year-old candidate and is expected to win up to half a dozen seats.

Forum for Democracy

Formed from the embers of the Ukraine referendum, the rightwing party wants to introduce Swiss-style binding referendums into Dutch political life. It may win one seat.


A spin-off from Labour aimed at collecting votes from the Netherlands’ large, predominantly Muslim minorities population, Denk’s name translates to Think. Labour has traditionally done well among immigrants, although the party has recently taken a tougher line on integration, which in part led to two MPs defecting to set up Denk.

Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 12:01 pm
Very interesting Nimh. Thanks.

To what (if any) extent do you see a connection or common theme among the apparently populist parties arising in the Netherlands, France, Italy and even Hungary? From my perspective some level of nationalist discontent with the EU appears to be a factor (or perhaps merely a visible symptom). Not much is written about all this here, and I'm curious.
Walter Hinteler
Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 12:37 pm
I've talked a bit recently to some Dutch about politics - most will vote for Wilders, but don't vote him as prime minister or in the government, they "only" want to wake up the other parties.

Thanks to whatever: our extreme right does what did they during the last 60 years: demolishing itself with personal claims for power, unshadowed Antisemitism and their intensive contacts to Russia (the latter makes them popular to Germans from Russia, though).
There's fear with these scare mongers that they loose support.

Many of the die-hard reactionary population have found a new home, though, in this "new" party (AfD).
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Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 03:05 pm
Thank you for an interesting article. I also like the way it is written.
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Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 04:28 pm
That's quite the question. :-)

Just speaking very roughly, from the top of my head (so take with a grain of salt, though it also means a lot of this is really general/obvious) -- things that the voters of populist-nationalist, far right parties in most of Europe have in common include:

- To start with the blindingly obvious: opposition to, and fear of, immigration, which is seen as a cultural, security and economic threat.

To some extent, they distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' immigrants. Worst are the Muslims. As rallying cry for the far right, opposition to Islam emerged as the defining rallying call over the past couple of decades in the West, and since 2015 even in the East.

The refugee crisis of 2015 added a new injection of anxiety and resentment.

- Pessimism about the country's future and the economy. Insecurity and pessimism about their own (families') position in society, both socially and economically.

- Alienation from the political class, which is seen as being out of touch with (and disinterested in) their concerns and realities, and unable to speak in plain language they can relate too.

- Fear and resentment of economic globalization, and disdain and resentment for the European Union.

- Generally speaking, working class or lower middle class backgrounds and lower levels of education.

- A combination of right-wing populist sentiments on immigration and law and order with more mixed, sometimes left-wing (but mostly inconsistent) sentiments on economic issues.

That last one's interesting, I feel. Far-right voters span a wide spectrum on the economy (it's not their primary reason for voting far-right, after all), but what I'd maybe call welfare state nationalism seems to be (increasingly?) prevalent. Rhetorics in support of 'virtuous' state spending and intervention is welcomed: safeguarding pensions, increasing health care spending, lowering rents, defending benefits for "our people", maybe reining in the multinationals. But right-wing attacks on state spending and intervention are equally welcome when the targets are deemed non-virtuous: lazy "benefit scroungers", feckless bureaucrats, immigrants getting government money "when we don't get anything", subsidies for artists and other useless elitists, etc.

This populist mix sets them apart from the economic beliefs of the traditional left. Though arguments are being made (eg in the Netherlands) that, to some extent, these "left-conservative" voters were always there, but they were just not represented by the political parties. So they sorted into the Labour party (esp if they were working class) or the right (esp if they were lower middle class), but embraced the opportunity when finally a political current emerged that represented their true feelings. That can only be part of the explanation though - there have obviously also been specific political and economical developments (immigration/multiculturalization and its backlash, globalisation/liberalization and its backlash, secularization and the erosion of strong communitarian ties, the collapse of the christian-democratic and socialist/social-democratic mass parties, etc) that fuel the far right in ways it could not have flourished in the past.
Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 05:29 pm
It all seems vaguely familiar here.
Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 06:03 pm
Ha! Well, yes.

Don't know if you caught it but I'd quickly edited my post to fit in a couple of obvious points still. (Hello, European Union?)

A lot of the above, in my view, adds up to broad explanatory pattern. It's not just immigration and how it changed people's neighbourhoods beyond recognition. While the far right does well with white, working class people who live or used to live in multiethnic cities and neighbourhoods, it also does (increasingly?) well in economically or culturally peripherical areas where immigrants are rare. The south-east and north-east of the Netherlands, for example. Eastern Germany.

I think, on a broader level, what's driving the fear and resentment that fuels the far right is this sense of a loss of control. The notion of a national body politic in which local politicians could shape the country's governance and economy, and did so with good intentions and with strong community ties, was always partly a fiction. But it does seem more remote than ever.

The economy is governed by an abstract, international financial industry, and by multinationals who can't be stopped by any middling national politician from shipping jobs to Asia. Politics is governed by an abstract, unelected European Commission and bureaucracy. National borders aren't controlled anymore. Inside the country, liberalization, flexibilization and privatization mean safe jobs and secure future prospects don't exist anymore. Austerity means you can't trust that pensions and benefits await when you get old or sick. And a constant churn of multiculturalization, gentrification, etc means that you're never quite sure what your social position in society will be.

I mean, it is pretty ******* scary. I'm scared too. And it seems easy enough to empathize with how it is scariest for those whose social and economic place is most threatened, compared with where they or their families stood in the post-war consensus years. Not the university-educated, cosmopolitan young who use the frontier-less EU to live or study abroad or make careers in tech or finance, but middle-class and working class people.

The white ones, anyway. Minority voters, who remember how their immigrant parents or grandparents slaved over minimal wages and working conditions, might be more cognizant of how the good old days weren't all as good as they now seem. But a couple of (imperfect, contradictory) polls this past few months suggested that Wilders is even attracting a significant chunk of Surinamese-Dutch voters (who often came to Holland before most of the Moroccans and Turks). Vice versa, the Surinamese and Antilleans faced plenty of racism and discrimination in the past but seem now to have acquired "good immigrant" status in the eyes of many Wilders voters - it's the Muslims and refugees who are scary now...
0 Replies
Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 06:48 pm
Meanwhile, though, at least as interesting as the commonalities are the differences between the far-right parties and their voters across Europe.

Some of those have to do with practical differences. In some countries (especially in the east), popular disgust with institutional corruption has been a big issue (and vote winner) for the far right. Not just in the east: in Italy and to a lesser extent France as well. Not as relevant in, broadly speaking, Protestant Europe.

Or they're related to demographic differences. Until 2015, for example, the Hungarian far right didn't care about Muslims - the far-right party Jobbik actually buddied up with Iran (which, you know, also hates Jews). Its main rallying cry was about "Gypsy crime". Only the refugee crisis of 2015, which dramatically landed right at Hungary's stations and borders, changed their tune on that.

Other differences, however, are rooted in major cultural differences between countries and parts of Europe. Very roughly speaking, far-right parties in Central and Eastern Europe generally still combine anti-immigrant stances with historic nationalism and culturally conservative beliefs. They tout the importance of christian religion, oppose LGBT rights, revile feminists and other libertine modernistic deviants, and cultivate the memory of national historical grievances. Greece's Golden Dawn seems to fit into most of this as well.

Further West and North, at least significant chunks of the far right have embraced modernity and liberal culture - selectively, anyway. Actually, I think the Dutch get to claim a pioneering role there, thanks to the flamboyantly gay Pim Fortuyn. Anti-semitism was (at least rhetorically) thrown out along with any (already rudimentary) cultural-conservative stuff. In fact, the far right has made something of a point of touting itself as the "real" defender of liberal Dutch culture. To put it crudely, it's now all about how "those filthy muslim, moroccan immigrants who don't want to integrate should keep their hands off of our gays, Jews and women".

I wonder if it's the same in Norway and Denmark. I'd expect so? Britain's UKIP started off with its share of aging former Tories who grumbled about gays and the lost empire and David Cameron's modernizing ways, but that seems a small minority by now; in general, its voters don't seem particularly concerned with culture war issues other than the EU and immigration.

But this is perhaps a development over time as much as a difference between cultures. Look at Marine Le Pen and her Front National (FN). The old FN, under Le Pen père, was still partly a construct of France's historic, reactionary, clerical far-right. It was deeply anti-semitic, anti-modernist, and coloured by resentment about the Algerian war. But Marine Le Pen has made a bit of a show of embracing the jews and the gays. Hell, even the leader of Hungary's Jobbik is now making overtures to the Jewish community.

So perhaps this isn't as much a difference between the far right of the West/North and the East/South as much as one between the far right of the past and the far right of the future.

There's a countervailing pattern in the apparent development of far right politics, however. It brings us back to economics.

Historically, much of populist, nationalist, authoritarian politics in Europe was associated with a certain strand of middle class culture. More specifically, depending on the country, on the petite or haute bourgeoisie. Shop-keepers and small business owners were almost always among the far right's core electorates. Certainly true for the old French far right, for the Flemish far right, and IIRC for Mosley's black shirts too.

There was also of course a strong workerist tradition on the extreme right. Germany's Nazis had plenty of support among workers, but had to compete with strongly organized communist and social-democratic workers, whereas they had more of a free hand with the petite bourgeoisie (Walter will correct me if I'm wrong). But post-WW II, it seemed to me that the European far-right, where it survived or re-emerged, was less of the workerist and more of the middle-class variety. Germany's Republikaner seemed more typical, in that respect, than its NPD.

In the Netherlands, Fortuyn and Geert Wilders after him went further still, and seemed to embrace a (by Dutch standards) libertarian economic profile. Fortuyn had influential backers from the construction industry. Wilders came from the (by Dutch standards) free-market VVD. In Britain, UKIP and Nigel Farage also seemed to embrace a libertarian-light platform: down with taxes, cut regulation. While far right parties everywhere inveigh against taxes and bureaucracy, I remember making a habit of distinguishing between the far-right parties of the east, who were more statist and collectivist, and this seemingly new breed of West-European far right politicians.

But here, the far right's development over time seems to be going away from middle-class individualism and towards working-class collectivism.

Maybe I see this too much through a Dutch perspective. Geert Wilders realized pretty quickly which side his electoral bread was buttered. As it turned out that he could rake in at least as many disenchanted working class voters who (or whose parents) had once voted Labour or even communist as formerly VVD voting traditional right-wingers, he changed his tune. He started more and more combatively touting how he'd defend welfare state accomplishments - pensions, health care, rents, etc. Mind you, his party's parliamentary vote record has not kept pace! They still largely vote right-wing, but they increasingly talk left-wing. And Wilders did blow up the right-wing government of 2010-2012, which his party was propping up, over pensions.

But I don't think it's just Holland. Take Marine Le Pen. She seems to have gone ever further in nicking the left's rhetorics on economics. She's even nicked the socialists' rose in her new logo. And it works: a new poll shows her getting 46% of blue-collar workers, in the first round already. In Britain, UKIP's new (very flawed) leader Paul Nuttal has long been pushing his party to shift strategies once and for all and go hard after Labour's voting base rather than appealing primarily to disenchanted Conservative voters. The Brexit campaign went heavy on promising more funds for Britain's nationalized health service.

I don't claim to know whether the far right's demographics are driving its platforms or vice versa. But the presidential candidate of Austria's Freedom Party last year got a whopping 85% of the blue-collar vote even as he lost the election. Even Germany's AfD, which started off as an economically right-wing, Eurosceptic party, managed to be the #1 choice for workers in Berlin's last state elections. (In Berlin!) In Hungary, Jobbik doesn't do particularly well with the poor, but does score highly with skilled workers in mid-sized towns.

I don't know to what extent this is the way things are just going to be now, and traditional social-democracy will go the way of historical relics of party politics, or it's mostly just a reflection of rank opportunism. The mainstream left is historically weak right now, and its downward slide is driven by its electoral collapse with the working class (even as it often still holds on with its upper-middle class base), so it's no wonder the far right's gone right after that opportunity. Maybe next time round, it's the center-right's turn to experience a downward slope in the cycle, and the far-right populists will switch gears to pick up voters there again. (And to be sure, they're still getting a lot of votes from there even now too.)

Past experiences in Austria, the Netherlands and most recently Finland suggest that the far right's new grip on working class constituencies can collapse at short notice when it gets to govern and dirties its own hands with austerity politics. There will always be a market for economically hard-right xenophobia as well (I think Poland's Janusz Korwin-Mikke presents a particularly insane brand of that). So that will remain an aspect which will divide Europe's far right too.
Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 07:22 pm
You are a hell of a typist, straight speaker, natural explainer, nimh - that is not a knock. I learn by leaps and bounds when I read all this.

I figure some will argue, as always on a2k, but this is terrific background.
Walter Hinteler
Reply Mon 27 Feb, 2017 11:08 pm
Thanks, nimh!
I think, it's quite similar here, too.

But I suppose, some of those are just that kind of supporters who actually are "only" notorious troublemakers. And conspiracy theorists. (Latest example is the the fatal accident in Heidelberg, where these people don't believe the police, still want to know the religion and more about the ethnic background of the driver - but have lost no word about the killed person or the injured.)

Walter Hinteler
Reply Tue 28 Feb, 2017 12:16 am
@Walter Hinteler,
As a side note, about the situation in France:

The organisers, who came up with idea over beer, said they launched the website and began plastering Obama17 posters around Paris because they were disenchanted with the candidates running in France’s election.

The movement’s website said it wants to coax France out of its “lethargy” and Obama has the experience to do it.

“We wish to strike a blow by electing a foreign president at the head of our beautiful country,” the website reads.

“Barack Obama has completed his second term as president of the United States … why not hire him as president for France?”

The group aims to reach more than 1m signatures by 15 March.

Polls now show far-right candidate Marine Le Pen leading in the first round of the presidential election in April but losing in the second round to a single candidate from the centre-left or centre-right.

But that race has tightened, raising the prospect that the National Front leader could become the first far-right politician to win power through the ballot box in Western Europe since the second world war.
Reply Tue 28 Feb, 2017 04:44 am
ossobucotemp wrote:

You are a hell of a typist, straight speaker, natural explainer, nimh - that is not a knock. I learn by leaps and bounds when I read all this.

I figure some will argue, as always on a2k, but this is terrific background.

I must say, this to me is A2K at its best. Thank you, Nimh.
0 Replies
Reply Tue 28 Feb, 2017 04:25 pm
@Walter Hinteler,
That's funny. :-)

Osso, Olivier, thank you for the kind words.
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Reply Tue 28 Feb, 2017 04:54 pm
Great human interest story.

I know most sporting celebrities don't air their political leanings, but do you know where Marianne Vos stands, politically speaking? For those who don't know, she's a Dutchwoman who is the greatest racing cyclist in the world. She seems religiously conservative. She made somewhat derisive comments about Buddhists when she traveled to Southeast Asia when she raced there a couple of year ago.
Walter Hinteler
Reply Wed 1 Mar, 2017 11:14 pm
It now seems that Wilders is loosing support due to his proximity to Trump.
(Around 16% now, which would mean 22 to 26 seats.)

Walter Hinteler
Reply Wed 8 Mar, 2017 09:43 am
@Walter Hinteler,
An interesting report on dw - In an interview, Dutch MP Han ten Broeke discusses whether he thinks his government will be swept away by the populism that has stunned the Western world over the last year.
Will populism win in the Netherlands?
0 Replies
Reply Sat 11 Mar, 2017 03:39 am
The British Press Can't Stop Writing About Marine Le Pen
Posted on March 9, 2017, at 10:04 a.m.
Alberto Nardelli, BuzzFeed News Europe Editor

The UK press is providing disproportionate attention to France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, analysis by BuzzFeed News has found.

In the past three months, UK news publications listed with the aggregation service Nexis produced 602 headlines about Le Pen, four and a half times the number of stories they published about the French election’s frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron.

Sites such as the Express and The Independent have run startling, highly viral headlines suggesting Le Pen is surging in the polls or is on track for victory despite all current surveys suggesting she will almost certainly fail in a second-round vote.

Over the past three months, the hyperpartisan 10Express – whose owner Richard Desmond donated £1 million to the UK Independence Party in 2015 – published nearly two stories a day about Le Pen, far more than any other UK news outlet.

Recent headlines include “Marine Le Pen vows to REMOVE France from ‘MONSTER’ EU and start NEW bloc of rebel nations”, “Marine Le Pen SOARS in latest French election poll as rivals Macron & Fillon FALL AWAY”, and “'I will not submit!' Marine Le Pen REFUSES to grovel to Merkel and EU in swipe at elite”.

Many such pieces, which have generated thousands of engagements on Facebook, are misleading. They portray a country overcrowded by migrants and in chaos, where Le Pen appears to be surging towards an inevitable presidency with France on its way out of the European Union.

The Express endorsed Brexit, and is relentlessly anti-EU and anti-immigration.

In reality, while polls do show Le Pen leading Macron in the first round of voting by a couple of percentage points, French elections take place over two rounds – there is a run-off vote between the top two candidates. According to these same polls, if an election were held today, Macron would defeat Le Pen resoundingly, by some 20 points.

"It is remarkable how large parts of the British press keep telling – or rather misinforming – the world about the pending collapse of the European Union while the UK itself is looking at the scenario of Scotland and possibly even Northern Ireland trying to leave the UK in order to stay in the EU," Wolfgang Blau, chief digital officer for Condé Nast International and the former editor of Zeit.de, told BuzzFeed News. "Whipping up a frenzy about the less likely scenario of the EU collapsing while downplaying the serious risk of Scottish secession is activism, not journalism."

After the Express, the most prolific outlets are The Independent (it produced 68 headlines about Le Pen in the past three months, with its former sister title the i producing a further 14 headlines), the Telegraph (47), and the Daily Mail and MailOnline (a combined total of 40). Both the Daily Mail and the Telegraphendorsed the Leave vote during last year’s EU referendum.

By comparison, other outlets, such as The Guardian and Sky News, published only about a dozen pieces each about Le Pen over the same period of time, according to the Nexis data.

The Nexis service includes most UK publications, with the exception of News Corp titles like The Sun. [...]

"UK media and especially our partisan press tends to report other countries' politics through a domestic prism," Charlie Beckett, media professor at the London School of Economics, told BuzzFeed News. "This has been accentuated by factors such as the reduction in foreign bureaux and foreign correspondents with real knowledge and a perspective from a place like France.

"This year's continental elections are seen as part of the Brexit debate. Eurosceptic newsrooms want to conflate all 'populist' right-wing parties as part of an uprising of anti-immigrant, anti-Brussels sentiment."

0 Replies

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