The new face of populism in the Netherlands
For a Brit in the Netherlands, voting in yesterday’s elections was a strange experience. I cycled to the polling station, of course, along a thin strip of land sandwiched between lakes and rivers, past advertising banners which pledged no more windmills in the surrounding fields. The polling station was a church built in the fourteenth century, and a traffic jam had formed outside as a farmer left his tractor running while he voted. Inside, the options on the voting paper were truly bewildering. Two elections were taking place simultaneously – the local water board and the Dutch provincial authorities, which will in turn choose who sits in the national Senate – and the voting papers included dozens of parties and names. I couldn’t vote in both elections, but picking a candidate to support still felt like choosing a meal from a very long menu at a Chinese takeaway. The choose-your-vote websites I consulted weren’t much help either: did I support investing more in uncoupling rainwater from sewage pipes, or not?
Twenty-four hours later, that bucolic atmosphere already seems a long time ago. In some ways the outcome of the provincial elections was unsurprising: the parties in Mark Rutte’s governing coalition lost some votes, smaller opposition parties gained, and the political landscape grew even more fractured. The new Senate will include more than a dozen different parties – enough to make an Englishman, raised on diet of two-party politics, dizzy. In other ways, though, the results were seismic. Two years after Rutte was re-elected and Dutch populism “defeated”, the far right did stunningly well. Results are still coming in at the time of writing, but in my province of Zuid Holland, Thierry Baudet’s hard-right Forum voor Democratie (FvD) seems to have won more seats than any other party. Together, the FvD and Geert Wilders’ PVV more than three times as many seats in Zuid Holland as the centre-left PvdA or Greens did. In Utrecht, where three people died in a gun attack just before the elections, Baudet’s FvD won six provincial seats, up from zero. This all means that in the national Senate, the FvD is set to hold more seats than Mark Rutte’s VVD, depriving the government of its small majority and forcing it to find new allies. In some towns, the anti-immigrant, anti-establishment right won 40% of the vote.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about all this is that just a few years ago, Thierry Baudet wasn’t a politician at all, and was relatively unknown outside rightwing policy circles. That began to change in 2016, when he helped orchestrate a vociferous campaign against EU proposals to build closer links with Ukraine. The issue at stake may have been obscure, but Baudet skilfully used the campaign as a springboard to launch his own political career, making blistering speeches and making snappy YouTube films of his travels. Media-friendly and technology-savvy, Baudet looks like a Gap model, and knows it. In the 2017 national elections, his FvD managed to win an impressive 187,000 votes; enough to win him and a colleague seats in parliament. For a new party, operating in a system where even major parties might win only a couple of dozen seats, it’s been a meteoric rise. “In three years I’ll probably be Prime Minister of the Netherlands”, Baudet said last year, and he meant it.
Given the way the Dutch political system works, a Baudet premiership is still highly unlikely. However, there’s little doubt that his continued rise could be transformative, given his views. In recent years Baudet has, among other things, signed a letter doubting the Russians were responsible for shooting down flight MH17, praised Donald Trump, implied that women enjoy being dominated by men, and strongly opposed measures to tackle climate change. Many of Baudet’s supporters dispute the allegation that he’s racist, and it’s true he seems to care more about values and religion than skin colour. But there’s also little doubt that he often speaks in terms which appeal to white nationalists; agreeing, for example, with allies who claimed black people were less intelligent than whites, and arguing that “malevolent, aggressive elements are being smuggled into our society in unprecedented numbers”. He met with Marine Le Pen, and also had a five-hour private dinner in Amsterdam with Jared Taylor, a notorious American white supremacist. While other parties suspended their campaigning after the Utrecht attack, Baudet did not, and blamed the incident on the government’s lax immigration policies. Large-scale immigration, he once tweeted, is a “great crime”.
Generalising about groups of voters is always a risky business, but when I’ve spoken to people who support Baudet’s FvD, I’ve often been struck by the dissonance between their politics and their lived experience. Many of Baudet’s supporters have (like other Dutch people) seen their lives improve immeasurably in the last decade or two. Their incomes have risen, their job stability has improved and their quality of life increased. And yet the same people are adamant that Netherlands is on a profoundly wrong course; getting “worse than it used to be” in almost every way. Their experience of recent Dutch history is entirely positive, but their perception of it is wholly negative. And Baudet agrees. “We are standing amidst the debris of what was once the greatest and most beautiful civilization the world has ever known,” he said after the election results were announced.
In other countries, populism is often (largely but not completely) rooted in economic pressures. The stereotypical Trump voter, for example, is low-income worker from the post-industrial Rust Belt, left high and dry as jobs and money flow overseas. With Baudet supporters, though, this explanation doesn’t ring true. Some Dutch people have struggled economically – in harbour towns around Rotterdam, for example, jobs are being lost to automation and unemployment is high. But on the whole, the “left behind” in places like Zuid Holland are a tiny group. The Dutch economy grew at 2.5% last year, and unemployment is low and falling. GDP per capita in the Netherlands remains about twenty per cent higher than in Britain or France. The Dutch Rust Belt would fit in a Michigan backyard.
In that context, the bigger rifts in Dutch politics are arguably not economic but cultural. Despite its reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, this is still a rather old-fashioned country, where families are close-knit and neighbours frown if you don’t wash your windows. Given their history of floods and invasions, many Dutch are naturally risk averse, and have a subtle tendency to see their homeland as a bastion against external forces. In a closely-networked society where many people live their whole lives within a small radius of the place where they were born, the arrival of a handful of headscarves can be very noticeable. More importantly, people like Baudet have also played off a sense that the Netherlands is governed by an elite which doesn’t understand the issues faced by “real people”.
In this, he perhaps isn’t entirely wrong. Mark Rutte is the archetypal Davos man, and places like Spijkenisse feel a long way from the embassies and ministries of The Hague. Coalition governments are the norm in the Netherlands, and governments typically are formed only after weeks or months of secretive negotiation. This tradition of backroom compromise is in many ways admirable – the dogged pursuit of consensus is one reason minority groups have usually been well-protected. Yet it’s also a weakness in that it muddies the relationship between the government and the governed. Talking to Dutch voters, I’ve often been struck by how they take it for granted that their leaders may not deliver what they’ve promised. In Britain, promise to abolish tuition fees and then do the opposite and your political career will be over. Do the same in the Netherlands and many people would shrug: if you end up working in partnership with your rivals, you’re bound to compromise on some things. In that context, the rise of people like Baudet is perhaps unsurprising: when the system looks like a bit of a stitch-up, it’s easy to run as an outsider. In the great tradition of Dutch compromise, Baudet also cleverly plays both sides: presenting himself as a member of the intellectual elite (writing books about art, installing a piano in his office) while also delighting in disrupting the system from outside and offending the governing class. In many countries, populists play up their man-of-the-people credentials but Baudet does the opposite. He’s self-consciously cerebral, but not patrician: a guy who knows how the system works, but hates it and wants to smash it.
Baudet has also benefited from the decline of Geert Wilders and his party, the PVV. A few years ago, when Baudet was unknown, it was Wilders who stormed the polls and Wilders who was talked of as a future Prime Minister. Now, though, the tables have turned, and the FvD’s rise has been fuelled significantly by voters defecting from the PVV. There are many reasons for this, but they include the way that Baudet has been more careful than Wilders about respecting the red lines which no Dutch politician should cross if they want to win mass support: don’t be openly racist, don’t seem intolerant, don’t be homophobic. In my first book, I wrote about how a previous generation of rightwing leaders such as Pim Fortuyn, were careful to “present intolerance of Muslims as a means of safeguarding Dutch tolerance”; arguing that “only by kicking out intolerant foreigners can the Netherlands preserve its peace and prosperity”. Baudet has been doing largely the same: opposing immigration in ways which make it him hard to label as racist. Baudet presumably shares a lot of Wilders’ views, but you would never hear him referring to Moroccans as “scum” or standing trial for hate speech. Instead, he uses the language of a radical but thoughtful scholar, arguing that “the West is suffering from an autoimmune disorder” and “control over our lives is insidiously and increasingly taken away from us by devious acts of surrender”. While Wilders often seems driven by anger and resentment, Baudet pitches on a higher plane: the defence of European culture against the corrosive forces of socialism, globalism and political correctness. As a result, Baudet (who’s still in his thirties) is popular with younger voters who view Wilders as yesterday’s man, and with more educated voters who see Wilders as crude. Even a hint that Baudet might be racist or intolerant brings a flood of protest from his supporters, who insist he’s just an honest man telling it like it is.
Baudet isn’t an appalling fascist and isn’t a threat to democracy. In the Dutch system, it’s not particularly hard for mainstream parties to block extremists from gaining power. It’s also important to remember that only about half of Dutch voters turned up for this election, and only about a fifth of those voted FvD. Some of the parties which did well, such as GroenLinks, are the antithesis of the FvD. Baudet’s rise will, however, upset the balance of power profoundly, and shows that Dutch populism has a long way to run. The European elections in May are bound to be bumpy.
More worryingly, from a foreigner’s perspective, one can’t help but feel that some Dutch institutions aren’t very well equipped to weather the gathering storm. Dutch journalists sometimes seem too busy being appalled at the likes of Viktor Orban to robustly tackle the unpleasantries in their own backyard. And other politicians seem to lack the appetite to fight back. One of the charms of Dutch politics is how gentle and civilised it all seems, but a side effect of that is that when more virulent or unpleasant forces arise, the mainstream isn’t prepared to respond forcefully enough. When politics isn’t usually a blood sport, it’s easier for radicals to rise. And in the grey area between “racist” and “not racist” there are a lot of places to hide.