Although populist parties have long occupied a viable space in Dutch politics, it is safe to argue that populism is a far cry from eroding the established trust in traditional institutions and authorities in the country.
The Netherlands—officially the Kingdom of the Netherlands—is a constitutional monarchy made up of four constituent countries located mainly in Western Europe but including several small West Indian island territories in the Caribbean.
In terms of civil liberties, the Netherlands is a free country. Dutch people enjoy a vibrant democratic system with regular and competitive multiparty elections, while a strong record of civil liberties and political rights is retained (Freedom House, 2019). In a surprise to no one, with its independent media and strong civil society actors, the country often dominates the ranks of the world’s best-performing democracies. It scores highly in many categories such as personal freedom, same-sex relationships, and religious liberties. Indeed, Netherlands today is one of the most culturally liberal and LGBT-friendly countries in the world. Same-sex couples have been enjoying full adoption rights for decades. Similarly, the country often leads the way in international civil liberties and political rights rankings.
However, all these positive trends have not blunted the country’s contribution to the problem of rising populism in Europe. There are currently at least seven populist political parties in the Netherlands. While these parties advance strong anti-immigration and hard-Euroscepticism, they also often embrace strong anti-establishment sentiments. While they have long occupied a viable space in Dutch politics, it is safe to say that the existing populist rhetoric a far cry from eroding trust in traditional institutions and authorities across the country.
Dutch voters first met organized right-wing populism as we understand it today fairly recently—namely, when Pim Fortuyn founded his eponymous parliamentary list (Lijst Pim Fortuyn, LPF) in 2002. Fortuyn—who was assassinated in the run-up to the 2002 Dutch general elections—had been an academic and columnist. From the very beginning, the LPF was structured on a set of radical right-wing ideas—later labeled “Fortuynism”—such as Islamophobia, anti-immigration, anti-elitism, and nationalism. Throughout his political career, he and his party had employed a radical anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric, believing that “a cold war” had to be fought against Islam to defeat what he defined as “an extraordinary threat” to the Western world (Kuper, 2002). He was, therefore, unsurprisingly in favor of restricting all the immigration from the Muslim-dominated countries as those newcomers were simply intolerant and incompatible with the values embraced by the Dutch society (Murray, 2017). Fortuyn is on the record as saying: “I don’t hate Islam. I believe that it is a backward culture. I have seen many parts of the world. And wherever Islam rules, it’s just terrible. All the hypocrisy” (De Volkskrant, 2012).
What explicitly distanced Fortuyn from classic far-right politicians was his unique promotion of some of the liberal left-leaning values, such as same-sex marriage, legalization of prostitution, euthanasia, and support for the country’s liberal drug policy (Roxburgh, 2002). Fortuyn was himself openly gay. Many, therefore, rejected the classic right-wing populist label—instead, Fortuyn was cast as representing a distinctive form of populism combining selective aspects of liberalism and nationalism (Mudde, 2007).
Fortuyn was assassinated in the run-up to the 2002 general elections by an animal rights activist named Volkert van der Graaf. His assassin claimed to have committed the crime for “Dutch Muslims,” adding that he could see no other option: “I hoped that I could solve it [the problem] myself” (Osborn, 2003). Following Fortuyn’s assassination, his party, the LPF, made its first serious debut in the 2002 Dutch general elections, becoming the second-largest party with 17 percent of total votes and 27 seats in the House of Representatives. The LPF, however, quickly lost its emotional voters in the 2003 general election, securing only 5.6 percent of total votes and eight seats in the parliament. After losing all its remaining seats in the 2006 general election, the party executives voted to dissolve the LPF by January 1, 2008 (Dutch News, 2007).
Although Fortuyn and the LPF had failed to achieve a longstanding political success, they ended up paving the way for a second—and much stronger—populist wave in Dutch politics. In 2006, Geert Wilders—a Dutch entrepreneur, speechwriter, and conservative politician—established the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), picking up where Fortuyn and his allies had left off. After leaving his former party—the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)—in 2004 in protest over its position regarding Turkey’s possible accession to the European Union, Wilders founded the PVV based on his radical right-wing ideas—namely, nationalist, Islamophobic, anti-immigration and hard-Euroscepticism (Vossen, 2017).
The PVV has made “stopping the Islamisation of the Netherlands” a key political discourse, vowing to ban the Qur’an and impose a tax on headscarves worn by Muslim women (BBC News, 2010). In 2008, he released a 17-minute-long film titled Fitna, featuring his views on Islam that supposedly demonstrate how the Qur’an urges Muslims to hate so-called infidels and plant seeds of hate and violence (Jyllands-Posten, 2008). Similarly, in a live TV interview in 2010, Wilders compared the Qur’an to Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf (RT, 2010). As opposed to his critical stance against the Muslim-dominated countries in the Middle East, Wilders is also known with his sympathy with Israel, which he believes is the first line of defense: “The fight against Israel is not territorial, and hence Israel is only the first line of defense for the West. Now it’s Israel, but we are next. That’s why beyond solidarity, it is in Europe’s interest to stand by Israel” (Liphshiz, 2009).
In the first election in which it participated, in 2006, the PVV secured 5.9 percent of the total vote and nine seats in the parliament. Thanks to Wilders’ charisma and the PVV’s populist appeal to the masses, the party increased its share of the vote to 15.4 percent in the 2010 election. Although it suffered from a relative setback in the 2012 election, the PVV eventually became the second-largest party after the 2017 election with 13.1 percent of the votes and managed to maintain most of its voter base in the 2021 election.
In addition to its electoral success, the party has also had a disproportionate effect on the country’s politics. After the 2010 election, the PVV agreed to provide parliamentary support to the Christian Democrat–VDD coalition government without joining the executive. The coalition collapsed in 2012 when the PVV leadership refused to support budget cuts proposed as part of EU requirements.
Another populist party worthy of mention in the Netherlands is Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD). Originally founded as a think tank in 2016, the FvD has turned into a right-wing Eurosceptic political party and secured 1.8 percent of total votes and two seats in 2017 when it competed in national elections for the first time. Its hard-core Eurosceptic, populist, and nationalist rhetoric saw its supporter base grow significantly in under two years, reaching nearly 31,000 by February 2019 (Mebius, 2019). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the party reached an all-time high in the 2021 general election, securing 5 percent of the vote share and eight seats in the House of Representatives. In addition to national electoral success, the FvD also had several breakthroughs at the local levels. The party won three seats in the Amsterdam city council in 2018 and secured a total of 86 seats in the 2019 provincial elections across the Netherlands.
 The Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV); The Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij); Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD); JA21 (Juiste Antwoord 2021); 50PLUS; The Farmer–Citizen Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, BBB); The Christian Union (ChristenUnie, CU).
April 20, 2021
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