Thierry Baudet, the leader of the Dutch party Forum for Democracy (Reuters)
Last week the Dutch government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned because of a child welfare fraud scandal. In March, the country votes in Parliamentary elections.
So what is the position of right wing populist parties at this important moment? Léonie de Jonge writes for the Populism in Action Project:
Once known for its progressivism and social tolerance, the Netherlands long seemed immune to far-right tendencies. However, since the turn of the 21st century, the country has witnessed the rise of several influential right-wing populist parties, including the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) and, most recently, the Forum for Democracy (FvD), led by flamboyant far-right newcomer Thierry Baudet.
The rapid ascent of the FvD was remarkable. Founded as a Eurosceptic think tank in 2015, the party won two of the 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives after garnering 1.8% of the vote at the 2017 general election. Two years later, the FvD became the largest party in the Dutch Upper House, with almost 16% of the vote i the 2019 provincial elections. In January 2020, the party announced that it had become “the biggest party in the Netherlands by membership”, surpassing traditional mass parties such as the Labour Party and Christian Democrats.
But in November 2020, the FvD succumbed to in-fighting with a mass exodus of senior party members and a general loss of public support.
So if the breakthrough of the FvD initiated a new phase in right-wing populism in The Netherlands, characterised by the normalisation of the far right in the public sphere, why did it implode? The answers are significant in the run-up to the 2021 general election.
The Rise of the FvD
Like Wilders’ PVV, the FvD is characterised by authoritarianism, nativism, and populism. Both are staunchly anti-immigrant and deeply Eurosceptic. However, there are key differences, particularly with regards to their electorates. In contrast to PVV supporters, FvD voters tend to be more highly educated and right-leaning over economics, favoring a less egalitarian distribution of income.
Officially, the FvD was set up as a conservative party, claiming an improvement in the general state of democracy in the Netherlands by “breaking the party cartel” and giving Dutch voters more of a say in decision-making process, notably through the introduction of binding referenda, popular initiatives, directly elected mayors, and e-democracy. In its early days, the FvD presented itself as a more moderate and socially-acceptable right-wing alternative to the PVV.
Over time, however, the FvD tacked to the far right. Soon after the party’s initial electoral breakthrough in 2017, tensions emerged between different factions. In the internal battle over the ideological course, the more radical and, at times, extreme right undercurrent prevailed.
The comparatively moderate official party manifesto was alongside the radical messages by leader Thierry Baudet, who is beyond far-right predecessors such as Pim Fortuyn and Wilders in his rhetoric. While Wilders focused most of his nativist agenda on the preservation of Dutch culture, notably by opposing Islam), Baudet made blatantly racist comments. In 2015, he expressed his wish for a “predominantly white Europe”. Two years later, he warned about the alleged “homoeopathic dilution of the Dutch population” with people from other cultures, drawing upon the extreme-right Great Replacement conspiracy theory.
While Wilders was quick to distance himself from this month’s attack on the US Capitol, underlining his commitment to democracy, Baudet shared a tweet that he posted in 2016, declaring Donald Trump “would be a great leader for the West as a whole”. (He later removed the message and denied he had published the original tweet.)
The Fall of the FvD
The collapse of the FvD occurred in several phases. In summer 2019, the party’s co-founder and senator Henk Otten was expelled after publicly accusing Baudet of “pulling the party too far to the right”. Last year the FvD lost credibility when Baudet, who had initially pushed for stricter Coronavirus lockdown measures, became a vocal ally of anti-lockdown protests and voiced support for COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In November, renewed allegations surfaced in the media of anti-Semitic, homophobic, and racist messages on internal message boards in the party’s youth wing.
Trying to ward off pressure to distance himself from the allegations of extremism, Baudet renounced his position as lead candidate for the 2021 general election, but subsequently backtracked on a resignation. Hijacking the FvD’s official social media channels, Baudet announced that he would organize a “binding referendum”, asking members to decide on his fate as party leader. In response, several prominent party representatives, including elected officials and election candidates, renounced their membership.
On December 4, the FvD announced that 76% of the party’s 37,000 members had voted for Baudet. However, amid the internal dissension, the FvD to plummeted in the polls from about 17% in March 2019 down to only 2% in December 2020.
A Far Right Foothold
The big winner in the tumult appears to be Geert Wilders. The loss of support for the FvD has been mirrored by a resurgence for the PVV, currently polling in second place behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Cas Mudde notes, “As another ‘intellectual’ far right contender bites the dust’ (thereby echoing the electoral trajectory of Pim Fortuyn), it appears that the boring ‘common’ far right mainstay picks up the electoral debris and gets ready to take center stage once again.”
The consequence is the normalization of the far right in the public sphere. With his extremist remarks and behavior, Baudet pushed the boundaries of the “acceptable” even further than those before him. Wilders’ PVV may now be seen as a “mainstream” alternative to the FvD — even as the PVV’s 2021 manifesto pledges a closing of borders to all migrants from Islamic countries, sending back Syrian asylum seekers, closing down all mosques, and outlawing the Qur’an.
It is too soon to make definite predictions on the outcome of March’s election, but polling estimates are similar to the political landscape in March 2017. Despite expectations that the pandemic would fundamentally shift the lines in European politics, the current Dutch political landscape seems relatively stable, in contrast to the fragmentation and volatility of party politics over the past decades.
And this means that, even with the implosion of the FvD, the far right has its foothold in the Dutch political culture.