It looks like the people might do it again. After the British electorate misled themselves so badly and American voters failed to rotate the Clinton and Bush families for another presidential cycle, the latest fear is that democracy might occur in Holland.
Polls currently show Geert Wilders’s Freedom party almost at level pegging with the governing VVD party, both milling around the 30-seat mark. Questions about when the Dutch became illiberal miss the point that this is a revolt in defence of liberalism rather than against it. The misinterpretation does Dutch voters a serious disservice and fails to acknowledge that the Dutch status quo of recent years — like that in the UK and US — has gone badly wrong.
Douglas Murray and Melle Garschagen discuss the turbulence in Dutch politics:
It is now a decade and a half since the Dutch voted for the party of a genuinely revolutionary figure: Pim Fortuyn. After his 2002 assassination and posthumous victory in the election of that year, Dutch politics struggled to keep up. If they had wanted to ameliorate his vote, politicians could have cut immigration, taken their foot off the eurozone accelerator and listened to the sincere concerns of the Dutch public (concerns shared across the continent, and far from delusional) that they are losing their national identity. It is not as though these were minority, or indeed recent, concerns. Four years ago, polls were showing that two thirds of the Dutch public believed there was ‘enough Islam in the Netherlands’, with just over half wanting a halt on all immigration from Muslim countries.
One of the mysteries of the Dutch political establishment is that they have continuously derided the concerns of the majority as the inexplicable prejudice of a kooky fringe. An interim solution was for the country’s politicians to occasionally nod to popular concerns, generally around election time. But it is a tactic that has been working less and less. This past week when Mark Rutte, the prime minister, suddenly started talking almost obscenely toughly about immigration, the public had a right to feel jaded. They would remember, for instance, precisely the same things being said by former minister Rita Verdonk when she was eyeing up the top job 15 years ago.
In the meantime, the other parties are not only demonising the man whose votes they wish to steal, they are also demonising — and sometimes criminalising — the views of the Dutch public. Some of their tactics would shame a banana republic. The first time the authorities prosecuted Wilders for his views on Islam, in 2010, the trial collapsed because one of the three Dutch judges privately attempted to persuade a principal witness for the defence (the now late pre-eminent scholar of Islam in the Netherlands, Hans Jansen) to change his evidence. Jansen blew the whistle and the trial collapsed. So when Wilders and his supporters say the judiciary are out to get him, they haven’t invented the idea.
The latest trial — which concluded last year and finished with a guilty verdict — was an outrageous example of judicial activism. By prosecuting Wilders for advocating less immigration into Holland, the courts effectively made it illegal not to support mass migration. If it is illegal to say that you want ‘fewer’ Moroccans in your country, then in response to the question of whether you want ‘more or fewer Moroccans’ in your country, the only legal option is to say ‘more’. And now, after all the courts and political class have done their work, Mark Rutte has the gall to castigate those who ‘brand ordinary Dutch people racist’.
Nevertheless, Wilders’s chances are to some extent now being talked up by those unfamiliar with the Dutch electoral system. He has surged in the polls before (notably before European Parliament elections) without being able to follow through when it comes to voting time. And the greater hindrance to him actually taking power even if his party won the largest number of seats is a system that effectively demands coalitions. To date, no big party has said it could contemplate a coalition featuring Wilders. But here lies an interesting aspect of this election.
Last year, the Dutch public voted on whether to approve the EU association agreement with Ukraine. The referendum only happened because of a public petition large enough to bring it about (another quirk of Dutch democracy). The turnout was above the threshold for such referendums to be valid and the public voted overwhelmingly against the agreement, which their government had already ratified. The public were ignored, just as in 2005 when they rejected the new EU constitution at the polls. Once again, the Dutch government effectively told the people: ‘You spoke? So what?’
Yet this time, there was a response to the rebuff. A new party — Forum for Democracy — arose out of the plebiscite. Led by one of Holland’s smartest and most prominent young intellectuals, Thierry Baudet, it also includes at the top of its list of candidates one of Holland’s most famous lawyers, several of its most serious financial experts, former members of the armed forces and Paul Cliteur, a leading academic.
Though the new party is only a few months old, its policies and potential reach are already wider than those of Wilders. The Forum for Democracy advocates more direct democracy, inspired in part by the Brexit referendum, and believes in the nation state and in deregulating the SMEs that account for about two thirds of the Dutch workforce. As a result, it is en route to receive up to six seats, which could make it a kingmaker. Most significantly, it is the first party of any importance to say that it would happily go into coalition with Wilders.
So might it happen? In an echo of the pre-Brexit and pre-Trump tsunamis, NRC, one of Holland’s leading newspapers, this week ran an article pointing out that Wilders and Baudet are receiving the most attention across all social media. No wonder. For years the Dutch people have been screaming into the wind. For years the political class has refused to hear. Now the Forum for Democracy, like Wilders in his own way, is promising to give the people their voice back. Those who are against this upheaval believe it comes in opposition to the country’s traditions of tolerance. Yet for those who are behind it, Holland’s revolution is overtly in defence of the country’s liberal traditions.
A political opponent might deny this fact. Other parties might decry it. But in the long run only a fool would ignore it. For if this wind picks up across the lowlands of Holland, expect it to gain speed across the rest of Europe. Hurricane it may be. But an ill wind? Not necessarily.