The stakes in the May 2019 elections for the European parliament are unusually high. The results will indicate whether or not nationalist, anti-immigrant, and Euro-skeptic parties continue to grow and expand their influence. Here in the Netherlands, once known as a “beacon of tolerance,” I expect rightwing parties to increase their share of the vote on May 23.
The serious rise of the Right in the Netherlands can be traced to the early 2000s when the Party for Freedom (PVV), led by the Trump-like Geert Wilders, launched an attack on leftwing “undemocratic elites” who had allegedly burdened the country with unregulated migration and integration politics, and had closed their eyes to the Islamization of Dutch society. In the 2017 national elections, the PVV received 1.4 million votes out of roughly 10 million, gaining twenty of the 150 seats in parliament and coming in second behind the neoliberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, far ahead of the social-democratic Labor Party, which was governing with the VVD and saw its support decimated. The result was actually a relief to many progressives who had feared that the PVV might win an outright victory.
While the PVV reached a plateau in 2017, its exclusionary politics and Islamophobia shifted Dutch politics to the right and gave a boost to the recently formed Forum for Democracy (FvD) that promotes similar policies in a slicker and seemingly more mainstream package. FvD is a think tank reconfigured as a political party, led by Thierry Baudet, the Dutch face of the Alt-Right movement.
Whereas the PVV and FvD share the central themes of Euroscepticism and Islamophobia, the FvD dresses up its prejudices in the notion of oikophobia, a term taken from the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton to describe a “pathological aversion” to an imagined national homeland. Oikophobia, Baudet insists, is destroying the nation-state through its surrender to feminism, cultural Marxism, modern art, immigration, the European Union, and non-Western values. Cultural self-hatred, claims Baudet, will “homeopathically dilute the Dutch population with all the peoples of the world, so that the Dutch will cease to exist.” In response to a media firestorm, Baudet said he wasn’t talking about race but about culture.
In the 2017 national elections, FvD entered Dutch parliament with two out of 150 seats – a modest but remarkable result for a party that didn’t exist in the previous election. Despite its impressive appearance on the national political stage, very few pundits took the FvD seriously. Yet, it has shown to be popular among new voters and among higher-educated people who always found Wilders too lowbrow or too coarse. The fact that there are several prominent public figures and university professors, including one from my own law school, openly and actively involved in FvD adds to the illusion that Baudet’s politics are moderate and reasonable.
During the provincial elections in March 2019, through which seats in the Dutch Senate are apportioned, the neophyte party won 13 of 75, taking votes from the PVV as well as from the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. As a result, the current government coalition lost its majority in the Senate.
I worry that too many political organizations and analysts underestimate the growing influence of the FvD. This new respectable version of racism, intolerance, and xenophobia taps into people’s fears and anxieties that demands for rights by underrepresented groups will undermine cultural homogeneity; and that “incursions” from the Global South will result in the “demise of the nation.” FvD is successfully diversifying the radical right by presenting itself as a voice of good sense, while delivering apocalyptic messages about the loss of Dutch national identity and the dangers of Europeanization.
Universities play an important role in the loss of Dutch identity and the demise of the nation, according to Baudet, by brainwashing students with radical leftist ideas. A pamphlet issued by FvD calls upon young people to “Rise and resist against your teachers.” It’s illustrated with an image of a young person throwing a rock and with the face of my colleague from the law school who will enter the Senate for FvD. Though more than 1,500 academics have signed an open letter protesting the party’s position on higher education, the call to report leftist professors is gaining traction. I expect to be reported.
According to several polls, FvD would emerge as the winner if national parliamentary elections were held now in the Netherland. Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call for progressive activists to realize that this is not a temporary shift away from the normal politics of Dutch tolerance, but rather a long-term trend that requires an urgent response.
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* Maartje van der Woude is professor of Law & Society at the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance & Society at Leiden Law School, the Netherlands. She is also a part-time criminal trial judge at the District Court Noord-Nederland and a member of the editorial board of Social Justice.