New right wing populist enters the political arena

Searchlight - September 2008

The "voters revolution" started by Pim Fortuyn in 2001 is still not over in the Netherlands. Not yet, at least.

Ever since Fortuyn, who was murdered on 6 May 2002, entered the political arena, there have been radical fluctuations and instability in the behaviour of the Dutch electorate. Not a single government, for example, has sat out its full term since the (now defunct) List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) entered parliament and the space on the right of the political spectrum is still partly vacant for a populist party to fill.

The Freedom Party (PVV) of the notorious Islam-basher Geert Wilders has 9 seats of the supposed thirty or more that could be won from the right wing liberals of the Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).

It is not Wilders but another ex-VVD member, former hardline Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk, however, who looks the most likely to fill this space and attract "floating" voters, from the ranks of former voters of the VVD and the LPF .

Verdonk is seen as a "moderate and decent" alternative for Wilders' loud mouthed PVV. When she was still a VVD member Verdonk won more preference votes in a parliamentary election than her own party leader Mark Rutte (620,555), equalling nine parliamentary seats.

When she claimed her victory – and the party's leadership – a row erupted between liberal and hardline VVD members, culminating in Verdonk's departure, in September 2007, from the party and a slump on the VVD's support in the polls.

In March, Verdonk launched a new movement, Proud of the Netherlands (Trots op NL), with an American- style show but, in parliament, she sits on her own. This is of little consequence because she is hardly ever there, opting instead to tour the Netherlands to raise funds and seek out reliable political partners and recruits for her movement.

Her ambition is evident: to be the first female premier of the Netherlands and the polls now give her, quite impressively, between 15 and 30 seats.

This is all the more remarkable, since Verdonk has no clearly defined programme and her support seems to spring mainly from her hardline reputation as a former immigration minister (and prison director) and her presumed success in tackling asylum and integration issues.

On closer inspection, though, the facts present a more chequered picture. Verdonk, a minister in various governments between 2003 and 2007 was not the success she claims. Her resistance to a pardon for refugees who had applied for asylum before April 2001 failed and her program for integration with obligatory language courses and income requirements for imported marriage partners was criticized in the courts. There is also another problematic aspect: Verdonk was a very 'hands-on" minister, using her position to review asylum cases personally and more positively than any other minister, a fact that which will not endear Verdonk to her more right-wing potential followers.

At the launch of her new movement, Verdonk, in front of a huge Dutch flag and having the national anthem played, stated that the culture and freedom of the Netherlands has to be defended and revived. Playing the nationalist tune makes Verdonk's brand new outfit the first "mainstream" party to do with such prominence since World War II.

She resists suggestions that the Dutch will always have to "adapt to new cultures and minorities", argues that the claims of racism against Dutch must be rejected – because "discrimination is not something the Dutch have in them" – and sees the "traditional Dutch values" are under threat.

"The traditional values of the Dutch are under pressure and monuments commemorating slavery are going up everywhere," she declared. In fact, there is just one single monument in the Netherlands to recall the crimes of the Dutch during the Slave Trade. Indeed, at the unveiling of this monument, Verdonk, who was present in her governmental capacity, was jeered.

She also paints a picture of a country where man and women no longer shake hands, another petty comment based on an incident she was involved in as a minister when an orthodox Muslim imam refused to shake her hand. Verdonk knew in advance that that would happen but reached for his hand anyway, grabbing headlines for weeks and sparking off a hardline debate on integration and Islam.

Of course, Verdonk also plays the populist card about "politics screwing the citizen" and making life impossible by issuing "thousands of rules and laws"and treating citizens "as criminals" while "the real criminals walk around freely".

Also, and this is an invitation for entrepreneurs and companies to support and finance her, Verdonk claims there are too many possibilities for lobbying groups to block infrastructural projects.

Verdonk selected on her website eight political themes to which she gave a short introduction and, unprecedented, in Dutch political history, asked her voters to enter suggestions on a 'Wiki' page on her website. Verdonk, it appears, hopes to cobble together a programme out of these ideas but she has already said that it is her own vision that will prevail.

In almost stereotypical populist style, Verdonk will not let her movement be hamstrung with members…one can only become a "supporter", preferably with money. With this cyber-democracy she claims to be democratic but will only listen to herself.

A clearer picture of what constitutes democracy in Verdonk's eyes is to be found in a ridiculous statement she made about how she thinks democracy should work: "If you have to decide at home what to eat for dinner and three want to eat chips and two sauerkraut, than it will be chips. No? Very plain. That's how democracy works."

To make her image more popular among the "floating voters" she hopes to attract, she is now presenting herself as political outsider who is not part of the elitist clique in The Hague, declaring, " One thing is for sure. On my list of candidates for the elections you won't find any one from the elite of the Hague."

Some other main issues can be teased out from the disparate collection of popular grievances that Verdonk has hoovered up. Among other things, she stands for an end to traffic jams; asylum seekers to be helped in the surrounding countries from which they fled, immigrants having to sign a "contract" and by breaking that to leave the country, minimum punishment for law offenders, parents of juvenile criminals having to go on courses (their children being sent to re-education centres, education policy to be made forbidden territory for social democrats for the next two decades 20 years and development aid being slashed to a third of its current level.

At a local level, VVD branches in some places have said they will join Trots op NL – even though it will not have members! – and have registered similar parties. Also local LPF and Livable Netherlands branches are putting out feelers to Verdonk's movement.

Ultimately, however, the future of that movement will be decided by the amount of money she can mop up to spend on her campaign for the 2010 parliamentary and local elections, the quality of candidates for her lists and the flexibility and patience it can show in the face of any setbacks.

If Verdonk is really aiming for the top post in Dutch politics, any other result will be a hard-to-defend defeat. In the meantime, the Dutch political landscape has changed again and has been brought in line with European countries, where outspoken nationalist parties have become a common occurrence in politics.

Jeroen Bosch for Alert! and Antifa-Net