Tag: Populism

A history of Dutch populism, from the murder of Pim Fortuyn to the rise of Geert Wilders

The 2017 Dutch election has taken on a significance for the international media that we haven’t seen for a long time here in the Netherlands.

Placed in the context of other European elections in France and Germany this spring and summer, the elections in the Netherlands are now often perceived as the first step in a populist revolution which has been shaking up Europe and the rest of the Western world.

In the wake of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s unexpected victory in the United States, populism now seems destined to conquer Europe’s mainland, starting with the Netherlands.

But all this analysis comes as somewhat of a surprise for the Dutch. There is no reason for us to talk about a new populist revolution at all. Ever since Pim Fortuyn’s revolt in the early 2000s, we have become all too familiar with the problems and anxieties of populism.

How Pim Fortuyn changed politics for good

Fortuyn, an openly gay sociology professor and publicist, rocked the boat of Dutch politics significantly more than the current representative of populism, Geert Wilders, is expected to do this time around.

Fortuyn ran on an anti-Islam, anti-immigrant platform. He claimed that Islam presented a threat to Western values of openness and liberalism, and wanted to restrict all immigration to the Netherlands.

He was killed on the campaign trail in May 2002 just days before the election. His assassin, Volkert van der Graaf, was an animal rights activist, who said he feared the effect Fortuyn would have on minorities in the country.

Fortuyn’s party, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), went on to win 26 of the 150 available seats in the May 2002 elections, more than 17% of the electoral vote and enough to form a coalition with the Christian Democratic Appeal and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. But the government of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende was very short-lived, mainly because of internal frictions in the LPF.

Fortuyn and the LPD broke open the political system with a force that still baffles Dutch political scientists and commentators.

At the time there was no indication that the centrist parties which had been in power for eight years, a coalition of social democrats and liberals (the Purple Coalition), were headed for a major defeat.

And the populist wave did not subside with the demise of the LPF – Wilders, a former conservative parliamentarian, has picked up where Fortuyn and his friends left off.

21st-century populism

The central themes of the early 21st-century right-wing populism of Fortuyn and Wilders have been a fierce criticism of the political elite (usually portrayed as left-wing) combined with a steady flow of anti-Islam rhetoric and anti-EU sentiment.

Geert Wilders has repeatedly courted controversy, with his 2008 film Fitna, which compared Islam to Nazism, and a recent trial over his call to reduce the number of Moroccans in the Netherlands, expressed during a party rally just before the 2012 election, for which he was found guilty but not punished.

To acknowledge the fact that populism has been around in the Netherlands for quite a while already is not to underestimate its profound influence. As well as the far-right, it also affected some centrist parties, such as the and the Christian Democrats and People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.

The famous Dutch tolerance and progressiveness, if ever it existed, has turned into intolerance and a prolonged and painstaking search for Dutch identity.

Public debate has taken a nasty turn, blaming and shaming “foreigners”, Muslims mostly, but also the elite and Europe for the problems people experience. This opened up tensions and rifts which had previously been covered by a soft blanket of “political correctness”, which used to be regarded as civilized behavior but is now seen as treason and deceitfulness.

Wilders’s first taste of power

Wilders has played a role in the Dutch government before. He won 24 seats (16%) in 2010, which gave him a role as a minor partner supporting a coalition between the Christian Democrats and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the first cabinet of Mark Rutte. In 2012, Wilders refused to accept major budget cuts which the cabinet had to take in order to meet EU requirements. The government collapsed.

Since 2012, another Purple Coalition between the Labour Party and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy has been in power, headed again by Rutte. The current government can claim credit for financial and economic measures which helped the Dutch economy through the recent economic crisis.

But both parties, especially the Labour Party, are probably going to be punished by voters for the austerity measures they imposed on welfare and health care, as well as raising the retirement age from 65 to 67.

What to expect in 2017

This time around we can expect success, again, for Geert Wilders, despite the fact that his numbers in the polls have been dropping slowly since early January. The Dutch electoral system’s threshold of 0.7% makes it very open to new parties, so we may see a few new right-wing parties getting some seats alongside Wilders.

Wilders’s success however is not going to bring him into government, because none of the other centrist parties wants to collaborate with him. Another condoning role for Wilders in a right-wing coalition is highly improbable; everyone remembers the debacle of the first Rutte cabinet, when Wilders backed away from his responsibility to the government.

A left-wing coalition is also highly improbable, because even the most flattering polls show a collection of left-wing parties falling short of a majority.

The Christian Democrats, recovering from the 2012 debacle, have already made it clear they will not get on board with a left-wing coalition. So, the remaining centrist parties will have to build a new coalition which will probably take a considerable amount of time to materialize.

The new nostalgia

Most scholars tend to interpret populism as a reaction to increasing inequality in the Netherlands, both in terms of income and of education. However, the Netherlands is still one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, and the rift between levels of education is not a new phenomenon either.

The so-called “losers of globalization” are not the only ones who vote for Wilders these days. Nor do these voters in many cases seriously believe that Wilders should rule the country. What matters is that he is tapping into the anxieties of many voters.

It is better to see these rifts and the turbulent public debate as the right-wing of the country calling to be heard and taken seriously. It involves people who don’t believe that things are going to get better. They long for the return to an imaginary former Dutch culture in which migrants, minorities, and women don’t challenge the status quo and where the debate about blackface is not, as they see it, undermining Dutch culture.

Nostalgia is what moves them into the belief that new Dutch dikes are needed: to keep an ever-more-threatening outside world out of this low country.

Jacques Paulus Koenis, Professor of Social Philosophy, Maastricht University

Photo Credit: Wikipedia


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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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How storytelling explains world politics, from Spain to the US

How is Donald Trump like the leader of Spain’s Podemos movement, a long-haired, left-wing university professor named Pablo Iglesias?

It’s tempting to say he’s not.

It’s quite another thing to compare Trump and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Aside from language and birthplace, Trump is basically the American Berlusconi, both political outsiders and businessmen who rose to the heights of power.

The paradox is that although Trump and Iglesias are ideological opposites – and, of course, Trump says and does things that Iglesias would never even think – both leaders have employed the same narrative tactic to get where they are: political storytelling.

Narrative as a political tool

The key lies in their communication strategy and the intended recipients of their messages: the despairing masses on both sides of the Atlantic, from the “working-class whites” in the US to Spain’s “indignados” (the indignant).

Here’s how it works: the more desperate and fed-up people are with hearing the same unfulfilled promises, and the more they think about how their kids will probably end up worse off than they are now, the more predisposed they are to listen, believe and vote for candidates who propose doing something different within the confines of the political system.

They feel moved. Something – a story, a tale – with more emotion than reason makes their hearts beat faster. Because, whether we like it or not, emotions lie in the same area of our brain where we process political information.

That’s what political storytelling is all about. Both the progressive Spaniard and the atypical Republican have used the tactic to great effect, each in his own way. So have Latin American presidents of the past decade, many of them masters of narrative.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is a powerful case, taking his narrative – based on Simon Bolivar’s Latin American liberation movement – to the extreme of renaming his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The Kirchners in Argentina and Evo Morales in Bolivia also mastered the art.

They have all shown the power of narratives in seducing disillusioned voters. Here are the nine key features of a powerful narrative.

Nine characteristics of political narrative

  1. They are tales of power, wherein the “good guys” are victims of the “bad guys”. Trump’s recent inauguration speech showed numerous antagonistic relationships, pitting “Washington” against the people; evil politicians, who did nothing while “the jobs left and the factories closed”, versus poor citizens.
  2. They blame inept or unscrupulous politicians for letting insidious interests win – for example, Iglesias has railed against the monsters of “financial totalitarianism” that have humiliated Spaniards – and position themselves as the heroes who will recapture past righteousness (with an epic battle of good and evil).
  3. They use a direct, simple and emotionally charged messages: “I will build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!”
  4. They offer solutions, which must seem feasible, even if they aren’t. They have to show that another future is possible. Former Brazilian president Lula’s “zero hunger” campaign is a good example.
  5. They seek to recover a mystical past, connecting people to their roots and lost values. Where and when? That doesn’t matter, as long as the narrative revives people’s dreams: “Make America Great Again
  6. They construct, or reconstruct, an identity whose sole reference point is often a leader who defines themselves as something different and new. Adding an “ism” to the end of a name supports this idea: “El Chavismo”, “Kirchnerism”, “Maoism”. The narrators of the greatest political stories are charismatic leaders who can easily devolve into authoritarianism. This isn’t always the case, and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Spain’s Felipe González are notable exceptions.
  7. They revive founding myths by citing, for example, America’s Founding Fathers (or in Trump’s case Abraham Lincoln) or their society’s revolutionary origins (as in Cuba and China).
  8. They impose an us-versus-them dialectic. The “enemies” may be Muslims or immigrants (for Trump)), or the insatiable European Union (for Iglesias). With time, this tends to rip apart the social fabric; consider the case of the Kirchners in Argentina who left a divided nation behind them.
  9. They use simple analogies and linear explanations. Pablo Iglesias often says “blessed people, damned caste” to differentiate the citizenry from the political elites who’ve clung to power in Spain for the past 40 years.

The end of the story

Beyond demonstrating an ignorance of world history, underestimating the power of a candidate who mobilizes the base using this kind of emotional messaging can be electoral suicide.

In many countries, traditional political parties have already learned this lesson, entering into serious democratic crises that are undermining the foundations of their political system. Venezuela is a critical case.

Donald Trump spinning his yarns.

Still, in the political narrative script, Trump and Podemos are the heroes: finally, someone has arrived who “truly” represents those who’ve been excluded and abandoned by politics as usual. Both leaders would say that these marginalized folks – the protagonists of their tale – are the best society has to offer.

Such narratives are nothing new. They can be traced back to the Greeks, with their mythology, and the Romans, with their commemorative constructions, like the emperors columns in every Roman Forum.

Political tales don’t last forever; like empires, they go through phases of development, consolidation and decline. Unless they can reinvent themselves, counter-narratives will appear and the story starts over again.

The French, American, Soviet, Cuban, Chinese, Chavista Bolivarion revolutions – these are all stories laden with epic characteristics and heroic symbolism, without which it’s possible that their historic value would have expired long ago. Instead, they are still leveraged to overcome political and social crises.

One final curiosity: many of these stories involve building walls, from Troy to the Berlin wall to, yes, the Beautiful Mexican Wall.

In the end they all failed, of course, some more ignominiously than others. History can be merciless to leaders who offer desperate people simple solutions to complex matters.

The Conversation

Orlando D’Adamo, Director, Center for Public Opinion, Universidad de Belgrano

Photo Credit: WPRI

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.