The Dutch Far Right in 2021: A View from the Ground

by Dr. Léonie de Jonge (University of Groningen)

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’s 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 by any measure. 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 percent of the vote at the 2017 general election. Two years later, the FvD became the largest party in the Dutch Upper House after winning nearly 16 percent of the vote at the 2019 provincial elections. In January 2020, the party announced that it had become ‘the biggest party in the Netherlands by membership’, thereby surpassing traditional mass parties, including the Labour Party and Christian democrats.

The FvD’s success story was offset in November 2020, when the party succumbed to infighting. The implosion resulted in a massive exodus of (senior) party members as well as a more general loss of public support. Whilst the future of the party is currently uncertain, it seems fair to state that the breakthrough of the FvD initiated a new phase in the history of right-wing populism in the Netherlands, characterised by the normalisation of the far right in the public sphere and competition within the populist radical right party family. Indeed, since 2017, two far-right parties have parliamentary representation in the Netherlands: the PVV and the FvD.

But what exactly characterises the FvD? How does it differ from Wilders’s PVV? And why did it implode? This contribution provides an overview of the parliamentary far right in the Netherlands run-up to the 2021 general election.

The FvD in Comparative Perspective

Just like the PVV, the FvD is commonly classified as a populist radical right party, characterised by authoritarianism, nativism and populism. As such, both parties are staunchly anti-immigrant and deeply Eurosceptic. There are however, some key differences, particularly with regards to their electorate. For instance, in contrast to PVV supporters, FvD voters tend to be more highly educated and economically right-leaning (in the sense that they favour a less egalitarian income distribution).

Turning to the supply side, there are also noteworthy differences between the two parties and their leaders. Officially, the FvD was set up as a conservative party, with the aim of improving the general state of democracy in the Netherlands by ‘breaking the party cartel’ and giving Dutch voters more of a say in the decision-making process, notably by introducing binding referendums, popular initiatives, directly elected mayors and e-democracy. In fact, in its early days, the FvD presented itself as a more moderate and socially-acceptable right-wing alternative to the PVV. Over time, however, it became increasingly obvious that the FvD had tacked to the far right. How did this happen?

The short answer is that the more extreme right elements were present from the start. The term ‘far right’ is generally used as an umbrella term to refer to a broader range of parties on the right end of the political spectrum and includes radical (democratic) and extreme (anti-democratic) parties. The FvD has blurred these lines. Soon after the party’s initial electoral breakthrough in 2017, tensions emerged between different factions within the party. In the internal battle over the party’s ideological course, the more radical and, at times, extreme right undercurrent prevailed.

It is useful to differentiate between the comparatively ‘moderate’ official party manifesto and the more radical and, at times, extremist messages broadcast by the party leader, Thierry Baudet, who is considerably more radical than his far-right predecessors – including Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders. While Wilders has focused most of his nativist agenda on the preservation of Dutch culture (notably by opposing Islam), Baudet has made blatantly racist comments. For instance, in 2015, Baudet already expressed his wish for a ‘predominantly white Europe’, and in 2017, he warned about the alleged ‘homoeopathic dilution of the Dutch population’ with people from other cultures, thereby drawing upon the extreme-right Great Replacement conspiracy theory.

The difference between Wilders and Baudet was further illustrated by their respective responses to the recent storming of the US Capitol. While Wilders was quick to distance himself from the attack by underling his commitment to democracy, Baudet shared a tweet he had originally posted in 2016, stating Trump ‘would be a great leader for the West as a whole’ – although he later removed the tweet and denied having posted it in the first place. In light of the public statements made by the party’s leader, the FvD might best be described as an extreme right party. This also partly helps to explain the party’s implosion.

The Fall of the FvD

The collapse of the FvD occurred in several phases. The party’s descent in the polls started in the summer of 2019, when the party’s co-founder and senator Henk Otten was expelled after publicly accusing Baudet of ‘pulling the party too far to the right’. In 2020, the FvD lost credibility when Baudet (who had initially pushed for stricter lockdown measures) became a vocal ally of anti-lockdown protests and voiced support for COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In November 2020, renewed allegations of anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist messages being spread on internal message boards in the party’s youth wing surfaced in the media, after which underlying tensions in the party’s leadership erupted into a public dispute.

In an attempt to ward off mounting pressure to distance himself from allegations of extremism, Baudet renounced his position as lead candidate for the 2021 general election, but subsequently backtracked his decision to resign. Having hijacked the FvD’s official social media channels, Baudet announced that he would be organising a ‘binding referendum’, asking members to decide on his fate as party leader. In response to this move, several prominent party representatives including elected officials and election candidates renounced their membership. On 4 December 2020, the FvD announced that 76 percent of the party’s 37,000 members had voted for Baudet, thereby putting an end to the leadership struggle. The internal dissention caused the FvD to plummet in the polls from approximately 17 percent in March 2019 down to approximately 2 percent in December 2020.

The Far Right in the Run-up to the 2021 Election

The big winner from all this appears to be Geert Wilders, for whom the chaos in the FvD came at a perfect moment in time, as the Netherlands is gearing up for elections in March. Indeed, the loss of support for the FvD was mirrored by a resurge in support for the PVV, which currently polls in second place, right behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). As Cas Mudde has observed, ‘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 more serious consequences of the rise and fall of the FvD is the normalisation of the far right in the public sphere. With his extremist remarks and behaviour, Baudet has pushed the boundaries of what is considered ‘acceptable’ even further than those before him. There is a possibility that Geert Wilders’s PVV will now come to be seen as a moderate, relatively ‘mainstream’ alternative to the FvD. A quick glance at the PVV’s 2021 manifesto indicates that the party wants to close borders to all migrants from Islamic countries, send back Syrian asylum seekers, close down all mosques and outlaw the Qur’an, thereby confirming that Wilders has retained his radical edge.

It too soon to make definite predictions on the outcome of the 2021 general election. What is interesting, however, is that current polling estimates actually look quite similar to the political landscape at the time of the previous elections, in March 2017. While some had expected (or hoped) that the pandemic would fundamentally stir the fault lines in European politics, the current Dutch political landscape seems relatively ‘stable’. This is all the more surprising in a country in which party politics has become increasingly fragmented and volatile over the past decades.

This piece of original analysis for the Populism in Action Project, is a guest post kindly written by Dr. Léonie de Jonge of the University of Groningen who is an expert on populist radical right and extreme right politics in the Benelux countries. You can follow Léonie on Twitter here.

“Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe” Edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Davide Vampa has Been Published

Populism in Action’s Principal Investigator Dr. Daniele Albertazzi has edited a book in Routledge’s Extremism & Democracy series with Davide Vampa. Entitled Populism and New Patterns of Political Competition in Western Europe it was published today (14th January 2021).

The purpose of the book is described in the following terms:

This book analyses how party competition has adjusted to the success of populism in Western Europe, whether this is non-populists dealing with their populist competitors, or populists interacting with each other. The volume focuses on Western Europe in the period 2007–2018 and considers both right-wing and left-wing populist parties. It critically assesses the concept and rise of populism, and includes case studies on Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Italy. The authors apply an original typology of party strategic responses to political competitors, which allows them to map interactions between populist and non-populist parties in different countries. They also assess the links between ideology and policy, the goals of different populist parties, and how achieving power affects these parties. The volume provides important lessons for the study of political competition, particularly in the aftermath of a crisis and, as such, its framework can inform future research in the post-Covid-19 era. This wide-ranging study will appeal to students and scholars of political science interested in populism and political competition; and will appeal to policy makers and politicians from across the political spectrum.

You can order a copy here.

Niko Hatakka Comments on US Capitol Invasion for Finland’s Yle Radio Station

Niko Hatakka – the Populism in Action Project’s Finland focused Research Fellow -was invited onto the national Yle radio station to take part in a discussion about the riotous invasion of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC by supporters of the USA’s outgoing President Donald Trump.

The programme sought to explore “What role does right-wing populism play in Washington chaos?” and was described by Yle in the following terms

The whole world has been following a completely extraordinary intrusion into the U.S. Congress Building and its aftercare. At the heart of it all is the controversy over the outcome of the November presidential election, which Trump’s most radical supporters are now pursuing. In the interview, Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja (sd) and Niko Hatakka from the Center for Parliamentary Research, who studied populism. Edited by Carolus Manninen. In the studio Aki Laine and Marko Miettinen.

The programme is listed here – and is accessible to anybody who is in Finland



Parliament as a Stage – How Germany’s Populists Challenge Established Norms from Within

by Anna-Sophie Heinze – this post originally appeared on EA Worldview

Populist radical right parties are far from “new” challengers – yet dealing with them will remain a difficult balancing act into the future for other parties, media actors, and civil society.

Have a look at Germany.

Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) – only founded in 2013 – has succeeded in where far-right parties in the country (such as the extremist NPD, DVU, or Republicans) had always failed. AfD has entered all 16 state parliaments, the German Bundestag, and the European Parliament. Since then, it has put pressure on the established parties.

All parties have lost voters to the AfD, especially the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) but also the Social Democrats and the Left Party in Eastern Germany. The reasons range from a general loss of trust in political parties to the representation gap of conservative voters since the CDU moved to the left under Chancellor, Angela Merkel, a gap which became particularly apparent over the admissions of refugees into Germany. From a strategic point of view, these parties will strive to win back the trust of voters and strengthen their position of power.

But the AfD is not an “ordinary” challenger party. Instead, it constantly challenges the principles of liberal democracy outside Parliament, whilst its legislators keep breaking formal and informal rules in Parliament, arguing they are the sole representatives of the interests of “the people”.

The AfD often presents itself as the only hardworking party that “sits” in Parliament (in the literal sense of being present during sessions), addressing issues which it says are avoided by the other parties. The party communicates this through pictures in its social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, by showing its MPs alongside empty chairs that should be occupied by the other parties — although, in most cases, these photos are taken before the Parliamentary debates begin.

The AfD is an unpredictable actor in Parliament, illustrated by the voting record of its MPs. For example, in the State Parliament of Saxony-Anhalt in September 2020, the AfD voted in favour of a motion by the Left Party, with whom it shares the opposition benches. The motion gained a surprise majority because many members of the coalition factions (CDU, SPD, Greens) had already left the plenary hall. Similarly, the AfD surprisingly voted for Thomas Kemmerich (FDP) as Minister President of Thuringia at the start of 2020, causing outcry both nationally and internationally.

With this strategy, the AfD clearly challenges the rules that have shaped Parliamentary practice in Germany. For instance, much legislative work takes place in committees and not during plenaries. This means that, in the plenary sessions, the parties vote on compromises that have been reached before, while maintaining the majority balance between government and opposition.

However, the AfD barely engages in committee work, instead using Parliament as a stage. In the chamber, it tries to provoke divisive debates with strong rhetoric and provocation. It then depicts itself as the “victim” of the corrupt “old parties” when they react. This is sometimes conveyed to the electorate through edited videos of debates, circulated through social media.

It is difficult for established parties to engage with this type of populist functional logic. If they ignore or exclude the AfD they play into the hands of their anti-establishment mobilisation. However, if they treat the party as a “normal” challenger party, they run the risk of legitimizing and normalizing its positions.

So the established parties have to deal with the issues on which the AfD focuses without being constantly provoked. On the one hand, they must be responsive, solving increasingly complex problems and explaining their decisions in public. On the other, they must try to maintain established parliamentary procedure and political practice, including the boundaries of acceptable political discourse and rhetoric.

It is a challenge for the established parties to counter this trend in Parliament. It will be an even greater challenge as the AfD’s messages spread quickly in the extra-parliamentary sphere.

Populism in Europe and the USA – Webinar Recording

This Webinar took place on October 22, 2020. The main focus of the discussion was how do we understand populist leadership in the US? Is Trump a “populist”? What are the similarities and differences between Trump’s rhetoric and ideology and populists in Europe today (including the UK and Ireland)?

Watch the full webinar here.

Speakers included:

Mick Fealty, Editor of Slugger O’Toole
Dr. Daniele Albertazzi, University of Birmingham
Professor Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham
Professor Daphne Halikiopoulou, University of Reading
Professor Tim Bale, Queen Mary, University of London

The discussion was chaired by Professor Liam Kennedy, Director of UCD Clinton Institute.

PiAP-Clinton Institute Webinar: Comparing Populisms

This post appeared originally on EA Worldview

What can we learn from examining populism across as well as within countries?

The Populism in Action Project’s Dr. Daniele Albertazzi (University of Birmingham) and Dr. Stijn van Kessel (Queen Mary, University of London), joined by Dr. Julien Mercille (University College Dublin), took on the question in a webinar hosted by UCD’s Clinton Institute on October 15.

A video of this event was recorded and can be accessed here.

Dr. van Kessel laid the foundation for the session by setting out PiAP’s methodology and research questions. He began with the assumption, possibly borne out by the experience and practice of “mainstream” parties over the last 50 years, of a move away from the cultivation of extensive and intensive engagement with a mass membership. PiAP’s critique of this model is the demonstration of a mixture of older and newer forms of engagement cultivated and sustained by populist radical right parties in Europe.

Dr. Albertazzi then set out some of PiAP’s key findings so far in Belgium (Flanders), Finland, Italy, and Switzerland, considering the cases of Vlaams Belang, the Finns Party, the League and the Swiss People’s Party respectively.

In each, the representatives interviewed were enthusiastic about building local parties as a key part of strategy and internal culture. While there are noticeable local differences — for instance, the prominence of social media and instant messaging channels like WhatsApp in Italy and Belgium, and the relatively high degree of local autonomy enjoyed by branches of the Swiss People’s Party — each party under study is very good at building participatory organizations with which members want to be involved.

Albertazzi explained the attractive proposition of joining a space where a member can connect with like-minded people to share and discuss political ideas. Aware of this, populist radical right parties have developed effective means to mobilize members, who connect with them via social media or through other channels, into face-to-face activity through formal campaigning activity or social events.

Dr. Mercille complemented PiAP’s work, with the discussion of contemporary Irish politics. He explained why, despite the similarities between Ireland and other Western European countries, a populist radical right party has yet to emerge in the Republic.

There are conditions such as increasing economic insecurity, highly visible wealth inequality, concerns amongst culturally conservative individuals about social change, and a lack of trust in the political system. But Mercille suggested that reasons for the non-emergence of a radical right populist party range from the lack of a charismatic leader to the historic right-leaning duopoly of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, dominant since Irish independence in 1921. If there is a breakdown of this historic alignment, then Ireland might join other European countries with a populist radical right party like those studied by PiAP.