Blond ambition

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Almere, a relatively new, middle-class polder city east of Amsterdam, was virtually unheard of outside the Netherlands – until last week, when it made Europe’s headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The party of Geert Wilders, by far the country’s most controversial figure, won municipal elections there. His Party for Freedom (PVV), which also came second in The Hague, the other of the two municipalities it contested, will be in control of a Dutch city for the first time. More shockingly, Wilders could be kingmaker in the upcoming general elections.

“The result is troubling but was bound to happen,” Sjoerd de Jong, deputy editor-in-chief at NRC Handelsblad, told Athens Plus. “Wilders had already shown his electoral strength in the European elections. The premature demise of the government only helped him cash his cheque.

“The Dutch electorate in general is growing tired of its traditional leaders, which is apparent in the wildly divergent election results of the last 10 or 15 years,” de Jong said of a country once the synonym of political stability for much part in the form of so-called “purple coalition” governments of Christian and social democrats.

PVV’s victory also has symbolic content emblematic of the gradual transformation of the Netherlands, a former colonial nation long seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberal values by account of its soft policy on drugs and prostitution and decades of open-door policy on immigration.

“Wilders’s message of cultural nationalism and protectionism appeals to vague but broad concerns in Dutch society, not only in the working class but also in middle-class areas and cities, like Almere,” de Jong said.

Nicknamed Mozart or Captain Peroxide for his trademark platinum-dyed hairdo, Wilders is in many ways the political heir to conservative populist Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, who was gunned down by a deranged animal rights activist in 2002, was the first politician to challenge the orthodoxy of the Dutch political establishment, which he liked to scoff as the “left-wing church.”

Less charismatic than the over-the-top Fortuyn, Wilders also likes to take shots at the multiculturalist model, once the sacred cow of Holland’s consensus politics. The country’s mainstream parties, long in denial of the simmering tension, failed to address popular discontent with the hard-to-integrate chunk of the nation’s so-called “allochtonen” or foreigners – tension which burst into the open following the violent murder in 2004 of eccentric filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic radical.

That someone could be killed for speaking his mind, even if that meant mocking an alien religion, was an unprecedented shock for the Dutch. If you want to live here, the new motto goes, you have to live by our values.

“Society may be becoming less tolerant of minority eccentricities, especially of religious ones. There’s always been a strong Dutch urge to ‘act normal’ – meaning ‘like one of us’ – which has gained momentum in recent years due to the uncertainties of globalization and immigration,” de Jong said.

Holland is in many ways at the frontline of a pan-European populist reaction against the established political elites, which are being blamed for allowing mass immigration and, particularly, the Islamisation of European societies. At the same time, de Jong points out, Wilders, who started out as a punk youth in the early 80s, is “typically Dutch in his bluntness,” like in his proposal of a “kopvodden-tax,” a tax on headscarves that literally translates as a “head-rag tax.”

“My supporters say: ‘At last there is someone who dares to say what millions of people think.’ That is what I do,” Wilders has said echoing Fortuyn’s famous mantra: “I say what I think and I do as I say.”

Then again, de Jong remarks, many of his followers consider Wilders too extreme, certainly for Dutch tastes. “They voted for him primarily because they wanted to send a signal to the government: We’re concerned about where this society is going and we want you to take us seriously,” he said.

The idea of a disgruntled but silent majority bound by political correctness does not go down well with many analysts.

“This is not how populism works. It’s the other way round. I think Wilders tells people what to think. He exploits people’s fears. Populist parties actually shape people’s views,” said Andre Krouwel, professor of political science at Amsterdam’s Vrije University.

Reality, political expediency or, perhaps, both have pushed Dutch governments away from the live-and-let-live approach on immigration in favor of a tougher, assimilation-oriented policy. Newcomers must now take social integration courses and pass a language test within five years after arrival or risk deportation from the Netherlands, where 6 percent of the population of 16 million are Muslim.

That won’t do for Wilders, who has said he wants a ban on headscarves for civil servants, a halt on migration from Muslim countries and a moratorium on the construction of mosques in a bid to “stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands,” which he considers a threat to freedom. “Fitna,” an anti-Islamic short movie/manifesto made by Wilders, equates Islam with Nazism.

“Wilders has a simple explanation for everything. Migrants are to blame for everything, so if you stop migration, the problems will disappear,” Krouwel said.

Although most studies show that school-dropout, unemployment and crime rates are higher among immigrants, Krouwel said, the problems should be associated with income levels, not religion.

“What Wilders does is replace a social explanation with a religious, cultural one,” he said.

Wilders’s powerful PR machine and populist tactics have certainly helped him but so has the messy political situation. The Dutch government collapsed last month after the Labor Party, the junior partner in the coalition of Christian and social democrats, refused to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan whose mandate ends in August. Polls ahead of the June election predict an unusually fragmented distribution of power but also a doubling of the PVV’s electoral power to 27 seats, which would make it the second biggest party and potential kingmaker.

De Jong, an experienced journalist and author, is not too pessimistic about the Wilders effect. “His party, if successful in the general elections, will meet with opposition from the established parties but also from labor unions and employers who worry about possible negative effects of his success on the Dutch economy, for instance on exports to Islamic countries,” he said.

“But of course, he will be a force to be reckoned with and one that can certainly influence the course of Dutch politics, even from the opposition.”

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