The fortunes of far right parties in Europe, of the sort that the media often misleadingly call “populist”, remain something of a mixed bag. Yesterday we noted the surprising success of the Alliance for the Unity of Romanians, entering the Romanian parliament with nine per cent of the vote after only a year in existence. But its counterpart in the Netherlands isn’t doing so well.
Some readers might remember the last Dutch general election, held in March 2017 – less than two months after the status (or at least the newsworthiness) of “populism” had been boosted by the inauguration of Donald Trump. Commentators talked up the prospects of the Party for Freedom (PVV), the main party on the Dutch far right, suggesting that it would top the poll and even that its leader, Geert Wilders, could become prime minister.
In fact, nothing like that happened. The PVV finished a distant second with 13.1% of the vote and Wilders remained in opposition; a broadly centrist government took office under Mark Rutte, leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Together with the French presidential election two months later, it demonstrated that the narrative about the rise of the far right had been somewhat oversold.
The PVV continued to deflate from that point, challenged by a rival far-right party, the Forum for Democracy (FvD). FvD had been formed shortly before the 2017 election, at which it received 1.8% of the vote and won two seats. A year later, however, it was tracking around 15% in the polls and competing for second place (still behind VVD) with several other parties, including the PVV, the Greens and the far-left Socialist Party.
Worse was to come. In provincial elections in March 2019, FvD topped the poll with 14.5% of the vote – beating VVD (14.0%) and well clear of the PVV, which came seventh with 6.9%. It didn’t do so well in the European parliament election later the same year, placing fourth with 11.0% (behind the centre-left, VVD and the Christian Democrats), but it confirmed its position as the leading force on the far right: Wilders’s party could only manage 3.5% and lost all its seats.
Since then, however, it’s been pretty much all downhill for FvD. By late last year the polls had it back in the middle of the pack, and after a short-lived recovery the decline continued this year. For the last couple of months it’s been down in the mid- to low single digits. The PVV, on the other hand, has staged a major recovery, polling consistently in the mid-teens.*
Last month, as often happens with parties in electoral trouble, a major scandal broke, with leaked chat messages among FvD’s youth wing revealing homophobic, antisemitic and pro-Nazi sentiments. Pressed to discipline those responsible, the party’s leader, Thierry Baudet, instead resigned his position, and the party proceeded to disown him.
But Baudet was more in tune with the party’s grassroots than his critics. He recontested the vacant leadership, and last week the membership voted 76.3% in favor of him staying on. That was followed by mass resignations among FvD MPs and officials.
What moral can we draw from all this? Policy or ideological differences between PVV and FvD are difficult to identify. Baudet doesn’t seem to go all the way with Wilders’s pathological hatred of Islam, but otherwise they push much the same causes: anti-immigrant, anti-EU, climate change denialist. The salience of Muslim immigration as an issue leads both of them to play down anti-feminist and anti-gay themes, but geopolitically they are clearly aligned with those causes as well. (And also with extreme Zionism, despite their antisemitic undercurrent.)
This year, FvD has provided a home for Covid-19 conspiracy theories, which may be one reason for its decline. But the main difference is generational. Wilders at 57 has been a national figure for 15 years; after his failure in 2016, many voters evidently concluded that the PVV’s time had come and gone. Baudet, twenty years younger, was a fresh face – he seemed to promise something new and different, even if the substance of the message was much the same.
But mercurial rises and falls are part of the nature of extremist politics, and novelty can wear off quickly. Baudet has retained the confidence of his hardline membership at the price of putting himself beyond the pale for the mass of Dutch voters, even right-wing nationalist ones. And with the next general election scheduled for March it’s going to be difficult for him to put together much of a ticket.
Whether Wilders will be able to do anything much with his new lease of life remains to be seen. It’s possible that now with the ability to point to a group of genuine crazies on his right flank, he will stake a claim to be taken seriously as a possible partner by the mainstream parties. More likely, however, Dutch politics will remain firmly anchored in the middle, regardless of the diversions on the fringe.
* Note that most sources report poll results as projections of seats in the 150-seat parliament; I have silently multiplied by two-thirds to get percentages of vote.