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Democracy Gone Wild

AMSTERDAM, July 2, 2009 – The Dutch, a people known for their tolerance, have recently elected a far-right politician, as they struggle with issues of immigration and identity. For a well-respected liberal democracy, there seems to have been very little opposition.
On the night of June 5, after the poll results for the European Parliament elections were in, some supporters of Geert Wilders were disappointed and angry. The Victory Bar in The Hague was packed to capacity and they couldn’t get in. Inside, their fellow supporters celebrated the Partij voor de Vrijheid’s, or PVV's, spectacular success. They topped off their glasses and chanted a euphoric “We Are the Champions.” The PVV, translated as Party for Freedom, had won 17% of the vote and gained 4 of the Netherlands’ 25 European parliamentary seats, becoming the second most represented Dutch party.
"Yesterday was historic for me," Wilders, the Dutch right-wing populist, said in an interview the next morning. "This feels like a real breakthrough. The projections have become reality. We have become a big party. We are here to stay." Wilders certainly got his history right. No right-wing party had won more than 8% of the national vote since the Dutch National Socialists in the 1930s. Not only had the PVV made national history, they now held the most support for any right-wing party in Europe.
Wilders was more confident and controversial in the week after the election: "The cabinet is far past its expiration date. If the coalition were a carton of milk, it would have said 'expiration date: February 1, 2009,'" Wilders said, suggesting the need for early national elections. He went on Danish television later in the week. "If you commit a crime, if you start thinking about Jihad or Sharia, then it’s very clear, we will send you packing, we will strip you of the Dutch or Danish nationality," he said. Wilders went on to say that tens of millions of Muslims should be deported from Europe. Wilders expressed that he wanted his own Dutch Guantanamo Bay, a prison that he had visited in 2007.
At home in the Netherlands, he stands trial for hate speech comparing the Koran with Mein Kampf, and 95 other allegedly racist statements. He produced Fitna in 2008, a film that propagated the incompatibility of Islam with Dutch society, arguing that there are pages in the Koran that should be torn out. British authorities later barred Wilders from entry to the UK over the film, claiming that it would incite anti-Muslim hatred.
 
Major political figures have recently spoken out against Wilders. "If large groups of people are threatened with deportation, without this leading to public outrage, our society is stagnating," Piet Hein Donner, a cabinet Minister and member of the Christian Democrats (CDA), said three weeks after the election. "Wilders is talking complete nonsense," said Eberhard van der Laan, Minister of Housing, Neighborhoods, and Integration, in response to Wilders' comments in Denmark.
Despite these recent objections, polls show that if voters cast their ballots for national elections tomorrow, the PVV would come out as the number one party. Surveying the Netherlands, from political parties to civil society and regular people, where is the opposition to Wilders? What problems does this opposition movement face today? What dilemmas does it face in the future, and what would effective resistance against Wilders look like?

Stop the Wildernization

In November 2007, Doekle Terpstra was traveling across the country when he heard that Wilders had called Islam a violent religion and had advocated defacing the Koran in a national debate. "What’s happening to our country? There’s always been a strong sentiment to welcome minorities," said Terpstra, the former leader of the Christian labor union (CNV) and the country's top official in higher professional education. "I wondered, where are the churches? Where are all the civil society organizations?" Disturbed, he went home and told his wife, then sat down and wrote a spontaneous letter, taking only thirty minutes. "Wilders abuses his position. That is dangerous," the letter read. "That is why it is now time for a broadly based 'no' against Wilder's evil message. Stop the Wildernization." Without even taking time to edit, Terpstra sent the letter to several newspapers. Within several hours after publication, it became a subject of hot debate in the country. De Telegraaf, a popular right- wing newspaper, intensified the issue by misquoting Terpstra as having said, "Wilders is the evil, and that evil must be stopped." Some supporters told Terpstra that the opposition was worth continuing, and by January, he found himself at the head of an anti-Wilders campaign.
Benoemen en Bouwen, translated as "Naming and Constructing," attracted the support of over sixty Dutch organizations. "It was an appeal to people to do something in the area of the protection of minorities,” Terpstra says. Churches, trade unions, representatives of higher education, and actors participated. It was an interesting project, Terpstra reflects, because it represented people across society, not just a select group. He dreamed of forming a real citizen-led initiative; not an organization, but a coalition that would inspire groups to engage in their own internal debates about racism. Churches would start the discussion among congregations, and trade unions among their members. The strength of this system would lie in the initiative and commitment undertaken by regular people, as opposed to an associated spokesperson. In the end, however, he realized to his surprise that the strategy had been unsuccessful. The organization was connected with his own name, not a variety of other groups, and it lacked a strong, clear message about the ultimate goal. After a year, Benoemen en Bouwen collapsed as an effective movement.
“There is no real obstruction to Wilders in our society,” Terpstra says today. He witnessed a total lack of opposition to Wilders in the year leading up to the European Parliamentary elections. The main responsibility of political parties right now, he suggests, is to build an opposition to Wilders and prove to people that the PVV's path is not right for the Netherlands. "Don't ignore Wilders," Terpstra says. "Start the debate to convince people in our country that our strength lies in bringing people together, not splitting them apart." Parliament should take the responsibility of influencing the debate and controlling Wilders. "Lots of people have concerns, but Wilders is playing with their sentiments, splitting people and playing with fear," he observes.

The Power of Racism

Wilders was formerly a member of Parliament for the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, or People's Party for Freedom and Democracy: the free-market, socially conservative party. He left the VVD in 2004, accusing it of not being far enough on the right. The party had wrongfully supported Turkey's accession to the EU and underestimated the threat of Islamization to Dutch society, he said. He split from the party, but remained in his parliamentary seat as a one-man faction called Group Wilders. In preparation for the 2006 elections, Wilders transformed Group Wilders into the PVV. The explicitly anti-Islamist party portrays itself as a populist challenge to the political establishment. Despite the PVV’s holding 9 seats in national Parliament, Wilders is the party's only member. Meetings take place behind closed doors, and Wilders holds exclusive dictatorial control over its political direction. "The PVV is nothing more than a gathering of Geert Wilders' ideas,” Terpstra said.
Abroad, Wilders is recognized as a racist. The Council of Europe rejected the portrayal of Islam offered by Wilders in Fitna, calling it a "distasteful manipulation which exploits ignorance, prejudice and fear" and propaganda that "plays into the hands of extremists." Ban Ki-Moon said in response to the film, "There is no justification for the hate speech or incitement to violence." Wilders propagates his most extreme views abroad. "In the Netherlands he wants to be a decent guy opposing foreigners. Abroad he can be less concerned with decency and legal persecution," says René Danen. "Even the people we call racist abroad think Wilders is too extreme." Danen is an activist with Nederland Bekent Kleur, loosely translated as "The Netherlands Shows Its True Colors." The organization brought the hate speech case against Wilders. A former chairman of the National Student Union (LSVB), Danen formed Nederland Bekent Kleur in 1992, after a Turkish family was burned alive in their German home and some right-wing activists threw a Molotov cocktail at a Dutch mosque.
Racism should be compared to other crimes, Danen says. A society will never be able to eliminate petty crimes, like bike theft. The goal of law enforcement is, instead, to minimize crime. Similarly, racism can never be completely removed from a society, but enforcement can prevent it from growing to unmanageable proportions. This reasoning led Danen to organize the initiative to try Wilders for hate speech.
One criticism of the case was that people would perceive it as an elite decision, playing directly into Wilders' anti-establishment program. Danen acknowledges that prosecuting Wilders for hate speech might not be an ideal strategy, but with the limited group of people committed to opposing him, it was the best option available. "The best way is not to take him to court or denounce him on TV, but to educate your neighbors not to vote for him," Danen says. "We should take action, hit the streets and force him to debate. We got together with our group and came to the conclusion that with our limited resources it is the most impact we can have."
"If you just let him talk, he will dig his own grave," says Jeroen van Berkel, the Campaign Manager for the PvdA, the Dutch Labor Party. The PvdA is the social democratic party and the second most represented in Dutch government, holding 33 of 150 parliamentary seats. Van Berkel and Kirsten Meijer, the Assistant Campaign Manger, are preparing for the upcoming municipal elections. The two sit in a roomy cafeteria in the PvdA's office along an Amsterdam canal, amid walls decorated with red roses, the party's symbol. They discuss Wilders, sound bite politics, and the possibility for opposition. Van Berkel isn't worried about Wilders. As Wilders grows in popularity, he will be forced to enter debates. His style of politics is a temporary thing, van Berkel thinks. "You could consider him a real threat, but then you are somewhat of a doom thinker," he says. Wilders will have to support his superficial rhetoric with substance in a debate, and this will be his downfall.
Meijer is more concerned. She is frightened by the fact that a politician advocating for the deportation of Muslims could win so many votes. More shocking than the results of the European election, she feels, were the results of a shadow election held among high school students. The PvdA has traditionally been most popular among the students, but this year, the PVV won.
Because Wilders put certain problems on the agenda, the voters think he has the solution. In response to the agenda he raises, the PvdA considers itself responsible for finding solutions to these problems. "Some of his analysis is true, but the solutions are bullshit, to put it mildly," van Berkel says. PvdA recognizes the problems that Wilders raises, but they see different solutions, ones that are more nuanced and harder to express in sound bites.
More troubling than Wilders' racism, Danen explains, is that he pushes more moderate parties to adjust to his racism. Since the European elections, Wilders has placed pressure on these parties by adopting a more Leftist socioeconomic policy, the PVV's new strategy for attracting both voters and powerful civil society organizations. "If Wilders wants to keep the retirement age at 65 like we do, we will work with them," says Agnes Jongerius, leader of the largest labor union (FNV Bondgenoten) and described by De Volkskrant as the most powerful woman in the country. Wilders' political strategy has served to broaden his support base and destabilize other parties.
"De Partij van de Arbeid is split in two: those who strongly oppose Wilders because of his racism, and those who want to sit and wait it out," Danen says. The latter group is afraid that voters feel Wilders has identified the right problems. The worst they could do is to appear soft on the issues of immigration and multiculturalism. Even worse than waiting for Wilders to fade away is co-opting his views in order to gain votes, whereby parties assert that he's identified the right problems, but that they have their own better, more sensible solutions. "They think the analysis is right, but the solutions are wrong," Danen states. The problem is, "people watching TV don’t hear ‘He’s right, but,’ they only hear, ‘He’s right.'

Lacking Perspective

Wilders' outrageous rhetorical style and controversial sound bites make him very attractive to the media. Wilders is constantly surrounded by journalists looking for a juicy story. How can a party like the PvdA, with a much more nuanced political message, compete with such sound-bite politics? In a democracy, one of the responsibilities of the media is to clearly and objectively facilitate political debate, but in the post-Pim Fortuyn Netherlands, the one who screams loudest wins the headline. Fortuyn, in many ways a precursor to Wilders, was the first to take on the political establishment and argue that multiculturalism had failed. Fortuyn captivated the media with his flamboyant personality, aggressive debating style, and undisguised bitterness toward Muslims and immigrants. The PvdA's campaign managers recognize that the nuanced political message that they presented before the European elections failed to compete with the clear-cut 'Yes' or 'No' to European integration offered by D66 and PVV, respectively. The media should not be so superficial as to report sound bites, but the responsibility also lies with political parties to make their message more appealing. Meijer recognizes that the PvdA must become more attractive if the media is to cover them.
The media did not pay nearly as much attention to Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002, as they do to Wilders. In the initial stages of Fortuyn's career, the media did not attribute enough importance to him. "The media is still traumatized by not having seen the rise of Pim Fortuyn coming," explains Farid Tabarki, the co-founder and host of the Dutch MTV show Coolpolitics. “What we see with Wilders is a hyper-correction,” Tabarki said one morning over coffee in Amsterdam. “They think, ‘Last time we missed him, now we’ll make sure we don’t miss one sentence he says’. Politically he’s 10%. He’s not 10% in the media, he's 80%." With this 80%, the media never punctures the surface, choosing to repeat only the most shocking sound bites. Wilders clearly shows a thorough understanding of modern media and how to manipulate it for his benefit.
Not only is the Dutch media preoccupied with Wilders, according to Danen, but they show an inability to cover real social problems, instead overemphasizing negative events associated with Muslims. Journalists disproportionately cover crimes committed by Muslims, portraying them in a negative light and associating Islam with radicalism. "When there is some trouble with Morrocan boys in Gouda it is all over the front pages, but when the fence of a Somalian family in Ravenstein is littered with swastikas it barely makes a dent," he says.
Before the European Parliamentary elections, there were three nationally televised debates-all of them “crap”, in the words of Tabarki. Representatives of the PVV were the most effective in getting their message across in the debates, which focused primarily on European integration and Turkey's admission to the EU. Rather than engage in a discussion, they simply repeated their blunt message. "They're asking these questions as part of a game, not because they see where society is going," Tabarki says. He feels that the journalists attacked the PVV on form, but never challenged them on their political content. Journalism, he argues, is supposed to see patterns in society and have an idea of where it is going. "These journalists don't see developments, they only see hype. If today's journalists have no sense of direction, how can voters decide where the country is heading?"

Post Fortuyn Politics

Tabarki, a self-proclaimed Zeitgeist researcher, currently sees three possibilities for opposition to Wilders in party politics. First, there are the Christian Democrats (CDA), who rediscovered their voice as a moderate party in response to Wilders' radicalism. Decency wins votes in Dutch politics. Without ever having actively opposed Wilders, they retain sympathy and votes by portraying themselves as the decent party, which is above screaming politics. Second, there is the strategy of the traditionally worker-based parties, namely the PvdA and the Socialist Party, who most recently lost votes to the PVV. These parties try to oppose Wilders by returning to their worker base, using their socioeconomic ideology to challenge Wilders' cultural racism. Finally, there is the mode of opposition Tabarki finds most interesting. These are the progressives: D66, posing itself as the party for laissez-faire economics with a social face, and GroenLinks, or the Green Left. These parties, Tabarki says, are fighting against Wilders in a culture war. Terpstra, Tabarki, and even van Berkel acknowledge that D66 was the only party to actively oppose Wilders on his content. By posing themselves as a sincere, principled, and consistent party, they tripled their number of seats in the European Parliament. "It's not a politics of social and economic class, but a culture war. The cosmopolitan, international, onward-looking progressives vs. a traditional, nationalistic, Dutch culture," he says. In this strategy, the progressives show that they have the alternative to Wilders' vision for the Netherlands. The best way to fight the far Right is to put one's party in direct opposition with it--to say: I don't want to live in the country you describe. Instead of pandering to racists by diluting your ideals, show people a clear alternative and stand by it.
Does the Netherlands need a leader to oppose Wilders? Will the Netherlands concede sovereignty to the EU? How much room is there for immigrants? How will it generate its energy? What kind of communities will be nurtured? "We need an articulated vision of people headed somewhere, and I don't actually think they need to be politicians," Tabarki answers. He expresses his belief that what the Dutch need is a responsible citizenry, with an idea of what direction the country should be heading in. Wilders capitalizes on the country's confusion and indecision in a complicated era. The responsibility of the Dutch people and the political parties that represent them is to assert an alternative vision that rejects Wilders' racism and xenophobia.
At the beginning of the summer of 2001, Pim Fortuyn did not yet exist politically. The Purple Coalition, a government of the PvdA, VVD, and D66, enjoyed an 80% approval rating. By the end of the summer, approval ratings for the Purple Coalition had dropped to 30%. Pim Fortuyn had written The Trash Heaps of Eight Years Purple, a ferocious critique of multiculturalism, left-wing elitism, and a culture of compromise that was notoriously non-ideological. Like Obama in the States, he became a celebrity in Dutch politics. As author Ian Buruma wrote in his 2008 Murder in Amsterdam, in his chapter on Pim Fortuyn: "To a confused people, afraid of being swamped by immigrants and worried that pan-European or global institutions were rapidly taking over their lives, Fortuyn promised a way back to simpler times, when . . . we were still ourselves, when everyone was white, and upstanding Dutchmen were in control of the nation's destiny. He was a peddler of nostalgia." Fortuyn kicked in the door of mainstream politics. After his assassination, Wilders could march right in. 
Fortuyn had responded to media and politicians' criticisms by claiming he was being "demonized." While in the United States, Wilders was interviewed on CNN. The reporter confronted Wilders, calling him a racist. When discussing Fitna, the reporter said he was reminded "of the kind of propaganda used to trigger violence and discrimination from Nazi Germany to Rwanda." Yet, the criticism Wilders faced in the American media would not be possible in the Netherlands. Wilders could always claim he was being demonized, obstructing the road to substantive discussion.
Wilders is tapping into the underlying fears of about a quarter of the population, according to Tabarki. “Wilders is trying to develop a culture that is the opposite of what the elite has been trying to do for the past 20 or 30 years." In other words, he says no to Europe, no to Islam, and no to left-wing elitists, instead implying that there is something like a unified Dutch culture with a particular set of norms and values that are being violated.
The problem with traditional political parties is their unambitious and uninspired vision for the future of Dutch society. In his 2006 campaign for Prime Minister, representing the PvdA, Wouter Bos produced a three-part documentary series about his campaign trail called De Wouter Tapes. At the end, an interviewer asked Bos, what drives you as a politician? Bos replied, "I would be a proud politician if I improved the life of Dutch people just one tiny bit." Tabarki was shocked by this response, describing it as, frankly, sad. To him, it exemplifies the major problem with the country's big, traditional parties of the CDA and PvdA: an absence of inspired, passionate leadership. 

Power to the People?

If Terpstra's broad-based citizen initiative failed, if the culture war has not expanded to mainstream politics, if politicians are too worried about votes to oppose Wilders' racism, and if the media is more concerned with good punch lines than with good journalism, what is left for effective opposition? How could a typical person demonstrate his or her opposition?
In January 2008, seven people walked into an Amsterdam square holding signs that depicted packs of Marlboro cigarettes and read: "Extremist: can cause damage to you and society." Three of the protesters, including one member of Parliament and members of the International Socialists, were arrested and released exactly one hour later. The police had deemed the signs offensive, but had no legal grounds for holding the protesters.
Is direct action an effective means of opposition? Yes, says Maina van der Zwan, the National Coordinator for the International Socialists (IS).Wilders claims to be a man of the people, not a member of the elite. Protest shows that regular people, not just politicians, oppose Wilders. We met van der Zwan in the IS office, where the Marlboro posters were produced, to discuss the shortcomings of political opposition and the need for popular protest. The IS is an anti-capitalist, anti-war, and anti-racist organization that organizes meetings and demonstrations, and produces a critical newspaper. The office's library of Marxist literature and posters advocating anti-racist action soon got us talking about Wilders and the Left.
There is an opposition, van der Zwan says, but it is not organized. The traditionally Left parties, PvdA and SP, accepted the victory of neoliberalism and market economics. The abandonment of their original socialist ideology has created the conditions for such weak opposition to Wilders. Whereas in the past the Left had a primarily economic analysis of social problems, today it is more accepting of cultural explanations for crime and poverty. "Their ideological frameworks do not give them the proper tools to understand where Islamophobia comes from," van der Zwan says. We need a Left based in notions of class and solidarity, that will stick to a basic set of principles even if this means that they will be smaller and must work harder.
Would an effective campaign against Wilders’ racism focus on Wilders, or racism in general? Is it wiser to stress the politician or his message? “I don't think you can separate racism from Wilders and the PVV," van der Zwan said. "It's too abstract to exclude Wilders." The problem with party politics is that parties fight parties, not racism. In November, some parliamentary figures declined to participate in demonstrations against Wilders for the International Day Against Racism. They claimed that it would be inappropriate to demonstrate against a colleague. "Abstractly they're against racism, but they don't want to criticize a party that has a concrete, anti-Islam message," van der Zwan. Wilders and the PVV should be the focus of any anti-racist campaign, confronted as a racist party while the Left poses itself an alternative for people’s dissatisfaction.
According to René Danen, people should call the problem by its name. “If you think Wilders is a racist, call him a racist. Acknowledge the problem. This is not freedom of speech or religious criticism—he wants to expel millions of Muslims,” Danen said. After the problem is identified, attack it through law, justice, and education. Unions, neighborhoods and communities should educate against racism and protect victims. Unlike political parties, who are interested in Wilders' seats, people are interested in eliminating discrimination.
"If Wilders is smart," Tabarki says, "he will create his own broadly based culture." If Wilders does not expand his agenda beyond Islam-focused xenophobia, he will not rise from a party into a movement and, as van Berkel said, "his supporters will not take to the streets and throw stones at windows." Once Wilders grows in power, he will have to translate his analysis of problems into solutions. Some critics say that this moment will be his downfall, and it is only a matter of time before the PVV fades into the background. But there are many others like Danen and Terpstra who say that we must not let it come to that. The damage to our society will simply be too large. "It is a critical time to decide where we stand and where we want to go," Tabarki said.
While talking with Tabarki in a cafe crowded with morning coffee-drinkers, a man suddenly stood and approached us. He must have been listening to our conversation for an hour. Visibly angry, he pointed to Tabarki and said, "You know what I think? I think you're full of shit. We need to get rid of Wilders, and you know how?" He made the motion of slitting his neck. When people feel disengaged and misrepresented by politics, when they feel that there has been enough talk, how will they channel their anger? How should people demonstrate their shock or discontent? There must be an organized display of opposition across many sectors of society, if the debate over Wilders is to result in neither apathy nor violence.
 
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