Geert Wilders, Geert Wilders! Everyone wants to talk about bloody Geert Wilders!’ In the Engelburger or something cafe on the Raamgracht — which, like all Dutch names, only sounds correct if you clear your throat at the same tine as saying it — the Dutch journalist was getting angry.
I felt I’d got off to a bad start when he came in by offering him a beer. “No I don’t want a beer — it’s four o’clock, I’m still working,” he said with just a hint of judgement. It was a mellow Amsterdam afternoon, bikes in the street, sun on the canal, a few people enjoying a late afternoon drink. Across the way, three American students staggered from a coffee shop. As usual I had come for chaos and everyone was just chilling out.
“Geert Wilders has been forgotten,” the journalist continued. Which if true, was inconvenient. Wilders, of course, was the reason to be here — the peroxide blond leader of the PVV, the Freedom Party, has become the bete noire of Dutch politics, and a hero to crazed right-wingers everywhere around the world.
His group — it is barely a party — advocates an end to all immigration from Muslim countries into the Netherlands, the closure of all private Islamic schools, and the banning not merely of the burqa but also the Koran. Wilders group currently has nine seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament.
Polling a couple of months ago suggested he was on track to double his votes and thus — by the complex arithmatic of the Dutch “list” election system — gain 25-30 seats and become the largest party on the right side of the political spectrum.
Terrifying, except for one thing: “It isn’t going to happen,” says the journalist. “It never was.”
“The PVV took control of a couple of city councils — Rotterdam and Almeera — but once they got them they refused to govern. People wanted action on services and planning and all they talked about was Muslims.”
The Dutch people would have been going to the polls in 2010 anyway, but they are going a few months early because the Balkenende IV government (Balkenende is the Prime Minister — the Roman numeral indicates how many separate coalitions he has governed as head of).
Balkenende IV had been primarily a coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Labour/social democrat party, with a couple of minor party add-ons — it split over Labour’s refusal to vote for an extension of the Dutch mission in Afghanistan.
Balkenende might have hoped that a recourse to the polls on such a trigger might have given him a boost. If so, he was wrong. Whether or not Wilders’s highly erratic PVV “list” makes any gains, it looks very likely that the Christian Democrats will be decimated in this election, and that the role of principal right party will be taken over by the DVV, the free-market liberals.
This would not be nearly as interesting as a Wilders victory, but it represents a shift in European politics nevertheless. In the Netherlands, the Christian Democrats — they are really a union of several parties — have dominated politics since the end of the First World War. When Labour built a left coalition government in the ’90s, it was the first time in decades that the CDU hadn’t been in the government.
The centrality of the CDU, with Labour as its sometimes opposition, sometimes coalition partner, has been a model of the political consensus dominating north European societies since the end of the Second World War — one deriving from a notion, whether drawn from Christian doctrine or socialism — that society should dominate the market not vice versa.
As the Anglosphere societies took off on adventures of radical neoliberalism, European nations stuck to the social consensus. Now in the Netherlands that is coming under as much pressure as at any time in its history, as the free-market policies of the DVV and their charismatic leader Mark Rutte attract a broad following, not least among the poor — who will not benefit from the party’s stern deficit reduction policies.
Yet by Anglo standards the DVV’s model of fiscal revolution is pretty mild, a series of measures to bring down a €30 billion deficit over four years. “They’re a coalition, they’ve got to govern in a coalition. A Dutch coalition is a group of parties who come to an agreement about things they wont do,” says the journalist. Not everyone feels that way.
“If the PVV got into power I’d … I’d have to leave. But where would I go?
“Even the DVV.”
“They’d be all right …”
“No I’d have to leave …”
It’s fair to say that the speaker — a photographer, at a gallery party, drinkers up one end, a half dozen people wreathed in dope smoke at the other — wasn’t exactly representative of the typical Netherlander — although sometimes you look around Amsterdam and wonder if everyone is not living off paid blogging or avant-garde jewellery design. The whole party was for the Socialist Party, the much mutated Maoists of the ’70s, who usually hold about a dozen seats, but presently have 25 (and most likely will, by Thursday, be back to 12 or so).
Other groups likely to attract inner city support include the Greenleft party with about 10 seats, and D66, a split off from the liberals formed in the ’60s, and the closest thing in the world to a baby boomers own party.
Many inner-city Amsterdammers are worried about the gradual erosion of the famous Netherlands model of tolerance — some would say licence — with regard to matters of s-x, drugs, death and rock’n’roll. In recent years, the city’s mayor, Labour figure Job Cohen has rolled back the spread and power of the city’s red-light district. A few weeks ago the fairly open squatting laws dating from the ’70s, suddenly became some of the most restrictive anti-squatting laws in the Western world.
Out in the suburbs — and most of the Netherlands is effectively, a large bourgeois suburb or village — these issues meet with little interest. But so too do issues of culture and immigration that pre-occupied the country for most of the past decade. With 9/11, the assassination of anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn and then filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the country not only became obsessed with issues of culture and assimilation for its large Muslim population — many of whom (or whose parents) had come as guest workers decades earlier — but also became a fetish object for neoconservatives to warn of “the European nightmare”. It was this that suggested that Wilders might be in line to advance his party to the front rank.
But as the journalist said: “The one thing Dutch people can’t forgive is not doing things properly,” looking askance at my third beer. “Wilders missed his chance with the cities he took over.” True enough. The country that invented impossible housekeeping standards applies it even to dope dens, the stoner staff working their way around coffee shops with a dustpan and brush every half hour or so.
It rapidly became clear that Wilders was something of a blowhard, and that his Muslim shtick could be rolled out any time difficult questions of administration occurred. “What the Dutch care about is their mortgage.” Indeed, most of the election has been a fight around the retention or abolition of the mortgage tax credit, an equivalent of the first home buyers grant.
Should Wilders fall in a heap, the worst predictions of the xenophobic right will look like fantasy, and the capacity of advanced societies to deal with issues of cultural difference re-affirmed.
Should he triumph, of course, then we will know something about Europe. It is clearing its throat, and the sound is “Wilders … Geert Wilders.”