For those of us grown used to the background whir of the PR machine, and for those of us accustomed to adversarial politics, it might at first be tempting to consider the technocratic political approach of the Netherlands as a quaint throwback.
But it is in this context that figures such as Geert Wilders — striking under his bottle-blond locks and passionately advocating his anti-elitist approach and anti-Muslim stance — are so very effective. The Party for Freedom leader has been able to energise people who are bored by the earnest and long-winded explanations of his colleagues in parliament. His tone — anxious and angry — strikes a chord with the electorate as they brace themselves for the hardships arising from a large budget deficit and an unstable European Union. The PVV grafted an anti-Islamic movement onto this anxiety and watched it grow.
And Wilders’ success is not merely incidental to his energy and his anger. He is a savvy strategist, who carefully constructs visual, verbal and conceptual references to evoke recent traumas. His short film, Fitna, which shows excerpts of the Koran interspersed with images of violence perpetrated by Muslims, is a direct reference to the 2004 assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch Moroccan Muslim after the release of a controversial anti-Muslim film.
Wilders makes his public appearances (where he delivers bright ideas such as the introduction of a “head rag tax” on Muslim women) surrounded by bodyguards, and publicly expresses the hope for a Netherlands where he can safely walk down the street. He also makes frequent symbolic use of the language used by the late Pim Fortuyn, another anti-Muslim politician who was assassinated in 2002 by a (non-Muslim) animal rights activist.
But how can such radical anti-Muslim sentiment emerge in a nation known for progressive social policies on gay marriage, euthanasia, abortion, prostitution and drugs? One explanation can be found by recognising that Dutch society has worked hard to push back the tide of repressive Calvinist thought since the 1950s, and they are anxious to ensure that modern Dutch values are not submerged again.
“Racism remains taboo in Dutch society, but criticism of religion and associated cultural practices has been increasingly mainstream,” says Oskar Verkaaik, of the University of Amsterdam, “and so too has the idea that Muslim values on gay rights and women’s rights present a real threat to Dutch liberties.”
But all of the political parties seem to have lost sight on the famous Dutch pragmatism when it comes to dealing with Muslims in the Netherlands. In the discourse about the emancipation of the Muslims it is very clear that it will be the non-Muslims who will do the emancipating, and that they will do it by force if necessary. Unlike their approach to other sources of social repression, the research shows that is unlikely to be very effective.
Wilders’ party has exceeded expectations with 22 seats. But the influence of the party upon Dutch politics is greater than that. Parties from across the political spectrum toughened up on immigration and integration issues in response to the PVV’s unprecedented success in the municipal elections in March.
And as Dr Markha Valenta (University of Amsterdam) observed, the PVV is more one-man-band than a party, and Wilders thus has great freedom to bargain away core PVV principles in exchange for a position of power in a coalition government: “Minister of Justice, for example.” Yikes.
Maybe the other parties have learned the wrong lessons from Wilders. Some are keen to deploy anti-Muslim rhetoric for political gain, but they might do better to construct a cohesive narrative — a political vision of the Netherlands that people can relate to emotionally and rationally. It is the difference between running the country and leading it.