The Dandy Thierry Baudet and the new Dutch Populism. An Interview with Sarah de Lange
Alessandro Lanni 28 April 2019

“In the Netherlands we have two populist radical-right parties competing for votes: the Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD) and Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV). They’re currently polling quite well, especially the FvD”.

This is the assessment of Sarah de Lange, professor at the University of Amsterdam and expert in populist movements, in the lead up to the European elections in May. She further observes, “the FvD became the second party in the country in the last provincial election [a few weeks ago]. In addition, with the PVV, it is set to be very successful in the upcoming European parliament elections. Both parties combine nativism and populism”.

The extreme right-wing force that has hit many (almost all?) European countries is also growing in the Netherlands, once the mythical cradle of freedom and multiculturalism. And yet, since the days of Pim Fortuyn and the assassination of Theo van Gogh, the scenario has been changing to the point that, at the next European elections, Dutch voters are almost certain to send a delegation to the new European parliament dominated by the two radical-right parties.

We recently talked with Professor de Lange about the new star of the Dutch right, Thierry Baudet, and the FvD, which some call his “personal party”. Our full conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

How do you explain a phenomenon like the FvD of Thierry Baudet, when there is already a party like the PVV in the Netherlands. Isn’t the political market on the right wing already fully served?

The PVV has been in the national parliament since 2006. It has been quite successful ‎over the years in terms of electoral support but the main parties have been very ‎unwilling to cooperate with it. Because of this lack of influence, many PVV voters have ‎become unsatisfied. The new party, the Forum for Democracy, campaigns more on influencing policy-making. So it is very much oriented towards forming government coalitions and, indeed, negotiating with the main parties in the provinces due to its success in the last provincial elections. Basically, they’ve been able to do what PVV has not.

What are the differences between the FvD and the PVV?

There are a couple of reasons that people assume the FvD will be more successful than the PVV. One is that the party focuses on concerns beyond Islam, the main theme for Geert Wilders. He considers Islam to be authoritarian ideology—quiet an extreme position. The FvD is not so focused on Islam—it campaigns on immigration and on climate skepticism and euro-skepticism. Party leaders seem to think that this broader agenda—which is somewhat more moderate than the PVV’s, especially on Islam—will appeal to the mainstream right and will make the party more attractive as a coalition partner in future.

The second reason the FvD may be more influential is that it boasts many more parliamentarians that are cerebral and highbrow. Most FvD MPs are well educated and come from very successful occupations. They are attorneys, successful businesspeople, former academics, and the like. For this reason, it is assumed they can connect better with political elites. The PVV on the other hand is the only party in the Dutch parliament whose representatives come mostly from professions that are more ordinary: police officers, teachers, etc. The party has found it difficult to connect with mainstream politicians in that respect.

These are parties with very charismatic leaders. Are they parties in the traditional, classic, twentieth-century sense?

The FvD has the formal structure of a mass party in the classical sense. And this is also because Dutch legislation forces the parties to function legally as associations, with a board, congress, and formal membership. However, the members cannot select the party chairs—the board, the leader, the candidates, and so on. They have little influence on the programme. So, in that sense, the FvD differs from the PVV, which is a one-member party, even though it attempts to operate as one under the direction of the party chair, Thierry Baudet. The FvD is a sort of oligarchy—in addition to Baudet, there is a small group of senior people around him who follow his lead. Therefore, the party is not quite like Geert Wilders, who rules the PVV alone. In the FvD, the small group around Baudet elaborates the programme and makes the key political decisions.

One interesting thing about this group is that they populate most of the important elected offices within the party organization. Therefore, accumulation of mandates in the Netherlands is quite rare. It is possible under the law but it does not happen often in practice. For example, the leader of the party in Amsterdam sits in the Council but he will also take up the seat in the Senate after the provincial elections.

Are there some other parties similar to the FvD in the European landscape of far-right movements?

In terms of ideology, the FvD is closer to other populist radical-right parties—it exhibits the same opposition to migration, climate scepticism, euro-scepticism, and so on. What stands out with the FvD is the intellectual approach or appeal they have. For example, Thierry Baudet gave a lofty speech after the provincial elections, a few weeks ago. He is known for citing all kind of philosophers, mixing different philosophical ideas—borrowing from those on the extreme right but also from mainstream philosophers. If you want a comparison of style and approach, Baudet and the FvD remind me of Pim Fortuyn in 2002, who had the same intellectual aspirations and was also the odd one out within the populist radical-right family in terms of his personal history and approach. In that respect, the FvD stands clearly within the Dutch tradition. But across Europe I don’t see other parties similar to the FvD in style and approach. Now the FvD is trying to build alliances especially with more radical conservatives, euro-sceptic Tory MPs in the UK, and also some smaller French political groups.

Liberal beliefs and civil rights are a fundamental aspect of the FvD platform. But this is not so common in the landscape of the far-right parties in Europe is it?

Yes, this is correct. One of the most important explanations for that is the national context. In all far-right groupings, the particular shape of nativism—the xenophobic form of nationalism prominent in the radical-right parties—reflects local, national circumstances. And in the Dutch national context, progressive and ethical values remain key. This tradition is reflected therefore in the ideology of most of the radical-right parties in the Netherlands.

To what extent has the media played a role in the success of Thierry Baudet and his party?

Thierry Baudet has enjoyed an incredible amount of attention from the media. From mainstream media, especially mainstream TV programming, but also from the public broadcaster. Because of his flamboyant style, they have really given him a massive platform. He doesn’t use social media in a way that is unconventional. He uses the traditional media as well, for example giving a lot of interviews, engaging debate with other politicians. And this is different from Geert Wilders, who loves to have the floor for himself and is very reluctant to take part in debate. The FvD is also known for very unconventional actions in parliament that generate a lot of media attention (reciting in Latin, wearing military attire in parliament, or speaking beyond the allocated time). They use little tactical moves like this to garner media attention.

What is the future looking like for Thierry Baudet? Could he become Prime Minister?

At the moment it’s not particulary likely for at least two reasons. First, his popular support is still relatively small. The Dutch party system is very fragmented, such that one party can become the second largest in the parliament with as little as 16% of the vote. This of course leaves 84% of votes for other parties [of which there are more than ten in the current parliament–editors]. Second, many mainstream parties don’t see grounds for cooperation with the FvD. Because the system is so fragmented, there are a lot of alternative coalitions that the mainstream parties can opt for.

What about agenda setting then?

In terms of public debate and agenda setting it’s true that the FvD can have an influence. It shapes the way we’re talking about some issues as a society, but this is not new. In 2002, Pim Fortuyn had a lot of impact in this respect; Geert Wilders has also had a lot of impact, and now Baudet. There is a lot of research showing that the mainstream parties have changed their political agendas, devoting more attention to immigration and to Islam. And also their positions on these issues have became more restrictive. In contrast to some other systems in Europe, our electoral system is highly proportional. Therefore, there remains a kind of barrier that prevents populist right-wing parties from achieving a larger share of seats than their popular support would allow.


Photo: Bart Maat / ANP / AFP

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