The mess that is the Dutch political battlefield

Apologies for the radio silence.  I have been overrun with a busy month at work, plus a fairly intense curriculum in the Dutch language.  I will try to keep up with blogging in the coming period, although it will most likely be much spottier than before.  But on the bright side, my progress in Dutch, as  grudgingly slow as it may be,  might bring a slightly more insider-y perspective on what is going on in this country at the moment.

The elephant in the room that the mainstream media mutters with forced restraint and off-handish contempt is Geert Wilders.  The peroxide blonde belongs to the PVV (Party for Freedom), which was only created in 2004 as an off-shoot of the mainstream liberal party – the VVD.  If this undercover report is any indication, 6 years on, the PVV is still a amateurishly run organization.

But operational competencies aside, the message the PVV delivered over the past few years have been consistent, disarming, and most alarmingly to the Dutch establishment, very effective.  The party won first and second place, respectively, during the municipal election last week in the two municipalities it had candidates running, in Almere and the Hague.

The Dutch media, and perhaps the international media in general, slots Wilders’ electorate into the category of disgruntled and disenfranchised blue-collared natives, threatened by the shifting sands of social and economic globalization.

But that’s not really right.  Wilders’ is not Haider or Le Pen, his supporter base are not the same nutty group of anti-Semitic, anti-homosexual, anti-feminist, and euroskeptic xenophobes.

Instead, listening to Wilders explaining his core beliefs and you will be overwhelmed by the amount of sense it makes.  He preaches a different strand of right-wing politics that has morphed the rhetoric of his right-winged contemporaries through the distinctly Dutch filter of “anything goes”.

In Wilders’ political universe, sexual orientation and race are not the discriminating factors.  In fact, his embrace of those traditional targets of right-wing politicians throw many off.  Far from being an anti-Semitic, Wilders have opened declared his love and commitment to the state of Israel, and parallels the struggles of the Jewish state to the struggles of western civilization against “encroaching Islamization”.

Contrary to political analysts that peg his appeal to marginal voters, I would put it forth that his views are very much aimed towards the mainstream.

The intentions behind his messages are really two-fold.

One, to garner as much national and international attention as possible.  Inside the Netherlands, the national political theater ignores him – both him and his political party have little access to mainstream TV nor news outlets, televised debates amongst all major political parties exclude him.   But what he could not get – exposure, within his own land,  through traditional and more accepted means, he gets it through provocation and notoriety.

The Netherlands and the UK have both done him a huge favour: the Dutch by publicly prosecuting him for hate speech, and the British for banning him entrance into the country.  But by going after him under somewhat shaky legal grounds and banning him outright, the establishments have effectively made him a martyr.  The ostracization of Wilders and his views have gained him supporters, this time, from those that usually find themselves on the liberal side of the political spectrum.

Two, Wilders’ existence is perhaps an inevitable product of the growing gap between what was been discussed in politics, up there, and what was happening on the ground, down here.  Fact: for decades, the Netherlands’s, or more broadly, Europe’s immigration policies had been failing.  Fact: certain groups of immigrants have unfairly taken advantage of the Dutch generous welfare system, i.e. cheap social housing, health care, etc.  Fact: the great majority of petty crimes are committed by Moroccan immigrants.  Fact: middle-class disapproval of the previous two points have been brewing for years.  Also fact: the long-standing Dutch political parties, in their infinite ability to combine, and re-combine into various coalitions, have failed to acknowledge those problems nor deal with them effectively.

So in effect, what Wilders addresses is not so much an extremist idea, as it is an extreme reaction to a series of long-neglected problems.  And despite his growing popularity, none of the mainstream parties seem to be taking his message seriously enough to actively challenge or engage him in the issues that Wilders has come to dominate.  Perhaps for fear of providing a legitimate platform for what they see as a right-winged fringe politician at best, a raving fanatic that’s giving their country a bad name at worst.

The way I see it, however, is somewhat different.  Wilders undulates his message between that of a provocateur and one that many Dutch would more often that not echo behind closed doors.  That is not the tactic of someone that intends to remain on the fringe.  He also has his eyes on the price – which is the national political stage.  This month’s municipal election is just the warm-up.  So we will be seeing him yet.

But seeing how immigration is perhaps the most polarizing and crucial social issues to be dealt with at this very moment, it is mind-boggling to me how the mainstream refuses to engage with him, not only to expose the flaws and underlying dangers and contradictions behind his messages, but also to demonstrate the ineffectiveness, if not outright harm in his fanning the fire of racial and religious divisions.

The immigration system is tightening up in the country, and various integration efforts are stepped up to ensure the same mistakes aren’t made again.  I will talk about the opacity of the system and the things that work, and those that don’t, another time.

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