By Leonid Bershidsky
It's almost 10 p.m. on a Monday night, but the 100 or so people assembled in a hotel conference room in North Holland are in no hurry to go home. They're asking a dapper, young politician pointed and thoughtful questions that reveal a hunger for political debate.
It would be an idyllic picture of one of the world's most accomplished democracies if the content of the discussion weren't evidence of a democratic process gone badly wrong. The March 15 election in the Netherlands is expected to deliver a further strong signal to global political elites that many Western voters no longer accept the way in which they are governed. And that signal won't be limited to the expected strong showing for Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom Party (PVV).
"Shouldn't what you say about how mosques are alien to our secular state also apply to churches?" one woman in the Hilversum audience asks. Thierry Baudet, 34, leader of a party called Forum for Democracy, is ready with a reply. "The music of church bells is part of our everyday life, our culture," he says. "Cries from a minaret are not. Perhaps the mosques should put up some bells." The audience breaks into applause.
The Forum for Democracy (FvD) has a curious history. Baudet, a well-regarded legal scholar and political philosopher, set it up in 2015 as a conservative, euroskeptic think tank, not a political party. Almost the first thing it did was to take part in organizing a referendum on whether the Netherlands should ratify the European Union's 2014 association agreement with Ukraine. That non-binding vote was a stunning success for the Netherlands' nationalist right, despite a relatively low turnout: In April, 2016, 61 percent of those who voted, about 2.5 million people, rejected the trade deal.
Robin de Keyzer, one of Baudet's aides who took part in canvassing votes for the referendum, told me that most people were riled up largely because the Dutch government never asked their opinion about participating in a deal to integrate a poor, war-torn, corrupt country into the EU ecosystem. Their protest vote wasn't so much about Ukraine as about dissatisfaction with a smug political elite.
Baudet, who has long harbored political ambitions, saw his opening. "There is a huge gap in the political landscape," he told me, "between the establishment, which weakens national sovereignty, and the populist right that discredits itself by taking extreme positions. That's the raison d'etre of my party."
In all, 28 parties are competing in the election (which isn't even a record as 55 were on the 1933 Dutch ballot). The Netherlands, which has the second oldest written constitution in the world after the U.S. one, has long made it easy to set up a party and get into parliament: 0.67 percent of the vote is all that's necessary to gain one seat in the 150-member lower chamber. Baudet's party, some polls suggest, may get a single seat -- which would itself be a big deal for a party only six months old and that started without a parliament member in its midst. Either way, his genesis speaks to broader trends in Dutch democracy.
Until recently, a small number of established parties represented fixed pillars of society: Catholics, Protestants, wealthy bourgeois, the labor unions. People tended to vote as their parents voted. "The parties played the rank and file against each other, but once they were elected, they always achieved consensus," says Hubert Smeets, a veteran journalist and political historian.
Politics was decorous and the parliament was seen as a marketplace where decisions were a result of quiet bargaining. That started changing with the rise of Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyant anti-immigration populist, in 2001. Fortuyn was murdered by a leftist activist before he took parliament by storm -- an event that so shook up the Dutch political class that it's still remembered as a turning point.
In a secularized, post-modern Dutch society, the traditional pillars have dissipated, and party membership dwindled. In 1984, the main parliamentary parties had a total of 416,727 members, about 4 percent of the electorate; that number has shrunk to 289,456, or about 2 percent of the electorate.
On the left flank of Dutch politics, business as usual is also being disrupted. The Green Left party, the product of a merger of smaller leftist movement that was traditionally on the sidelines of parliamentary politics, has been revived by the leadership of 30-year-old Jesse Klaver. Prime Minister Mark Rutte's center-right VVD may still have the best chance of forming a government, but Baudet is convinced their days are numbered.
He calls the established parties a cartel. "It's a syndicate in which everyone shares the same views, wears the same suits, sleeps with the same girls for all I know," Baudet says. Forum for Democracy calls for the mayors of Dutch cities to be elected, not appointed by the government, and it wants to make it easier to hold referendums and make them binding.
In the North Holland audience, a young man asks Baudet whether he thinks it useful to put complex questions to a referendum. The politician's reply is that questions of general direction are often simple and binary. There are nods in the audience.
This populist message is supplemented with healthy doses of antipathy toward the EU and milder nativism than the fiery Wilders variety. Both are coated in economic and cultural arguments. The U.K. is the third biggest destination for Dutch exports after Germany and Belgium; post-Brexit, the Netherlands should be able to trade with it on the same terms as with EU countries, or it'll become too dependent on Germany. Muslim immigrants resist integration and reject cherished Dutch freedoms, such as the freedom of speech, women's equality and equal rights for homosexuals.
Baudet's well-heeled audience, much of it made up of former VVD party supporters, lapped it up. VVD membership is down to 26,500 today from 38,400 in the 2012 election year, but many of the Dutch center-right voters find Wilders's message -- ban the Koran, close down all the mosques -- crass and distasteful. Baudet is among those providing a plausible alternative.
"These are well-substantiated ideas, not a lot of screaming and nonsense," said Ronneke Boumans, a former VVD supporter who signed up for Baudet's party after the campaign event.
Baudet, who comes from a long line of academics and cultural figures, may be too elite for mass appeal. But he's not deterred. He distrusts the polls and points to the party's successful social media campaign that generates more engagement than any of the established parties.
The Dutch populist revolt and the rise of Wilders are often described as a rebellion of older, less educated, more economically challenged voters -- just the way the Donald Trump movement was described in the U.S. There is some truth to that, but there's also more to it, just like there was with Trump: A feeling of disconnection between the ruling elite and the people, a desire for more participation in how decisions are made.
To young politicians such as Baudet, politics is now, for the first time, about performing, campaigning and engaging with voters through various channels. To the old school, it was about bargaining. Rutte is old-school. He will probably govern by inertia after this election, but the paradigm is shifting and newer political leaders appear to be more in line with the engagement voters want.
(c) 2016, Bloomberg View
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Berlin.
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