How patriotic populism empowers authoritarian politics
March 11th 2017 | The Hague | Melih Uzun
Photograph by Getty Images
Ever since Donald Trump was elected into office, critics have been suggesting that it is an indication of the global rise of right-wing populism, with similar rhetoric set to emerge victorious in European countries as well. The upcoming elections in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) tops the polls, could prove to be a major trial for this hypothesis.
Islam and integration
Geert Wilders is arguably one of the most polarising figures in Holland. He is infamous for his outspoken anti-Islam views and has been a constant source of controversy for over a decade. The numerous death threats he has accumulated over the course of the years have even led him to require full-time police protection.
Besides religion, he is also often accused of inciting hatred against ethnic minorities – especially the local Moroccan community – over issues related to violence, crime, and lack of integration. In 2014, his Freedom Party held a meeting in The Hague that was illustrative of the polarising rhetoric adored by many, while leaving others trembling with indignation.
Having asked his audience whether they wanted to see more or less of the European Union and Labour Party, both questions were met with chants of “less, less, less”. He then went on to ask them whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans and – upon hearing them chant the same answer once again – ensured his supporters that he would “get it done”.
Photograph by Fabrizio Bensch
Hundreds of people filed police complaints and he was tried for charges of incitement to discrimination. Wilders was finally found guilty (but not penalised) in December – a decision which he vowed to appeal against.
Wilders enjoys the support of a substantial part of the population. However, he is also widely criticised for his evasive tendencies, for his preference of bold statements over elucidated plans (his election manifesto is just a single page), and for shying away from settings which would allow his agenda to be questioned.
He has withdrawn himself from public debate on two occasions, the most recent of which was caused by a feud with a media outlet. The hosting TV station had contacted Wilders’s brother earlier for an interview, which angered the PVV politician. Wilders, however, maintains that the boycott is a matter of principle, claiming that his privacy was violated and rejecting any allegations about him “dodging” the debate.
Make the Netherlands Ours Again
As much as Wilders is accused of being evasive towards the media, British journalist John Sweeney managed to land an invitation to interview him for BBC Newsnight. Upon meeting Wilders at the House of Representatives, he was quick to ask him a frank question: “are you going to do to Holland what Mr. Trump is doing to America?”
Wilders rejects the notion that he is merely a Dutch copy of Trump, but he has admitted that there was “indeed, a patriotic spring going on”. He considers Brexit to be a turning point, where Brits supposedly reclaimed their country “even though the political elite made sure to scare the people away from voting in favour of leaving the European Union”. The same applies to the US, where “despite all the rhetoric of the elite, Mr. Trump won the election”.
Furthermore, Wilders confirmed his admiration of Trump by stating that he hopes to “repeat the same thing, because once again, the people want to be in charge again”. According to his vision: “It’s not only America first; it’s also Holland first, and that’s what I’m trying to accomplish.”
Photograph by Yves Herman
In an attempt to gauge his stance on threats of terrorism other than those stemming from radical Islam, Sweeney asked Wilders what the biggest loss of Dutch lives (by terror) has been in the last few years. His response was that the Netherlands have been “lucky not to suffer the kind of attacks that Germany, France, Belgium, and even the United Kingdom” have faced.
Wilders was caught off guard by Sweeney’s prompt mention of flight MH17, referring to the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down near the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, killing everyone on board. The lives of 193 Dutch citizens were lost that day, and Russia remains the prime suspect – despite denying any such allegations. Sweeney hinted at this attack to illustrate why he believes Wilders might be obsessed with “one element of the spectrum” (Islamic extremism) while ignoring more pressing issues such as “Russian fascism”.
Wilders chuckled slightly and asserted that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with freedom. Therefore, he says “the Islamisation of Dutch society needs to be stopped, or we will cease to exist”. His critical outlook on Islam is reflected in the PVV’s ideology, which is further characterised by staunch Euroscepticism and nationalism.
These ideas became apparent once again in Wilders’s rebuttal of Sweeney’s concern about slogans like America First or Holland First, which he considers reminiscent of the zeitgeist of Europe at the brink of the Second World War. Wilders dismissed this as fearmongering by politicians to distract from the establishment of “another totalitarian institution, which is called the European Union”.
Fake news and fake Parliament
The BBC journalist was clearly taken aback by Wilders’s characterisation of the EU as a “totalitarian institution”, but perhaps remarks like these need not come as a surprise from somebody whom he likened to Donald Trump – a man who is no stranger to stirring up controversy.
By his own admission, Wilders admires Trumps victory against the “political elite”. This quintessentially populist pretence of aligning with the people as opposed to the elite seems to be a part of both of their success formulas.
Experts attribute Trump’s popularity to his unconventional ways that distinguish him from the archetypal politician. Despite being a billionaire, Trump won the hearts of millions of ordinary Americans by presenting an eccentric anti-establishment alternative to the tired, old, sophisticated-sounding candidates people had grown increasingly sceptical about.
Photograph by CNN
Likewise, the fact that Wilders is one of the longest-serving Members of Parliament doesn’t keep him from condemning the “political elite”, whom he deems to be ignorant of the life of the average Dutchman. On one occasion, he even denounced the National Assembly and its MPs altogether, calling it a “fake Parliament” that does not represent the will of the people.
Wilders’s position to lecture an elected parliament on democracy is questionable at best, as he is de jure the only member of his Freedom Party, allowing him to single-handedly dictate their entire policy agenda.
This statement bears another striking resemblance to Trumpisms, and more specifically to his unfounded denunciation of various media as “fake news”. Both politicians evidently see no issue in arbitrarily delegitimising institutions such as media outlets – or even the House of Representatives.
What makes this most worrisome is that this mindset, when sufficiently empowered by populism, could lead to dangerous forms of authoritarian politics. After all, if there is any common ground between the regimes of countries like China, Russia, and Turkey, it would be their aversion to voices of dissent.
Patriotic spring or Democratic autumn?
Whilst some may argue that it is a bit of a stretch to compare populists like Trump or Wilders to real authoritarians, there is much more to it than meets the eye.
In fact, concerns that have been raised thus far are arguably just the tip of the iceberg; an investigation initiated by the Dutch Bar Association uncovered a multitude of proposals from the PVV’s one-page election manifesto that were found to be detrimental to the rule of law.
Their programme was found to be at odds with EU and International Law (including the United Nations’ Refugee Convention), as well as the Dutch constitution, as it intends to endanger freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of education, and the right to a fair trial. One cannot help but wonder if Wilders was being ironic when he named his party.
Diagram by Peilingwijzer
His disdain for the establishment runs much deeper than his attack on parliament suggested, because his objection goes far beyond feuds with fellow MPs. He has publicly accused judges and prosecutors of being politically biased against him and his party, which is a straightforward denunciation of the entire justice system and the separation of powers.
There is no apparent limit to the lengths Wilders would go to in order to play the victim of an arbitrarily defined set of forces and institutions – or rather the “political elite” – who are unanimously set on conspiring against him and his beliefs.
With just a few days to go until the elections, Wilders’s popularity in polls appears to be stagnant, but his Freedom Party may still win up to 28 out of 150 seats. The PVV is matched with the governing Conservative Liberals (VVD), who have a fair chance at retaining the largest number of MPs, despite a projected decline from their current 41 seats.
However, the sitting government is a coalition of Liberals and the Labour Party (PvdA), and the latter is set to face an even sharper decline from 38 to a projected 14 or even 9 seats. Other parties who are expected to receive a considerable amount of votes on March 15 include the Christian Democrats (CDA; ~19 seats), the Liberal Democrats (D66; ~18 seats), the Green Party (GL; ~16 seats) and the Socialist Party (SP; ~14 seats).
Europe marches on
Most mainstream parties have vowed to exclude the Freedom Party from coalition talks. This offers consolation, as it seems their vision for the Netherlands will never see the light of day.
However, given the distinctly fractured state of Dutch politics, forming a coalition without the PVV might also prove to be a challenge. Furthermore, excluding Wilders from government will undoubtedly add fuel to the fire, contributing to his narrative of fighting for the neglected common man.
This seemingly prolific narrative, as employed by Donald Trump, may pave the way to a milestone for the Freedom Party in this election, as well victories for other right-wing movements like Le Pen’s Front National. But only time will tell if this patriotic spring, as Wilders calls it – a staggering resurgence of nationalist and populist rhetoric – will lead to an actual victory in the name of freedom.
The hardships of an ethnic minority facing an uncertain future in their homeland
April 15th 2015 | Netherlands | Melih Uzun
Photograph by Max Vetrov
“This blatant attack on freedom of expression, dressed-up as an administrative procedure, is a crude attempt to stifle independent media, gag dissenting voices, and intimidate the Crimean Tatar community.”
Those were the words used by Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, to state his concern for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars – and compliance with their rights and liberties – as Russian authorities abruptly shut down their media outlets.
The formal annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, with the signing of a treaty between Crimea and Russia at the Kremlin on March 18th, sparked global controversy in 2014. NATO, as well as numerous prominent world leaders, condemned Russia for their conduct during the conflict that was dubbed the ‘Crimean Crisis’. Besides their disputed unconstitutional referendum, which was held to manifest Crimea’s supposed desire to join the Federation, the Russians also used persistent military intervention in order to seize control over the Ukrainian territory.
Tatar media shutdown
Crimean Tatars, now subjected to Russian legislature, have no choice but to comply to Russia’s demands that media outlets in the region must obtain a new broadcasting license. Whilst Russian-speaking media channels met the requirements with ease, newspapers and TV channels that broadcast in Crimean – a Turkic language spoken by the Tatars – were denied their permits and forced to shut down their services.
Only a single Crimean Tatar medium, the newspaper Yeni Dünya, successfully applied for their broadcasting permit. All other Tatar media have been indiscriminately rejected by the Russian authorities, often without a specified reason. In some cases, applicants were turned down multiple times or even plainly ignored. Such was the case with Crimean Tatar-language television channel ATR. Their efforts of registering under Russian legislation were arbitrarily denied three times, whereas their fourth application did not even earn a response.
“They can shut down the channel, but they can never curb the desire of the Crimean Tatar nation for truth and freedom” declared Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Twitter, strongly condemning the move against ATR.
Photograph by Vasily Fedosenko
Lilya Budzhurova, ATR’s Deputy Director for Information Policy, stated that the channel had no choice but to pull the plug. “We will be prosecuted according to Russian law. There could be severe consequences, including hefty fines of up to half-a-billion roubles (approximately $9,000), confiscation of equipment, and criminal charges against the management.”
And, just like that, an entire community was rendered speechless. By essentially turning Crimean Tatar journalism into a criminal offense, Russia is depriving this ethnic minority of their freedom of expression, and possibly much more. This is not the first time Amnesty International raised concerns for the wellbeing of Crimean Tatars. In May 2014, shortly after the Crimean peninsula was annexed, they had already predicted that the community would be at the risk of persecution and harassment under Russian rule. “Despite assurances made by the de facto Crimean authorities to protect the rights of Tatars, since the annexation of the peninsula by Russia in March this year, the Tatar community has faced increasing violence and discrimination” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Director.
“The Russian authorities have allowed armed groups that have been behind some brutal attacks against the Tatars to operate freely in Crimea” he adds. “They have alienated Crimean Tatars by harassing Tatar leaders, threatening to dissolve their highest representative body, and restricting their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.”
Furthermore, Dalhuisen states that Crimean Tatars are being pressured into renouncing their Ukrainian citizenship in order to be granted a Russian one, with the only alternative to be doomed as stateless ‘foreigners’ in their own homeland. This unenviable scenario has already pushed thousands of Tatars to flee Crimea, as their outlook at home is far from reassuring.
Geopolitics of the past and future
Given the history of the two nations in conflict, these concerns are certainly not out of place.
During the Second World War, Stalin commanded atrocious acts of ethnic cleansing against Crimean Tatars, forcefully deporting their entire population – nearly a quarter million at the time – to remote parts of the Soviet Union such as the Uzbek SSR. During the journey, almost half of them died from starvation and disease, and it was not until 1989, during Perestroika, that the Tatars were allowed to return to their homeland.
Nowadays, after decades of oppression from Soviets and Russians, only one tenth of the original population remains.
Only time will tell how the future of Crimean Tatars unfolds, but the political setting in Russia provides a valid reason to remain sceptical.
United Russia, the ruling party of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin, is as conservative as it is statist, and embodies a whopping 238 out of the 450 seats of Russia’s State Duma. This represents a vast amount power, one which is not expected to fade anytime soon.