The large victory of Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Dutch election of November 22nd was unexpected and unprecedented: never before did a far-right party come out on top in Dutch elections. The event attracted significant international attention, suggesting the election results were perceived as a bellwether for wider political developments in Europe. Indeed, far-right parties across many European countries have witnessed a remarkable rise in electoral support as of late. It is increasingly normal to find them in – and sometimes even dominating – government, or supporting minority coalitions through confidence-and-supply deals. Next year, national elections in Belgium and Austria, as well as those for the European Parliament in June, are likely to see a strong showing for the far right as well.
The rise of the far right denotes a rise of illiberal politics. The PVV belongs to a European family of “populist radical right” (PRR) parties (a subcategory of the far right), that are defined by their nativism, a xenophobic form of nationalism that is typically expressed in fierce anti-immigrant positions. Two other core elements of the PRR are authoritarianism (a belief in a strictly ordered society in which certain inequalities are considered natural) and populism (perhaps best seen as a “frame,” or portrayal of reality, according to which deserving people are pitted against unresponsive or corrupt elites who disrespect the principle of popular sovereignty). These elements combined are at odds with key liberal notions that societies are inherently pluralistic (that is: diverse, comprising individuals and groups with differing values and preferences), and that the rights and freedoms of individuals and minorities, no matter how small, should be protected.
Some theorists argue that the populist nature of parties like the PVV automatically renders them illiberal. According to the influential definition of Cas Mudde, populists conceive of “the people” they valorize as a homogeneous entity. This means that populism is essentially anti-pluralistic, as it denies or ignores the diversity among citizens and groups. Based on this idea, some scholars even argue that populists pose a danger to democracy itself (and not just liberalism), because democracy as such requires recognition of societal and political pluralism. According to Koen Abts and Stefan Rummens, populism “generates a logic which disregards the idea of otherness at the heart of democracy and aims at the suppression of diversity within society.” Jan-Werner Müller similarly denounces the populist (and fictional) notion of a “unified people,” as well as populists’ claim that they are the only legitimate representatives of those people.
Yet another group of scholars, often inspired by the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, do not consider anti-pluralism to be a key element of populism, and therefore also reject the notion that populism is problematic as such. According to Mouffe, populism, in a socially inclusive and progressive form, is even the ultimate way to hold unresponsive elites accountable and to regenerate democracy. From this perspective, the real threat to liberal democracy comes from the PRR’s nativism and authoritarianism.
Irrespective of this academic debate, it is obvious that the symbiosis between populism and the PRR’s other core elements (nativism and authoritarianism) lays the foundation for an illiberal ideology. Accordingly, it is the native people, defined with reference to socio-cultural or ethnic characteristics, who are identified as forgotten and misrepresented by “left-liberal” elites who show disrespect for traditional cultural values and sign up to a globalist ideology. Outsiders, typically migrants and ethnic minorities, essentially become excluded from the PRR’s notion of who belongs to “the people.”
In practice, PRR politicians’ positions can be more nuanced. While one can question the credibility of his remarks, Wilders announced that – if it got to that point – he would be the Prime Minister for all Dutch people (including Muslims) and that no law-abiding citizens should fear deportation. If we take what PRR politicians say and write literally, part of Mudde’s definition of nativism as “an ideology, which holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (…)” may be too strict. At the same time, Müller’s claim that populists essentially consider all political adversaries as illegitimate may be overstated if we look at real-life examples. Wilders has explicitly acknowledged the need to compromise in order to form a coalition government – something which is admittedly inevitable given the nature of the Dutch multi-party system.
Yet the illiberalism of Geert Wilder’s PVV is unmistakable, and his willingness to compromise should not be mistaken for ideological moderation. According to its latest manifesto, the party seeks to constitutionally safeguard a “dominant and leading culture” based on – rather elusively described – “Judeo-Christian and humanist roots.” It is clear that Islam is certainly not part of this leading culture. The PVV wants to ban Islamic schools, the Qur’an, and mosques, to halt “Islamization” of the country. In effect, certain cultural and ethnic minorities only truly become part of “the Dutch people” (with all the political and economic benefits that entails) if they have sufficiently adapted to the desired “Leitkultur.” While politicians like Wilders claim to be the true democrats who follow the “will of the people,” their version of democracy may ultimately amount to crude majoritarianism and silencing minorities. One might say Party for Freedom is an oddly chosen name.
The fact that the PVV is considered as a serious coalition partner reflects the normalization of far-right politics. What is more, in post-election commentaries we can regularly identify a typical PRR framing of the election results, whether intentional or not. The PVV’s victory, it is often argued, is a result of politicians ignoring the economic woes of ordinary citizens, who have a right to be concerned about immigration and to be critical of the “woke” values of liberal elites. Concerns about economic precarity and the consequences of immigration can no doubt be legitimate and deserve to be represented at the elite level. However, it is problematic that these “concerned citizens” are often implicitly equated with the “native” (and socially-conservative) parts of the population, suggesting it is these people who are somehow more deprived (which is a questionable assumption) and worthy of a voice than others.
In their hunt for voters who shifted their allegiance to the far right, established mainstream parties are unwise to adopt similar frames or to increase their emphasis on typical PRR themes. Research indicates that, on balance, it is the far right that benefits from this electorally. One key reason why so many voters now opted for the radical right, instead of mainstream alternatives, is that the PVV’s main center-right contender chose to make immigration an important campaign issue, in addition to signaling openness to govern with Wilder’s party. Such an accommodative strategy legitimizes the far right’s agenda and risks eroding liberal-democratic norms and values. Instead of contributing to far-right normalization, political parties should remind themselves of their core ideological values, which should provide the basis for their own interpretation of what the key societal problems are, and how to tackle them.
Stijn van Kessel is Reader (Associate Professor) in European Politics at Queen Mary University of London. His main research interests are populism and populist parties, the radical right, and the politics of European integration. He is the author of Populist Parties in Europe. Agents of Discontent? (Palgrave, 2015) and The Failure of Remain: Anti-Brexit Activism in the United Kingdom (McGill-Queens University Press, 2023, with Adam Fagan). He also published articles in journals including European Journal of Political Research, British Journal of Political Science, Party Politics and West European Politics. He is joint editor of the Routledge book series on Extremism & Democracy.
Photo: made by John Chrobak using “Speech Voorzitter Khadija Arib bij de start van het zomerreces 2019” by Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal licensed under CC BY 3.0; “GW-Rotterdam-DSC 0208” by Wouter Engler licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.