Time for vigilance

November 25, 2023

The good thing about democracy is that everybody gets a vote. The problem with democracy is that the far-sighted and the short-sighted get equal votes. 

On Thursday morning we woke up in Holland to the shocking news that the national elections had been won overwhelmingly by the blond extreme-right populist politician, Geert Wilders. Many of us wished it had simply been a bad dream. But the reality is that the mandate to try to form the next Dutch government has been given to a man who wants to turn back the clock to restore national border controls, leave the EU, dump the euro, bring back the guilder, ignore climate action, return to nationalistic competition, ban the koran and mosques, send all migrants – from Morocco to Ukraine – back to their origins, and rob Ukraine of essential support.  

These are not the values we promote through the Schuman Centre.

A chill of fear has been sent through the migrant communities, into the hearts of Ukrainians fighting for their survival and their future, through creation care circles, and among those convinced that mutual accountability and cooperation among European nations is essential for seeking the common good of all. 

Leaders of other parties have felt the need to assure vulnerable minorities that everyone was still included in Dutch society and that the priority now was the defense of democracy and the rule of law.

Congratulations flooded into Wilders’ headquarters from far-right parties across Europe, including from Viktor Orban in Hungary, the AfD in Germany, the FPÖ in Austria, Le Pen in France, the Vlaams Belang party in Belgium, Spain’s VOX party and Italy’s anti-immigration League Party. 


Russian propagandists were also quick to cheer his victory on social media. Their posts recalled his controversial 2018 visit to Moscow where he met with officials under EU sanction. On Russian television he has praised Putin as a leader who stood up for ‘the Russian people’ and was therefore ‘more favourable’ than EU leaders. An old-tweet was re-posted on Thursday by these Russians with a photo (see above) of Wilders wearing a pin of friendship linking the Russian and Dutch flags, quoting him as writing: “I wear this with pride.” 

If Wilders does become prime minister, he will create a nightmare scenario for EU officials, teaming with other far-rightists like Orban from Hungary, Georgia Meloni, head of Italy’s most right-wing government since World War Two, and the pro-Kremlin populist Robert Fico of Slovakia, to challenge climate action, EU reform and weapons for Ukraine.

This is not the first time I have felt ashamed at the outcome of a Dutch poll. Seven years ago I wrote an open letter to my Ukrainian friends, starting: ‘With a sense of sadness and shame I offer apologies for the slap in the face you received from many Dutch voters in our referendum here last week’. Then two-thirds of those who bothered to vote opposed a Ukraine-European Union treaty on closer political and economic ties, despite the invasion of Crimea and the deaths of 196 Dutch passengers on board Malaysian Airlines MH17, victims of a Russian BUK missile!

Exactly ten years ago today, I wrote an open letter to Wilders after he published an article in the Wall Street Journal claiming that a revival of national patriotism would bring solutions to Europe’s multiple problems; and that patriotic nationalism had never caused wars – a patently false assumption.

Yet, as bad as this news may seem to many of us, democracy still remains the better of all the bad political systems available, to paraphrase Churchill. 

Good news

The good news is that Dutch elections differ from their American and British equivalents, where blond populists have managed to win over majorities of voters in recent years, with the ensuing political chaos.

In the Netherlands this week, three out of four of the voters did not choose for Wilders. The proportionate representation system of Dutch politics means that no one party ever gains a majority. Wilders has gained 37 seats out of the necessary 76. Coalitions need to be formed which can take many months and many compromises. The last Dutch government took ten months to form. In winner-takes-all systems, the opposition can simply be cancelled. Dutch tradition expects opposition views to be taken seriously.

There is no guarantee that Wilders will become the next Dutch premier. Few other parties wish to be allied to his anti-Islam and unconstitutional policies denying the freedoms of expression and religion. More centrist parties may eventually be called upon to form an alternative coalition.

Democracy cannot simply be taken for granted. Vigilance is essential to resist unbridled self-interest and excessive individualism on the one hand and on the other to promote the human dignity of all and human rights for all.

Now is the time for vigilance.

Till next week,

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