Why is Wilders’ party doing well in the polls?

Ten years of the PVV, courtesy of the media

Ten years after its foundation the PVV is still primarily the entourage of solo-player Geert Wilders, characterized by amateurism, isolation, lack of funds en mutual bickering. Nevertheless, the party is doing well in the polls. How is that possible?

All the while, favorable polls for the PVV are business as usual. Is anybody still surprised when the weekly surveys of Maurice de Hond (a famous Dutch opinion poller) show that the PVV (Freedom Party) is bigger than the VVD (the main liberal party) and the PvdA (the social-democrats) taken together? Is anybody really still surprised if the PVV is polling 45 seats in parliament, or even fifty? Most reactions display not just fear or discomfort, but also complacency. These are only polls, and not even the most reliable ones. When the actual elections take place, many voters will retrace their steps. In the last few elections the PVV came out worse than the polls had predicted.

And in the Netherlands, with its fragmented landscape of political parties, you can become the biggest one fairly easily: usually twenty percent of the votes is quite enough. From a broader European perspective nothing much differs in the Netherlands. In almost all European countries particularly less educated people tend to prefer parties which agitate against immigration, islam and the European Union. Why would that be different in the Netherlands? In France there is the Front National, in Switzerland the Schweizerische Volkspartei and in Great-Britain the United Kingdom Independence Party; in the Netherlands the name is “Partij voor de Vrijheid” (PVV, Party for the Freedom).
Nevertheless, due to all caveats and accustomization, we run the risk of disregarding the fact that the situation in the Netherlands is in some respects absolutely abnormal. The reason is not so much the ideology or the type of voters, but the way the PVV is organized and is functioning in practical terms. Behind the rhetorics of parties like the Front National, SVP and Ukip there are big organizations with tens of thousands of members, local sections in the whole country, a professional party bureau and a well-stocked campaign coffer. Instead the PVV is, ten years after the official launch in February 2006, still nothing more than the entourage of the unimitable solo-payer Geert Wilders, characterized by amateurism, isolation, lack of money and mutual bickering.
The last few years Wilders followed, seen from the point of view of power politics, a kind of kamikaze strategy, which seemed aimed at eternally excluding his party from the mainstream of politics. Marine Le Pen may have chosen a strategy of “dédiabolisation”, to make her party respectable, Wilders has chosen for the isolation of the utterly reviled popular tribune. There is little to indicate that Wilders is seriously preparing to participate in government, despite all the good polls and all the bluff about a cabinet-Wilders-I.
Until now he has primarily succeeded in chasing away quite a few of his associates, without finding capable replacements. A big part of the Dutch electorate seems not to mind about such defects. They love what Wilders is doing, no matter what. In 2015, in a public survey by the Dutch news show EenVandaag, Wilders was chosen as politician of the year, for the second time.
That the laws of politics do not really affect Wilders has been clear since he left the parliamentary faction of the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) in September 2004. His political solo-act started with what is currently called “seat-stealing”. Wilders seemed to align himself with previous “seat-stealers” like Ali Lazrak, Gonny van Oudenallen and Marjet Ockels. Perhaps he was – among other things, because of the way his hair is done – somewhat more well-known than these predecessors, but his status seemed too low in the autumn of 2004 to be able to sustain a whole new movement.
So parliamentary reporter Hans Wansink from the Volkskrant had already written some kind of political in memoriam, entitled ‘Een ijverig Kamerlid maar geen topper’ (‘An industrious member of parliament, but no topper’). ‘Wilders cannot take away the impression that he, compared with Hirsi Ali, lacks the political feeling and the allure of a real topper’, was the harsh verdict of Wansink. The liberal politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia, was the focus of attention during those years, due to a few controversial statements about islam.
The first months of his ‘Groep Wilders’ promised next to nothing either. After the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh Wilders too received the highest grade of protection; since then he is permanently guarded. This gained him a lot of (free) publicity, but at the same time it made it almost impossible for him to set up a party. ‘If I wanted to talk to a candidate, it had to happen in a hidden hotel, at the sixth floor, with six policemen in front of the door of my bedroom’, he told HP/De Tijd in 2005. In the same magazine pundits like Maurice de Hond and Kay van de Linde explained that the mission of Wilders was an impossible one. Who would want to risk life and limbs to join the vague party of a former parliamentarian of the VVD?
Pretty soon there were also reports that Wilders was not the easiest one to work with. Talks with people from the party of the late Pim Fortuyn backfired, because Wilders claimed the leadership role. For Bart Jan Spruyt the solitary behavior of Wilders was the primary reason to leave the PVV. As president of the Edmund Burke Foundation Spruyt had hoped that the PVV would be his wished for conservative party, but it became clear fairly soon that Wilders had completely different plans. Wilders rejected all candidates which Spruyt had proposed – primarily well-educated, christian conservatives – and replaced them with more populist guys like Dion Graus, Barry Madlener and Hero Brinkman. And he sidelined the ideological manifest Een nieuw-realistische visie (A new realist vision), written by Spruyt, fairly soon as well.

He gained publicity by issuing provoking statements, in combination with graphic terms as ‘kopvoddentaks’

The departure of Spruyt did not cause a lot of upheaval, since during the summer of 2006 there was not that much attention for the PVV on the part of journalists. A few months before the elections of 2006 - according some polls - the PVV would get no seats at all. There was no money to start an elaborate election campaign, the amount of volunteers was still very low, there was almost no common ideology and Wilders did not score many points in popularity polls.
In short: during the autumn of 2006 the PVV lacked all means which new parties need, according to political scientist Paul Lucardie, to be able to break through: a popular leader, enough candidates for positions in parliament and campaigning, money to finance expensive campaigns, a clear political project that suits existing needs, and of course publicity in the old and new media.
In fact the party EénNL, the main competitor of the PVV, did better on all scores. With the alderman from Rotterdam, Marco Pastors, EénNL had a popular leader with experience in governing, while the list of candidates included the young political talent Joost Eerdmans, the former VVD-members of parliament Anton van Schijndel and Jan Dirk Blaauw, and a few members of Pastor’s local party Leefbaar Rotterdam. In terms of content the party stuck to the ideas of Pim Fortuyn, apparently there was more money, and on top of that all the media were more sympathetic.
Eventually the PVV got nine seats and EénNL none at all. The main cause of this seemed to be that the PVV succeeded, in the last few weeks before the elections, to beat EénNL on one terrain: that of publicity. After Wilders had warned in an interview with the Volkskrant for a ‘tsunami of islamisation’ he became the focal point of a small mediahype, which occurred mainly after D66-leader Alexander Pechtold had designed this remark in a radio-debate as ‘too loathsome for words’. Because of the upheaval that followed Wilders had the opportunity to repeat his doom scenario’s and to connect these with his own security situation. Thanks to Pechtold for the first time the publicity, personal leadership and political project aligned very well, and this compensated for the lack of suitable candidates and financial means.
This set the tone for the nine years that followed. The lesson which could be drawn from the election campaign of 2006 was that a lot of publicity was the key to success. Even without a proper party organization and financial means this publicity could be garnered by issuing provocative and demeaning statements, in combination with graphic terms like ‘tsunami of islamisation’, ‘kopvoddentaks’ (‘a tax on the wearing of disguising rags’), ‘muslim colonists’ and ‘street terrorists’.
In the multi-party-system of the Netherlands there would always be a politician (or perhaps a stand-up comedian or a crime reporter) that would decide to bite, if only to give color to his or her own profile. Equally helpful was the fact that many media were afraid to ignore newcomers with diverging views, after the unexpected breakthrough of Fortuyn. Especially politicians who dared to proclaim strong views on behalf of the people could count on a huge popularity, not in the least since they boosted sales figures.
The performance of the parliamentary representatives of the PVV was entirely dictated by this garnering of publicity. On the one hand Wilders was able to do this by organizing his own media-events, like issuing the documentary Fitna, which brought a lot of publicity even months before the eventual screening. On the other hand the PVV copied and perfectioned a parliamentary strategy which the SP had introduced earlier. This strategy was to make maximum use of the controlling powers of parliament, by asking questions, requesting emergency debates and issuing a lot of motions. In a direct sense the results of all this activity were limited, but they brought in a permanent flow of publicity which seemed to imply a big amount of involvement and a strong activism.

The last ten years the PVV missed out on six or seven million euro’s of subsidies

Just like the SP the PVV has introduced a recognizable idiom of its own. From high to low the PVV-faction in parliament has consistently been referring to ‘islamisation’, ‘mass-immigration’, ‘street terrorists’, ‘dhimmis’ and ‘Henk and Ingrid’. This communicative discipline made for a permanent repetition of the core message, even outside of the campaign period. When the time arrived for a new election campaign, the message of the PVV had spread to the furthest geographical and social corners of the country.
Even without a publicity campaign of millions of euro’s or an enormous amount of volunteers it was possible to succeed as a newcomer. Better still, after the elections of 2010 Wilders gained a very comfortable position as the supporting partner of a minority cabinet.
Because of the success of his strategy Wilders did not have to think about the further organization of his party. This was a subject that had caused him headaches from the start, witness an interview which he gave to this magazine in 2007. ‘You háve to organize something, but you have to do it carefully. Besides, the question is in what form. Do you have to do that in an institutionalized way, with local party barons and all?’ he asked. ‘I get sick immediately when I think about how that went with the VVD. To become a candidate you had to visit all presidents of the local party organizations in all parts of the country, and call the biggest idiot a genius.’
Theoretically installing a political party organization looked to be of vital importance. Nearly every handbook of the political sciences indicates the necessity of the organization of a political party. With an organization of members the party has antenna’s in society and a pool from which new administrative personnel or parliamentarians can be recruted. Furthermore citizens get a chance to play a role as well. Without members the PVV would miss out on millions of subsidies which parties with members receive on account of the law.
Meanwhile, the maxim that a party with members is a necessity on the long term has also been overthrown by Wilders. To the present day the PVV is – juridically speaking – an association with only two members: Geert Wilders and the Stichting Groep Wilders, which in its turn also has only one member: Geert Wilders himself. There are few signs that this will be different in the near future. Martin Bosma, a parliamentarian of the PVV, has called the party without members ‘the first modern party of the Netherlands. Our model is the model of the future. It will be adopted by many’, according to this non-member.
Certain is that it does not matter much to the PVV-voters. Initiatives to democratize the PVV, which have been undertaken by the Vereniging Vrienden van de PVV (Friends of the PVV) and the former PVV-parliamentarian Hero Brinkman, did not get much support. Most voters do not seem very interested in the way a party is organized.
Even the negative reports about the internal functioning of the PVV had almost no effect on the polls. In the elections for the provincial assemblies in 2015 the party remained nearly on equal footing, although almost all factions of the party in these assemblies were torn apart by bickering, secessions and amateurism. The lack of transparency about the way things move within the PVV – the hierarchy, the finances, the selection of candidates – does not seem to scare voters away. This lack of transparency has to hide the fact that the well-oiled publicity machine actually keeps a very small, amateuristic organization out of sight.

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Geert Wilders, formerly a member of the parliamentary faction of the VVD, cleans his room in The Hague, September 2004 © Goos van der Veen / HH

Interviews with dissidents like Hero Brinkman deliver a relatively feeble image of the organization of what is virtually the biggest party of the Netherlands, even if we account for some exaggeration by virtue of rancor. The PVV appears to be not much bigger than a local pingpong club or an association of orchid-lovers. If you study the different factions in the country and the lists of candidates for elections, you see a recurrence of the same names: there are many double candidatures, and some assistants have seats in other assemblies as well, or have previously been candidates themselves.
The amount of volunteers which are prepared to work for the party is also limited. Most PVV-dissidents say that there are at most a few hundred activists who have assisted in hanging posters, distributing flyers or managing a website. Due to the lack of a clear member structure this organization is furthermore very fragile. Especially the provincial factions complain a lot about the petty support and the many unanswered e-mails. Just before the provincial elections the party had sent ‘a few posters’, and apart from that the candidates had to pay for the campaign on their own. Very characteristic too is the fact that nobody inside the party ever had the idea to send a thank-you letter to volunteers or unsuccessful candidates.
Witness-accounts of the dissidents give the impression that the PVV is actually still very much a one-man-party. In the interview with De Groene Amsterdammer mentioned earlier, Wilders claimed resolutely that he ‘certainly did not want to look like Kim Il-sung’. But the course of affairs inside the party has all the traits of an autocracy. As a real despot Wilders surrounds himself with a group of trusted individuals who are regularly replaced, just to make clear that everyone is dependent upon him. What exactly is thought up in the room of Wilders is completely nebulous for most PVV-activists. Every other day he confronts his associates with sudden changes of course or accomplished facts, like the proposal of the kopvoddentaks, the sudden redrawal of his veto on a higher age of elegibility for pension, and his decision to withdraw his support for the first government of Rutte.

Who wants to risk his reputation for a career in such a controversial party?

Many associates only see their leader for a slightly longer time during the yearly dinner of the faction. There Martin Bosma asks the people who are present to applaud for the big leader, to which everyone owes a decent job with a good salary.
The party without members is therefore totally dependent on the political intuition of its leader. When he, for electoral or political reasons, thinks it is necessary to change course, there is no party congress or even a critical faction that has to be persuaded. In a period in which developments follow each other quickly and voters change parties easily this is unmistakably an advantage. But the price which has to be paid is high. In the first place the PVV is still very poor, due to the lack of subsidies. In the Netherlands only parties with more than a thousand members can lay claim to these subsidies. Because of that for the last ten years the PVV has missed out on approximately six or seven million euro’s. The party has tried to compensate for these losses by actively gathering funds in the Netherlands and the United States. But according to insiders this has not resulted in very high amounts, which have been used mainly to cover the costs of lawyers.
The poverty is also apparent from the cheaply looking election campaigns with silly video’s, and from the relatively sad show on the night of the elections for the provincial estates in 2015. Since the party had no money to organize a meeting, that night Wilders talked to just one journalist in the empty building of the lower chamber of parliament.
A second problem is that many potential candidates back down. Who is willing to put his reputation at stake for a career as a yes-sayer in such a controversial party? Which dare-devil is prepared to become minister or vice-minister on behalf of a party which is totally dependent on the caprices of a solo-player like Wilders, who does not scare away from suddenly pulling the plug? Many associates complain about the lack of recognition and about the low level of many other associates, and turn their back on the formerly admired leader, disillusioned.
‘On the one hand you are expected to work very hard and give up a lot. On the other hand you don’t feel taken seriously at all. Many people think at a given moment: what am I doing it for?’ This was the way one of them voiced a broadly shared feeling among dissidents. In the media this lack of suitable personnel is partly compensated by the opinion makers of PowNews and GeenStijl, who act as a kind of human shield around Wilders to protect him against every attack from the establishment. But there is little that indicates that these fellow travelers are willing to become active for the PVV.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that the PVV – more than any other party – has become dependent upon the willingness of the media to report on the party. Therefore it is subject to the laws of the media, which in many respects are running counter to the laws of Dutch politics. In coalition-country The Netherlands a party which aims to be really influential has to take the feasibility of positions into account, as well as the sensibilities of other parties which eventually could become partners. Who wants to carry administrative responsibility also has to have a reservoir of potential administrators who have proven to be able to function within the narrow margins of Dutch politics.
The laws of the media dictate a completely different strategy. Because of commercial reasons for most media controversial remarks are more attractive than compromises, hard statements more interesting than soft ones, and personal attacks more engaging than friendly relations. Since his political survival is so dependent upon the media, Wilders lets his behavior be guided more by the demands of the media than by the demands of politics. That is the reason for his tendency to ‘pump up the volume’. He knows that – as a one-man-band – he always has to play louder and louder to keep focussing the attention of the media on him.
It is tempting to regard the surge of Wilders as a sign of a total political change of culture in the Netherlands. Not so much the political content, but the political form is what makes this party special. As a party the PVV is the photo-negative of the dominant parties of the twentieth century: the CDA and the PVDA. PVDA and CDA still have the biggest amount of members, they still have an almost endless reservoir of administrators on all levels, and they still have an impressive international network. But in the polls they do not come even close to the score of the one-man-party of the media-strategist in politics.

Koen Vossen is a political historian, publicist and university teacher of political sciences at Radboud University Nijmegen. This article is based on research done for the English edition of his book Rondom Wilders: Portret van de PVV (Boom, 2013). In this book, a translation of which will be published by Routledge in 2016, a list is presented with the names of the interviewed dissidents (The Power of Populism: Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Routledge 2016).