[Amidst a stream of revelations about rampant anti-Semitism within its ranks that drew widespread comparisons with Nazi polemics, the Dutch far-right party Forum for Democracy (FvD), the big winner of the country’s 2019 elections, reached the verge of total disintegration in the space of a few weeks in late November and early December 2020. Mouin Rabbani, editor of Quick Thoughts and Jadaliyya Co-Editor, interviewed Dutch author and journalist Tineke Bennema to get a better understanding of the shifting political landscape on the increasingly mainstream Dutch far right.]
Mouin Rabbani (MR): Forum for Democracy (FvD), the Dutch far-right political party that came out of nowhere to win the most votes in the 2019 Senate and provincial council elections, appears to be rapidly imploding. How did it come apart so quickly?
Tineke Bennema (TB): Since FvD was established in 2016, it has been mired in constant internal debate about strategy and policy choices. The party presented itself as a “broad movement of concerned citizens”, and adopted a nationalist, anti-immigrant, misogynist, anti-institutional, Eurosceptic agenda. It subsequently embraced climate science denial and more recently Covid-19 skepticism, and has even flirted with QAnon conspiracy theories. FvD has been characterized by the media as “the middle finger raised at the elites”. Though its target in this respect is not quite clear, it generally includes politicians and the establishment.
In 2017 FvD won two seats in the parliamentary elections, and conflict immediately arose within the party about the lack of internal democracy. Within a year three of its senior members were either fired or walked out. In parliament, party leader and strongman Thierry Baudet drew attention to FvD and himself by promoting populist themes and engaging in theatrics, for example giving his inaugural speech in flawed Latin, entering parliament in a military vest, and posing for an interview sprawled on top of his grand piano.
Against all odds, FvD obtained the largest number of votes in the 2019 Senate (upper chamber) and Provincial Council (regional) elections, becoming the joint largest party in the Senate in its first appearance in this body. Additional cracks in its senior ranks appeared almost immediately, a phenomenon often observed in parties of the extreme right. Baudet’s victory speech was full of mystical remarks that flirted with Nazi rhetoric. Some party member were not amused by what they characterized as “crap”, such as Baudet’s white supremacist reference to a “boreal” policy.
Reports began to circulate about financial impropriety by party treasurer and FvD co-founder Henk Otten, and there was open disagreement within the party leadership about its lurch towards the far right. After first being described by Baudet as “invaluable”, Otten, by this time also the party’s leader in the Senate, was in 2019 expelled from FvD and established his own faction. He was in 2020 joined by other FvD members who felt the party had moved too far to the right.
The internal bickering reached a crescendo this November when it emerged that the party’s youth organization had engaged in explicitly anti-Semitic and homophobic polemics in a dedicated WhatsApp group, and which in some respects echoed Nazi propaganda and was replete with for example obscene images of Anne Frank snorting cocaine. The youth organization’s leader, Freek Janssen, who is a close friend and confidant of Baudet, refused to repudiate these activities, and Baudet refused to either fire him or disband the youth wing. Instead, Baudet on 24 November resigned as party leader.
Subsequently other party leaders accused Baudet personally of anti-Semitism. At a 20 November leadership dinner, he is said to have stated that it was in fact the Jews who won the Second World War because they now rule the world financially, that Jewish financier and philanthropist George Soros is responsible for the coronavirus, in addition to similar utterances. Four prominent FvD members resigned in protest at these reports, the irony being that some of them, like FvD Senator Annabel Nanninga, had a history of similar statements and counts an interview with Holocaust denier David Irving among her journalistic achievements. In the event, Baudet was expelled from the party and the locks at its headquarters changed, although he still controlled FvD’s social media accounts and announced his intention to contest the party leadership once again.
In the latest twist FvD in early December conducted an internal party referendum on Baudet’s future – although some party members criticized this initiative because the party’s statutes don’t allow for such exercises and Baudet had already been expelled from its ranks. The membership, apparently more radical than the party leadership, gave Baudet an overwhelming 75 per cent of the vote, meaning that his power has been restored. So while Baudet has emerged from this internal battle a winner, the party structure is in shambles. It will be very difficult for him to recruit the people needed to rebuild FvD, but he is more convinced than ever of his ideological certitude. It is my expectation that he will establish a new party organization which will be weak because it is susceptible to further infighting but will also be even more extreme than the former FvD.
To make a long story short, FvD grew like a mushroom but proved unable to contain either its members or its political program. As it moved further and further to the right, its flirtations with not only anti-Semitism but racism, sexism, homophobia, and islamophobia became commonplace.
MR: Much of the controversy seems to be focused on the person of Baudet rather than FvD’s policies and political program. Yet the recent reports about his views do not appear to reveal anything that was not known, or that is not shared widely within FvD and the far right in The Netherlands and across Europe generally. Is this a situation where white supremacy and Islamophobia are tolerated but anti-Semitism crosses a red line?
TB: Until recently, when dissatisfied FvD members started to reveal Baudet’s anti-Semitic utterances, the policies of FvD had been quite veiled. For critics of the FvD it was obvious from the beginning that this party has a racist agenda. Anti-immigrant rhetoric by Baudet, for example that migrants “dilute” Dutchness, and similar statements by other party leaders, could hardly be interpreted otherwise.
That said, the Netherlands has shifted significantly to the right during the past two decades. As a result, at a superficial level, FvD did not look all that different from either the other main anti-immigrant party, the Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders, or even the right flanks of the more mainstream liberal and Christian parties. It has only recently become clear that Baudet is following the Trump and Bannon playbook, with conspiracy theories about pedophilia, the coronavirus, and such like.
It is also true that anti-Semitism constitutes a red line in Holland. In a country that proudly treasures freedom of speech even when it offends others, there is also a lack of tolerance towards new immigrants, Muslims, and people of color. Many Dutch people of the older generation have little contact with them, whereas Jews are considered an integral part of a society established on Christian and Jewish foundations. Just last month, for example, there was an extensive discussion in The Netherlands about displaying the offensive caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed in schools.
I should note that the centrality of anti-Semitism to the FvD’s downfall has also left the pro-Israel lobby in The Netherlands with some explaining to do. Writing in the mainstream Volkskrant, for example, columnist Hella Rottenberg accused its leaders of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism on the far right, and even covering for it, because they have a preference for rightist parties for whom Israel’s conduct towards the Palestinians is, unlike for those on the left, of no concern.
MR: Does the FvD crisis suggest a broader weakening of the far right in the Netherlands?
TB: As of this writing the power struggle within the party is ongoing and unresolved. What this crisis has demonstrated is that anti-Semitic sentiment remains a powerful force on the far right in Holland. Research furthermore indicates that about twenty-five per cent of the Dutch public identifies with the far right and that this has been the case for the last two decades.
At the same time, the FvD’s implosion is the result of an awakening by many of its members. They do not want to belong to this movement and want to distance themselves from it. Some will return to the center right. Others might migrate to the PVV or a new party. But it will primarily depend on how many supporters Baudet can still rally in his support. He has already said that he embodies the “soul” of the party. He may well become more outspokenly racist in his parliamentary interventions.
Surprisingly, there has been little discussion of the FvD’s sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. The Netherlands has been previously criticized by the United Nations and European Union for racism and discrimination. There remains considerable support and toleration for the racist caricature known as Black Peter, although the younger generation has energetically addressed this issue. In general, one can say that the far right has become part of the Dutch political landscape. As such, crises like that currently within FvD will marginalize one group, but help others.
MR: Would it be accurate to state that FvD has also emerged as the Dutch political party favored by the Trump administration, and particularly the US embassy in The Netherlands?
TB: Baudet is an open admirer of the Trump administration, and before November opined that the re-election of the American president was imminent, that everybody should support the way Trump promotes American interests, and that the Dutch should prioritize theirs in similar fashion.
There have been warm contacts between US ambassador to The Netherlands Pete Hoekstra and Baudet. It went so far as Hoekstra organizing fundraising events for FvD at the US embassy. This was widely denounced as foreign intervention in Dutch elections, and it is currently under investigation by the Dutch government. It is in this respect noteworthy that Baudet has refused to clarify the source of some of his funds.
This is just one example of the far right and alt-right connections Baudet has developed, which include the likes of Steve Bannon, the French le Pen family (father as well as daughter), and the American white supremacist Jared Taylor.