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Lessons from the rise and fall of Dutch Fortuynism

26 October 2006

Lessons from the rise and fall of Dutch Fortuynism

“Do not think that populism can be tackled by neglecting it. Do not think that populism can be conquered without fighting it.” That should be one of the lessons learned from the spectacular rise and dramatic fall of Dutch populist Fortuynism, said SP-senator Tiny Kox in his contribution to the debate on European populism at the Norwegian Social Forum in Oslo on Friday October 20th. Kox spoke at the invitation of the Manifesto Foundation, which brings together left youth movements in Norway.

Tiny KoxKox recalled the five phases of Dutch Fortuynist rebellion. From the easy start in 2001 as an anti-government and anti-political elite movement named “Livable Netherlands”, soon led by former professor, writer and columnist Pim Fortuyn, to the second phase: a personal triumph in the local elections in March 2002 in Fortuyn’s home city of Rotterdam, with one third of the votes, followed by the tragedy of his brutal assassination by a fearful fanatic two months later, an event which caused a national shock and a growth in tension in Dutch society.

Then, the third phase followed, with the landslide victory of the list headed by its murdered leader in May 2002, when the Fortuynist movement became in one fell swoop the country’s second biggest party, smashing the then governing parties of Labour and Liberals.

In the fourth phase the new populist party entered a governing coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberals. That government collapsed as early as the autumn of the same year, due to the lack of a political strategy and organisation on the part of the Fortuynists and a lot of egoistic quarrelling between their ministers. Thereafter, in the following elections, the Fortuynists lost three quarters of their parliamentary seats and were forced into opposition.

In the fifth phase, while the movements imploded and almost disappeared, many of the Fortuynist’s ideas were incorporated in the government policy of Christian Democrats and Liberals, leading to a harsh asylum policy, crude measures against migrants, an increase of the gap between rich and poor and a short-sighted austerity policy, based on neo liberal ideology, with major cuts in social security and public services.

In next month’s general elections the Fortuynist movement will play no role of any importance, but the possibility of a populist revival remains, especially when voters feel themselves fooled once again by the political elite. It is for this reason that the Socialist Party is calling for a social coalition of left political parties and trade unions to make a left government possible. Only then, in the opinion of the SP senator, can Dutch politics regain popular momentum and avoid new populist waves.

Kox advised his audience in Oslo not to make simplistic comparisons between populist parties in Europe. Dutch Fortuynism differed totally, he said, from for example the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Cause or Interest), that is now one of the biggest political parties in Flanders in Belgium, our southern neighbour: Vlaams Belang is an extreme nationalist, conservative and xenophobic party, very near to open racism. And Dutch Fortuynism is also quite different from Le Pen-ism in France, Haider-ism in Austria, from Polish populism, from that of the Danish People’s Party as well as from Norwegian populism, incorporated in the Norwegian Progress Party.

Kox: “Do not think in simple theoretical conventions of left and right, right and far right, ultra liberal and ultra conservative. Populism is not an ideology, it is a method, one that can be used in many ways. It is better to make a concrete analysis of what is behind a concrete populist movement if you really want to understand it – and resist it.”

His last advice to an audience worried by the growing support in Norway for Carl Hagen’s populist Progress Party, was a warning: “Do not blame citizens if they flee to populist movements because they have lost faith in other political solutions. Blame the politicians for the lack of credibility of their policies and behaviour. If populists win votes it is always because other political parties lose them! If you want to win back the hearts and minds of citizens, do not blame them for their actual thinking but convince them that your solutions are better for their future. That is a tough job. But if you do so, there is a chance that you will win.”

Read the complete speech of senator Kox

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