The Dutch Freedom Party: A one-man show

By Charlotte de Roon.

For a while now, Dutch politics is being rocked by a new party on the scene: the Party for Freedom (Dutch: Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV). We can also call it the political party of Geert Wilders, one of the most visible Dutch politicians – nationally and internationally. The PVV draws a lot of attention with its controversial statements. But in the amidst of all the attention for the PVV, there is a remarkable aspect to the party that should also draw attention if not immediate concern: its lack of internal organization. The question is to what extent the party organization of the PVV corresponds to our contemporary democratic views and ideas.

About the Dutch Freedom Party

First, some facts on the PVV. The party was founded in 2005 by its political leader Geert Wilders, a 53-year-old mostly known for his blond hairdo and fierce statements on inflammatory themes such as the Islam and the European Union. He is often placed in the same category as Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, and Nigel Farage in the UK. Wilders has a long experience in the Dutch House of Representatives: in 1998 he first became a member of parliament (MP) for the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie – VVD). In the national elections of 2010, the PVV increased its base from 5.9 percent to 15.5 percent, although in 2012 this decreased to 10 percent. The party currently has fifteen seats in the House of Representatives. Polls for elections in March 2017 look promising for the PVV, as it would now become one of the country’s biggest parties.

Scholars seem to agree that the PVV is the most important populist party in the Netherlands, as it combines anti-elitist positions “with a vehement anti-immigrant (anti-Islam) and law and order discourse, which places [the PVV] solidly within the category of the populist radical right” [1]. Its sympathizers are a diverse group, although mostly low-skilled and living in the suburbs or the south of the Netherlands.

A one-member party

So what? you may ask, since the PVV is not the first populist party in the Netherlands nor the first party with an anti-Islamic or anti-EU rhetoric. Well, this is the interesting part: the PVV only has one official member, Geert Wilders. There is no room for official members or conventions, nor are there local chapters or organizations. Sympathizers can only contribute financially. Wilders is the only one who has a formal say in the creation of the party program, candidate list, coalition negotiations, and any other party affairs. In 2010, Hero Brinkman, a MP for the PVV since 2006, campaigned to turn the PVV into a party with formal members, an annual conference and a youth wing. But he did not succeed. Two years later, Brinkman decided to quit the PVV, mainly because of the democratic deficit within the organization. This episode made clear that Wilders refuses to democratize his party, leading to heavy criticism. The PVV is a ‘one-man show’. Accordingly, Wilders is depicted as a dictatorial ruler of his own personal realm, controlling and dominating his fellow members of parliament.

What does this mean for democracy?

Paradoxically, while the PVV is operating in a democratic constitutional state and advocates democratic legitimacy in national and EU institutions, the party itself is undemocratic in its internal structures. Its closed party organization prevents any form of democratic accountability, responsiveness and legitimacy towards its constituency and society as a whole. The importance of party members [2] rests, among others, on their contribution to the political legitimacy of the political party and the accountability of the party leaders and government. Internal democratic structures, in turn, make sure that these members have the opportunity to express their opinion in decision-making processes. Moreover, these structures may foster political skills and democratic values and strengthen the linkage between politics and society. In order to protect basic democratic values and procedures, some democracies establish a legislative mechanism to ban party models like that of the PVV. For instance, in Germany the party law (Parteiengesetz) requires, among others, a democratic structure and a minimum number of members [3]. This principle underlines that democracies and political parties are interdependent in such a way, that parties need to adhere to internal and external democratic practices and procedures.

No youth wing, no youth participation

In closing, let’s zoom in on a specific organizational characteristic Geert Wilders refuses to adopt for the PVV: a party youth wing. Wilders’ main argument for not having a party youth wing is that it would possibly attract radical youth. On the one hand, Wilders might have a point with this argument: youth wings are well-known for their function as ‘necessary irritant’ or ‘grindstone’ of the mother party. But, on the other hand, political parties also have a democratic duty in offering young people the possibility to educate and socialize themselves in politics. Especially in the case of young people, we know that there are certain challenges in engaging them in formal politics. Party youth wings can act as important political intermediaries and schools of democracy for the young. It is a pre-eminent place where young people can be exposed to heterogeneous points of view and can be motivated to deal with social issues and take a stand. This way, radical views might be tempered. Moreover, for the party itself a party youth wing can be a way to ensure continuity. This might be of particular importance for the PVV, which is highly dependent on its leader, thus risking a collapse as soon as this leader disappears. Although, as long as the PVV does not adhere to any democratic practices, the question is how bad that would be.

About the author

Charlotte de Roon is currently working at the Dual PhD Centre of Leiden University. As a PhD candidate, she is interested in the political participation of young people and the role of democratic organizations as political intermediaries and incubators of political engagement. She holds an MSc degree in Social Psychology as well as in Public Administration.

Notes

[1] Agnes Akkerman, Cas Mudde, and Andrej Zaslove, “How Populist Are the People? Measuring Populist Attitudes in Voters,” Comparative Political Studies 47, no. 9 (2014): 1324-1353. Via this link.  

[2] Although this is a much-discussed topic.

[3] Nicole Berbuir, Marcel Lewandowsky and Jasmin Siri, “The AfD and its Sympathisers: Finally a Right-Wing Populist Movement in Germany?” German Politics 24, no. 2 (2015): 154-178. Via this link.

Title picture: Wilders: Luctor et Emergo, 29 March 2012, courtesy of Roel Wijnants (own work), released under Creative Commons.

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