“If PVV remains on the sidelines again, anger will only increase”

“If PVV remains on the sidelines again, anger will only increase”

Interview with political philosopher Sjaak Koenis

10-01-2024 · Interview

The populists do not form a threat for democracy in the Netherlands, Sjaak Koenis concludes in his book De januskop van de democratie, (The double-faced head of democracy), which was published in 2016. How does the political philosopher view that now? After all, the PVV has now become the largest party, negotiations for a right-wing cabinet are in full swing.

There is often something cosy about election night, says Sjaak Koenis, who sat himself down, together with his wife and son, in front of the television on 22 November. "But this time, after the results, that cosiness vanished in one fell swoop. What the heck, I thought, what is going on here?"

As a left-wing voter – Koenis voted strategically, for GroenLinks-PvdA candidate Frans Timmermans – the disappointment was tremendous. But as a scientist, the political philosopher referred to it as "an extraordinarily captivating development".

In the Netherlands, the right-wing voice has been prominently present for a long time, says Koenis. "Certainly since Fortuyn, but also back in the nineteen-seventies with the Wiegel-Van Agt cabinet. Still, that right-wing voice has always been muffled in the cabinets, where the political centre called the shots. This has now been broken through for the first time, with help from VVD."

As they no longer excluded PVV, says Koenis, many right-wing voters started to believe in it. “PVV could actually play a meaningful role in governing the country."

In his book De januskop van de democratie (2016), Koenis went over populism with a fine-tooth comb. Is the anger, which is so characteristic of populists, a threat to democracy? No, Koenis argued at the time. Resentment and anger are inherent to the democratic system, creating tensions between the elite and the populace, between equality and inequality, yet at the same time processes it.

When your book was published, PVV was doomed to the opposition, now Wilders’ party has become the largest. Do you still feel that populism does not form a threat for democracy?

"Only this morning, I read all kinds of alarmist newspaper headlines about the demise of our democracy, but I don’t believe that. Do you know what is a real threat to democracy? The childcare benefits scandal, with all its internalised racism, caused by none other than our tax office. This is where so many people were cast aside. For the past few years, Wilders has shouted out a lot, acting like a verbal hooligan, but you must differentiate between what politicians say and what they do."

Should he become Prime Minister, Wilders is now able to put words into action for the very first time. Are you holding your breath?

"No, because he won’t be given the opportunity to put words into action. Wilders has already put all kinds of stuff on the back-burner, on his own accord and because mainly Omtzigt demanded this of him. It would be a whole different story if PVV had gained an absolute majority, as happened in Hungary or Poland. In the latter country, PiS was able to tackle the constitutional state and the broadcasting system, but Wilders can’t do that here. He has to take his coalition partners into consideration. I think it would be good for the Netherlands if a right-wing cabinet were formed."

Why? “Democracy is a political system that makes anger visible and debatable. And that is healthy. Just like in families, you don’t want feelings of resentment and anger to smoulder under the surface. If PVV were to end up on the sidelines again, that anger will only increase. In the nineteen-seventies, people were also angry, except that they focused on anything that exerted authority. Squatters at the time shouted that the constitution of the Netherlands was not their constitution. A completely different spirit of the times, but it was just as fierce. There is nothing wrong with that."

You once said that populism is nothing to be afraid of. Still, many Dutch people are now worried, especially those with a Muslim background.

"Still, Wilders has taken the Muslim hatred off the table. Most people are not angry about the fact that there are Muslims among us. It is just crap, latched onto after terrorist attacks. Wilders himself also knows that he won’t get support for this in the Netherlands, on the contrary, this has actually put him in an isolated position."

He often emphasises that it is in the PVV’s DNA.

"I wonder if that is true. Kind of strange that something so essential was put on the back-burner so quickly. Let us put our faith in the institutions that have been built up over the past centuries. Wilders would never be able to pass discriminating laws or a ban on mosques in Parliament."

NRC is not so sure. According to the newspaper, the lines of the democratic legal system have shifted. In the comment, the newspaper referred to the motion submitted by VVD in December. In it, the chairwoman of the party, Yesilgöz, appealed in the Senate to not discuss the Spreading Act (Spreidingswet), meant to regulate refugee emergency measures in municipalities. Constitutionally, this appeal is borderline, but according to NRC, it does show how Yesilgöz is already adapting to a new political climate, in which PVV sets the tone.

"If PVV also participates in government, the political mood will change unmistakably," says Koenis. "The Spreading Act will not be passed, because then it could appear that the refugee topic is not as big an issue as we thought. If all municipalities were to participate, emergency measures might be easy to arrange. However, parties to the right want to keep the outrage on the agenda. You can think all you want about that, but it doesn’t mean that democracy will be destroyed. It all fits in with the rules of the game."

It would be a different matter, says Koenis, if a right-wing cabinet were to revoke the refugee treaty. "That would actually be damaging to at least the spirit of our constitution."

Do you expect that a possible right-wing coalition would revoke such a treaty.

"They may try. But what I am protesting against is the idea that we are, as it were, sliding in the direction of Orban. Hitler has also been dragged into it, because didn’t he also come into power democratically? Yes, that is correct, but don’t forget, besides the democratic rules of the game there is also a centuries-old political tradition and that won’t just disappear."

In ‘De januskop van de democratie’, you wrote that it would be disastrous if the populists were capable of mobilising the country for a Nexit. Now, it is in the election programme of the largest party.

"We would look just as foolish as the British do now, and as far as I am concerned, we would have taken the wrong exit. But even if the Netherlands were to leave the EU, that would still not mean the end of democracy."

It won’t be easy for Wilders to deliver on his election promises. Do you expect that his voters will quickly abandon him again?

"I think so. The promises he made in the election programme – banning mosques, abolishing the freedom of education – he has already partly abandoned. I think that his voters will become disappointed if PVV alters its course further. Remember, too, that all politicians in the Netherlands find themselves on a giant ship and can actually change very little. For a Nexit, for example, you would have to turn a lot of things upside down, change rules, calculate the consequences for the economy, to name but a few. I would not be afraid of that. Not as afraid as I was of as the childcare benefit scandal, where the system showed that it was rotten to the core, in the way in which we deal with relatively defenceless people. We need to be much more focussed on that."

Is the future for the populists?

"We have a remarkable paradox here. The classic populist role is really only possible from the sidelines. With the attitude: we are the people and the elite is crazy.  But that can no longer be maintained by the populists if they shift to the centre. You immediately see that the tone changes. Then they have to participate, take responsibility, get their hands dirty. Shouting your mouth off from the sideline is over."

Photo: Robin Utrecht/ANP

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: wilders,pvv,rightwing,fortuyn,cabinet,koenis,instagram

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