Ingeborg van Teeseling

Nee, Geert: Dutch Take Lead against Populism

Holland’s banding together to deny Geert Wilders prime ministership in the Dutch election yesterday is a bold example of what can be achieved elsewhere.


Okay, so we know now. Geert Wilders, the King Kong of European populism, who was going to take over Holland and become the new Trump, hasn’t lived up to expectations as far as the preliminary results show. Yes, his party has won a fair amount of seats in the Dutch House of Representatives, but less than expected. His “patriotic revolution” inspired only about 6% of Dutch voters who instead opted to triple the Greens Party. The biggest loser was Labor that went from 26% to 8% (Shorten, are you listening?). And because all the other parties have vowed not to form a coalition with the man with the peroxide locks (what is it with hair and politicians?), Wilders will never become the Dutch PM. The world can breathe a sigh of relief: maybe the wave of populism can be stopped at the gates of the continent and go no further. Well done to my countrymen: their fingers in the dyke once more.

It has been a difficult time to be a Dutch migrant. Upon hearing my accent, strangers in shops have asked me to explain Wilders and “what has suddenly happened to the Dutch.” In fact, usually they didn’t ask, but demanded to know. I have been made to feel ashamed and embarrassed. Somebody even suggested changing my name to something a little less conspicuously Orange or let the rooster crow three times and deny my heritage altogether.

Although I have been tempted to throw the accusation back into people’s faces (Pauline Hanson, anyone?), I am also a sucker for rationale, especially if that takes some of the sting out the discussion. So, here goes. You know me, history first. Don’t worry, only a little bit.

Holland is a very old country, but there are two things that connect modern Dutch people to their hunter-gatherer ancestors of 37,000 years ago. Or actually, there is one: water. Without dykes and other protections against the North Sea in the West, roughly half the country would be either under water or at risk of constant flooding. Although The Netherlands has always been home to lots of different groups of people, water doesn’t discriminate. So, if you want to stop it, you have to work together. And in order to work together, you have to compromise. The other way the Dutch have always used the water is as a trade route. Long before Britain ruled the waves, the Dutch did. If you wanted to get ships made and sent abroad, you needed money. So people came together to form cooperatives. The Dutch East India Company was the world’s first publicly traded company listed on the world’s first stock exchange.

Confronted with the Labor slogan that “The Netherlands belongs to us all,” Wilders called it a “Woodstock” sentiment from people who’ve smoked pot for too long.

So, water has taught us to compromise. Not because that sounded ideologically right, but because it protected us from drowning and made us a lot of money in spices and slaves. Compromise is what we do and what we are: it is the core of the Dutch identity. Which is interesting, because since 2002 Dutch politics has been all about identity. Before then, nobody really cared. Most people in Holland were even a little embarrassed to be branded Dutch. We are the people who take our food with us when we go on holidays to Italy, because who wants the yucky pasta if you’ve got good, old-fashioned potatoes in the back of the caravan, right? We sing strange songs, eat raw herring, and drink thick yellow gin mixed with cream, with a spoon. And for a lot of people that slave thing and the fact that we still celebrate it every year around Christmas also doesn’t sit right. So two cheers for Holland, not three, if you get my drift.

But in 2002, a few months after 9/11, we had an election and one of the candidates, a Right-winger like Geert Wilders called Pim Fortuyn, was shot and killed. The guy who did it was an animal rights activist who was angry that Fortuyn was campaigning against Muslim migration. Remember what I said about compromise? This is not how that works. You don’t shoot, you talk; and we hadn’t had anything like this happen for many, many centuries. A political assassination! It boggled the mind. Then, a few months after Fortuyn’s death, his party won 26 seats in the House of Representatives. That is, mind you, more than Wilders got yesterday. And there were no vows of noncooperation, so it came to a coalition. But because Fortuyn’s party started infighting (again, Hanson, anybody?) that came to a quick end as well.

In 2004, there was another political assassination. Theo van Gogh, a journalist and filmmaker who had taken up Fortuyn’s anti-Islam cause, was shot and knifed in the street by a Moroccan-Dutch man. Six years later, in 2010, it was Wilders’ turn to win big. 24 seats, and again he was invited to form a coalition with a few other parties. And again, infighting and strange political choices blew that opportunity for power out of the water. Which is my first point, really: we have been here before and we have survived. Once more unto the breach, that is all.

The world can breathe a sigh of relief: maybe the wave of populism can be stopped at the gates of the continent and go no further. Well done to my countrymen: their fingers in the dyke once more.

I am not saying that we don’t have a problem, by the way. We do. But we share that with the rest of the planet. Worldwide we seem to have an issue with collectives. We only like them if they allow us to do what we as individuals want. We are entitled to things and we want them now. Yes, one of my students said the other week, she understood that there were deadlines and rules around assessments, but she didn’t feel they had anything to do with her. She was special and therefore deserved preferential treatment. We only accept the collective, or that vague entity called society, if there is something in it for us. So when Wilders talks about Dutch identity (the collective), he is smart enough to also offer a reward, a prize, for the individual: “our country back.” And because he is a consummate politician, he makes sure not to give too much detail about what he means by that. Whose country? Back from whom? What does that country look like? What is the content of that identity (surely not compromise, because that is what he is rejecting)? Interestingly, he did give it a flavor, a color. Confronted with the Labor slogan that “The Netherlands belongs to us all,” Wilders called it a “Woodstock” sentiment from people who’ve smoked pot for too long. Funnily enough, that comes close to the identity Holland has abroad of a bunch of drug heads sitting in coffee shops smoking weed. That couldn’t have been his intention, surely?

So, there is a problem with collectives and individuals. And for a lot of people it is nice to blame others, especially if they are fairly defenseless. Even better if a politician stokes the fire and allows you to name your fears, but formulate them as righteous anger. The good thing about Holland, though, is that it is not Britain (Brexit) or the U.S. (Trump). Or Australia, for that matter. It doesn’t have a two-party system or proportional representation. Because we are raised with compromise, we prefer one man/woman one vote and this time welcomed 28 political parties to our elections. The winners will have to find a way to work together and they will talk about that until they find a way to do just that.

Nobody said compromise was easy or nice. As has often happened after parties have been in power for a while, the ruling parties have lost at the voting booth, so others now have to step up. I predict that the outcome will be a quintessentially Dutch invention, something we have had since WWII: a Purple government. Purple, because that is what you get when you mix blue (Liberal) and red (Labor) and add a splash of green (Greens). PM Rutte might stay, because history teaches us that Right-wing politicians always make hay out of crackpots like Wilders. Remember Howard and Hanson mk1? What will not happen is that history will come to view yesterday’s Dutch election as the moment where the populist wave became a European tsunami.

We do dykes and fingers, not holes and floods.




Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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