Just new packaging?

As noted in a previous article, the elections in the Netherlands mean more than the continuation of right-wing populism. Conventional parties, as well as newcomers, have prevailed as right-wing populism is destined to the opposition, however, coming in second is not the same as losing.

“I hope that tomorrow, those non-Dutch journalists that came here to say how crazy we’ve become, have to tell their editors: ‘We’ve booked some expensive hotels, but the Netherlands stayed healthy, there were a few other interesting developments though.'”

These were Alexander Pechtold, first on the list of the progressive Democrats (D66), his words. Yesterday I posted a piece here concerning the bifurcated view that many non-Dutch journalists seem to have, paying attention to the ‘Will the Netherlands be the next domino of populism’ sentiment, seemingly forgetting that, as Pechtold noted, there is more happening; we see a Bernie-esque movement gaining traction fast, we see a right that promises to be ‘truly’ classically liberal and we see a hunkering for stability as the centrist parties gain popularity. As of the 16th of March, headlines are reading ‘Populists appear to fall short […]’ and ‘Rutte beats anti-islam leader Wilders‘, Rutte has won the elections, Wilders didn’t. But has right-wing populism really failed? 

Finishing as the clear winner in terms of the amount of seats is Mark Rutte’s liberal party, carrying 33 seats. Wilders’ freedom party carries 20 after which we find Pechtold’s pro-Europe Democrats and Buma’s conservative Cristian Democrats, both at 19 seats. Trailing are the progressive Green Left and the more traditional and euroskeptic Socialist party, each winning 14 seats. The Labor party wound up with a record low 9 seats.

The established parties will be joined by two newcomers; DENK (“think”), who won three seats and have taken an anti-Wilders, populist, media-bashing approach. Safe to say, they embody everything that is wrong with Wilders’ freedom party, the difference being that their political views are perpendicular to the PVV>

Forum for Democracy (FvD), the anti-EU, right-wing ‘intellectual’ party, promising to bare the ‘system’ from the inside has also won two seats in parliament.

The gist

The true winner, however, is the progressive Green Left under Jesse Klaver; quadrupling its number of seats and now a force to be reckoned with. Seats for the anti-elitist, anti-EU Forum for Democracy are remarkable as well. I consider these developments the result of a healthy democracy – ironic, since Forum for Democracy claims it’s unhealthy.

After all, one can argue – as I am – that Wilders lost, since he didn’t win enough seats to have any authority in upcoming negotiations, and Rutte won, looking forward to a third term as prime-minister. Compared to the projected polls on Wednesday 15, the results were a little off. Rutte’s last-minute jump can be explained by Wilders’ absence in those crucial last weeks and possibly the still prevalent ‘taboo’ of voting for Wilders, but he has mostly Erdogan to thank. His formal and professional handling of such a diplomatic incident has improved his reputation considerably. Rutte then sidelined Wilders spectacularly by noting that governing is not ‘tweeting on the couch’.

One easily forgets that all these developments were due to Wilders’ Freedom party – also a result of a healthy democracy. The ‘new right’ aims to fill the gap on the right between Wilders and Rutte, now that the liberal party has shifted to the left. Jesse Klaver’s progressive left fights back against Wilders’ anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric, by promoting diversity and solidarity, in the process persuading many youngsters to vote.

Besides all these new ideologies and the fact that more people than ever before are interested in politics, many established parties actually partly adopted Wilders’ far-right views on immigration and the Islam. Especially Sybrand Buma from the centrist Christian Democrats has tried to voice a more sensible conservative sound. Rutte, notably, posted an open letter stating that all ‘who do not take note of our values should act normal or leave’. 

One can thus argue that although Wilders will most certainly not govern, his populist rhetoric has sparked the creation of new parties and ideology’s and made subject of such things as immigration and the ‘Islamization of the Netherlands’. The first being the healthy development of an open democracy. The second a disproportionately featured subject that – as I see it – takes away from more important topics such as climate change and the economy. Wilders can thus keep on tweeting from his couch and Rutte can be prime-minister again. Take note, however, that coming in second in a playing field that comprises of more than twenty parties, is not the same as losing.

Can I vote?

On the proposal of a voting entrance exam and to what extent it respects the values of our democracy.

As polls show that the anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment that inflames democracies also prevails in the Netherlands, young-, as well as highly-educated people feel that it is caused not only by a growing sense of discontent but also by negligence and frank stupidity. In their believe that many people can be persuaded to vote for someone other than Geert Wilders by paying more attention to the news and the party programs, some propose an entrance exam for anyone wanting to cast their vote coming March. To which extent does this idea of an epistocracy respect the values of our democracy?

This idea has been brought up several times before, in 2002 for example, when Gerard Marlet, economist and historian, claimed that ‘the success of Pim Fortuyn proves the failing of a democracy that has gone too far’. Now that Geert Wilders’ freedom party is promoting the same anti-islamic and anti-EU rhetoric as other Western populists, the proposal of such a system is more prominent than ever. The idea seems to be especially popular among young people. According to I&O Research, 42% of all young people believe that an entrance exam is a good idea. American philosopher Jason Brennan argues in his book ‘Against democracy’ that ‘the results are not good enough’ and proposes a system in which only the ‘well-informed’ are allowed to vote. A book by David van Reybrouck*, that goes by the same title, proposes an overhaul of democracy that aims to involve citizens more in politics by means of drawing lots. 

Safe to say, all seems to hint at a growing distrust in our democracy. Young people as well as highly educated people may want to believe in democracy, they fear it is threatened by the growing number of mis-informed, detached and disinterested people. To substantiate their proposed entrance exam they draw parallels with the process of getting your driving license: the roads are freely accessible, just make sure you know the rules. Of course neglecting the definition of traffic: the movement of people by vehicle, which, due to the possibility of death, is heavily regulated. Democracy, on the other hand, is defined as a state of society in which equal citizens elect a representative body. Whoever brings up such a suggestion shows only a grotesque misunderstanding of democracy; an entrance exam is merely reminiscent of the nineteenth century when only the powerful and the affluent were allowed to vote.

Nevertheless – with a healthy dose of skepticism, I should note – I decided to take the exemplary exam. This exam was posted in Vrij Nederland, it consists of thirty multiple-choice questions that aim to test my knowledge of the Dutch political system, 27 out of thirty have to be answered correctly to pass the test. Let me note beforehand: I failed, as well as my well-informed, politically active parents and four out of five members in my university debating group. The exam started of with some relatively simple questions concerning the fundamentals of our constitutional monarchy: the role of the king and the number of seats in the senate, etc. Then came the harder questions; the number of Muslims in the Netherlands, in what year Croatia joined the EU, what parties are in the EU congress, who was the founding father of the EU. In the end, I managed to answer 26 questions correctly

Besides these two obvious failings, – namely that the proposed exam is both anti-democratic as well as too hard – rebuttals add up. For example, as a consequence of higher educated people giving the notion that their view is the correct and preferred view makes voters feel left out. The arrogance with which many discard their views as nonsense has been a crucial factor in driving them away from more conventional parties already. The entrance exam allows a heavily skewed electorate to vote on behalf everyone. Isn’t the most crucial and beautiful part of democracy the fact that a poor mother supporting a family, as well as a businessman or a professor can cast their votes? Does it really matter whether I know that there are 150 seats in the upper house, Robert Schuman was one of the founding fathers of the EU and the fact that Croatia joined the EU in 2013? Of course not, if I would find myself most attracted to a liberal ideology, I’d vote for the liberals, if I find that I can best benefit from the plans of the socialist party, I’d vote for them. 

Now, I am not neglecting the fact that lower-educated people seem to vote more heavily for populist parties and are generally less interested in politics. I try to withhold myself from generalization, but these statements are proven time and time again. These people tend to be suspect to the skewed rhetoric of populist and charismatic demagogues and regarding this as true. Often party programs and political news go unread, resulting in people voting for empty exclamations, contrary to rational argument, even voting for a party that does not serve them best. As an example, the party program of the PVV, Geert Wilders’ freedom party, only counts one A-4 size paper. This program contains statements such as ‘All mosques and Islamic schools closed and a ban on the Koran.’. Of course ignoring that four constitutional rights have to be abolished, as well as destructive consequences for the economy.

To conclude, no, an entrance exam is most certainly not a great idea. It is anti-democratic and challenges the values that the Netherlands, as well as every Western democracy, respects. The disinterest as well as the distrust in politics is, however, a problem, pushing voters to right-wing populist parties that may not serve them best. In the Netherlands, lowly-educated people tend to mostly ignore society and politics. I would propose to educate more and better on the central values of our democracy, allowing people to reasonably debate and make up their mind. By giving people confidence in voters, you’ll give them confidence in our democracy. 

* David van Reybrouck is a Belgian writer, philosopher and historian. I would certainly advice you to read his book ‘Against Democracy’, it proposes a very interesting view on the state of our democracy. Although I disagree with him on certain aspects, his book is certainly thought provoking.