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Populism - Time for a good conversation?
by Newropeans-Magazine
2009-07-09 09:08:44
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A few weeks ago, the Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders won the European elections. His Party for Freedom (PVV) will get four seats in the European Parliament. Dutch politicians condemn the anti-islam and anti-Europe views of Wilders, and try to convince Dutch voters that his party does not offer any solutions.

Their problem is clear: these condemnations are not new, and Wilders’ fans do not listen. This is a phenomenon in other European countries as well. What can be done about it?

A new book of the Dutch journalist Jan Booister gives some indications. He wrote the history of Leefbaar Rotterdam (literal translation: Livable Rotterdam), another relatively new, right-wing, populist party. This local party was set up in december 2001 in the city of Rotterdam by a small group of volunteers. It won the elections of March 2002 with a landslide victory of 35% of the votes. In many essays about Livable Rotterdam, the famous leader of the party (Pim Fortuyn) received much attention, but the people who built the party were never portrayed. Booister wrote a book about them.

Livable Rotterdam was controversial, had strong views about safety and the contribution of minorities in the Rotterdam crime statistics. Many citizens were happy that a party raised these points: they wanted a party that pointed at the no-go area’s in their city, that pointed at the increasing crime, and the problems regarding multicultural society. The party received so many enthousiastic reactions from citizens that it did not have enough election posters.

Nowadays, such reactions are only seen in the US when Obama is elected as president. Implicitly, it seems that elites agree that European citizens are too rational for this kind of political enthousiasm. The book of Booister shows that reality is different. But instead of being happy that many citizens can become politically active in their own city, elites criticise them. The same is true for those citizens who voted Geert Wilders at the European elections.

Condemnations do not work. The social democrats in Rotterdam condemned Livable Rotterdam and tried to convince voters that the party was racist and that voting for them would harm Rotterdam. That strategy had a reversed effect: voters became even more critical about the social democrats and Livable Rotterdam won with a landslide. What could be done about this? It seems logical that political antagonists ask these voters about their views and feelings: why do they vote in these ways? The social democrats did not do this in Rotterdam, and there are no parties in the Netherlands who do this after Geert Wilders’ recent victory.

Why does this conversation not take place? The reason probably is that these parties are not only populist but also right-wing: they seem to be popular because of their criticisms of multicultural society. Politicians do not want to talk to those citizens because they think that they already know why they voted for populists. But if they know this already, why do they not come up with an answer?

It could be that part of these voters have explosive ideas, but also those citizens can only be convinced of other views with a good conversation. Those conversations will also help politicians to understand how citizens feel and which arguments can be convincing to them.

Booister was interested in a party that led to a political earthquake. He rightly concludes that the approach of Livable Rotterdam regarding minorities could have been more balanced. But the story is broader. It shows that when parties talk about issues that are relevant for the everyday lives of citizens, this can make citizens more engaged and that it makes them rediscover politics. When traditional parties want to win these voters back, condemnations do not work, but open conversations. 

Chris Aalberts*
Amsterdam, The Netherlands 


* Chris Aalberts is lecturer and researcher in political communication. Visit his blog: http://www.chrisaalberts.nl/ -




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Emanuel Paparella2009-07-09 12:44:36
Isn't "aparthaid" a dutch word. It is easy to be liberal when one does not have to live with the other.

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