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The Dutch are aiming to quarantine populism. Should the rest of the world follow suit?

11 Comments
By Daniel Drache and Marc D Froese

In November 2023, Geert Wilders’ stridently anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party swept the Dutch elections in what the media called a political earthquake.

The magnitude of his win came as a shock to the centre and left parties in the Dutch legislature. They jointly decided that “Europe’s most dangerous man” should never become prime minister.

The Dutch are not alone in seeking an institutional fix against hard-right populism. In legislatures across the European Union, politicians are erecting a “cordon sanitaire” against extremism — a red-line tactic to block far-right parties from entering governing coalitions.

It’s hardly enough, but it’s an important first step.

Coalitions against extremism rose to prominence in the late 1980s, when Belgian parties signed a deal to exclude the extreme-right Vlaams Blok from government.

The resulting cordon sanitaire lasted for 30 years and evolved from a written deal to an unwritten convention. But it’s become more difficult to maintain in the face of far-right mobilization. Nonetheless, the strategy is being tried in other countries too.

21st-century populists

In the upcoming EU parliamentary elections in June, centre and left groupings of European parliamentarians, known as MEPs, are planning a quarantine strategy to isolate the hard right in parliament. The prospects of success for this EU strategy are far from certain.

In Spain and Portugal, beleaguered governments are turning to anti-extremist coalitions too.

In Portugal, a new Democratic Alliance government has been formed by centre-right and socialist politicians who are working together to exclude Chega, the far-right party that holds the third largest number of seats in the Portuguese legislature.

In a deeply controversial move, the Spanish socialist government is even prepared to work with Catalans indicted for crimes against the country’s constitution. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez apparently believes it’s preferable to work with separatists than to turn the government over to authoritarian populists on the far right.

The weakness of this tactic lies in the fact that quarantine only deals with populists once they arrive in government.

Germany is practically alone in Europe in having a popular movement that opposes extremism in the streets.

Hundreds of thousands have marched against the anti-immigrant AfD. Even though the AfD polls at nearly 25 per cent of decided voters and is predicted to win seats in the Reichstag this summer, it will be impossible for any established party to work with them.

Quarantine is not a cure

Quarantine is always a half-measure. When populists win outright majorities, the cordon sanitaire becomes useless.

The United States, Poland and Brazil have already elected populists. Establishment Democrats are trying to energize a lacklustre presidential campaign by arguing they’re the democratic wall against Donald Trump’s MAGA movement. Such a tactic is a Hail Mary play in the polarized American two-party system.

Even so, Trump doesn’t enjoy the benefit of being an unknown quantity for Republicans. Those who like him are true believers. The rest don’t like him. But left-leaning and Arab-American Democrats are angry about President Joe Biden’s military support for Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu’s indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Gaza.

That means the progressive flank could stay home in November. The winner will likely be the candidate who is less hated by voters. Pro-democracy sentiments may not have much to do with it.

Anti-populist efforts abroad

In Poland, Donald Tusk and his coalition are trying to restore the independence of the judiciary and expel hard nationalists from top positions in the bureaucracy. They may succeed because Tusk has the support of Polish voters and the EU bureaucracy.

Brazil’s quarantine strategy relies on the judiciary, which has been more effective than the U.S. courts. Former president Jair Bolsonaro and leading supporters have been barred from elected office for the next seven years.

Even so, the upper and lower houses of the legislature are still allied with Bolsonaro and they’re resisting all of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s major economic reforms. That said, the disgraced former president and key members of his administration have been accused of plotting a coup to remove Lula.

In Israel, the religious right holds a critical place in the wartime unity government. It has built a wall against the progressive parties — a reverse quarantine. Even though Netanyahu is detested by a majority of Israelis and has been described as “the worst leader in Jewish history,” he will be difficult to dislodge. The Oct. 7 Hamas attacks gave him yet another political life.

Democracy is also under major attack in countries like India, Hungary and Italy. The power structures in these countries make the quarantine tactic difficult, and all three have decades of struggle ahead.

It’s always easier to build coalitions with a handful of parties filled with populist and self-interested cynics than it is to build a big tent of people who wish to uphold liberal institutions.

The revolt of the masses

Probably the biggest benefit of populism quarantines today is that they provide some breathing room to pro-democracy parties. How those parties use this borrowed time could determine the fate of nations.

In 1930, José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, wrote "The Revolt of the Masses," arguing that spasmodic crises afflict all “peoples, nations and civilizations.”

Revolts break through the political status quo as ordinary people confront political authority and bend the arc of history. In the post-Second World War era, citizens pushed for greater social, political and legal equality. The 1963 March on Washington, the Paris occupation of May 1968 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 are three such iconic moments.

Those past uprisings didn’t destabilize entire societies because their leaders were not cynical opportunists using anger to create disorder. They had concrete goals to create more just societies. As a result, these movements opened the door to creative political compromises.

Sowing disorder

The populist merchants of grievance have done the opposite, hollowing out political parties that now work against the constitutional order they were elected to uphold.

Mainstream political parties are seemingly losing their capacity to build consensus and defend democracy against conspiracy theories on social media.

The legitimacy of liberalism hangs in the balance. Whether quarantining populism via coalitions formed by weakened parties will barricade the door against populists is an open question.

Many populists, after all, are highly organized, well-funded by the billionaire class and skilled at sowing disorder. It’s going to take much more than a legislative lock on the door to shore up our defences. But it’s incumbent upon the courageous Dutch and others to give it a shot.

Daniel Drache is professor emeritus, Department of Politics, York University, Canada. Marc D Froese is professor of Political Science and Founding Director, International Studies Program, Burman University, Alberta, Canada.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

11 Comments
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Many populists, after all, are highly organized, well-funded by the billionaire class and skilled at sowing disorder. It’s going to take much more than a legislative lock on the door to shore up our defences. But it’s incumbent upon the courageous Dutch and others to give it a shot.

What, like billionaire George Soros funding far-left,, racist populist groups such BLM and so on?

This author, like so many on the left, conveniently ignores the damage left-wing parties and authoritarian organisations like the EU have done to countries in the form of unbridled immigration and socio-economic catastrophes like the net-zero scam, preferring to lay the blame on the back-lashers of the "far-right" rather than those whose policies and ideologies caused the problems in the first place.

1 ( +7 / -6 )

Who are “the Dutch” that will implement and enforce a quarantine? I think Lenin did a swell job with his quarantine.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

If the moderate political parties in the West had more sensible immigration/refugee policies, populism would die pretty quickly. Look at Japan, for example.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

"Despite his dramatic win in the 2023 elections, Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders has abandoned his bid to become prime minister. His gamble is that by giving up personal ambition, he will help ensure his hardline right-wing political vision becomes a reality."

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Populism and nationalism infect politics causing economic ruin (as with Brexit) and leads to war.

If you don't find a way of opposing it, when the wars start, your children or grandchildren will be conscripted to die as heroic cannon fodder for your populist leaders, who will be hiding safely in your parliaments.

The best way, long term, is more competent government (most regimes today badly lack talent). Understand your citizens' concerns. Be honest with them. Be transparent. Ensure they have a degree of financial comfort. Be less corrupt and hypocritical. And don't be afraid to condemn extremists and compare them to their political ancestors, pointing out the death and destruction their politics always leads to.

Develop a mainstream political centre, and don't push too hard and fast for political or cultural change. If you do, you will generate an extremist backlash that will end civil progression and societal development.

0 ( +5 / -5 )

@GBR48

Populism and nationalism infect politics causing economic ruin... 

The US economy actually performed very well during the Trump years. The neo-libs brayed on about how the raft of new tariffs would devastate business, but that didn't happen. Indeed, Biden has chosen to maintain most of Trump's tariffs and sticks to the decoupling course, while the US economy continues to outpace its counterparts post-covid.

Covid and Ukraine have been the biggest economic threats. It's easier for neo-libs to redirect the blame toward populism. Ideology over facts, right?

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Geert Wilders is a racist thug, but like to many world countries people like him are becoming too powerful. If the we do not wake up to what is happening the whole planet will be absorbed by these racist, hateful, anti-democratic policies.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

We can’t let the people decide their leaders! This is a democracy!

3 ( +5 / -2 )

If the moderate political parties in the West had more sensible immigration/refugee policies, populism would die pretty quickly. Look at Japan, for example.

In the Netherlands, it’s immigration and also EU diktats shutting down farms. The Dutch have the most productive, efficient farms in the world, but Europe has set arbitrary reductions on carbon, which the government has decided to inflict on farmers.

The move is nonsense—the same food will have to be grown elsewhere. Other countries have less efficient farms, so carbon emissions overall will rise. Dutch farmers are livid, and this is also now stoking populist sentiments in the Netherlands.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

swept the Dutch elections

I don't think winning 25% of votes and seats can be described as having "swept" the election.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

What happened in the Netherlands is disgusting and an afront to democracy.

Wilders should be PM by all rights.

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

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