Not only Melkert misunderstood les Fortuyn

Looking back at the 2002 election year, former PvdA leader Ad Melkert called his opponent Pim Fortuyn a predecessor of Trump. Like the American later, Fortuyn, in his eyes, was looking for effects, playing the underbelly and getting excessive media attention.

The statements resulted in mockery and mockery on social media, also because twenty years later he still sought blame for his crushing defeat (loss of 22 places) outside of himself. ‘Learned nothing, nothing at all’, tweeted former member of parliament Han ten Broeke of the VVD, the party which in 2002, after the purple coalitions with PvdA and D66, also took a big beating (loss of 14 seats).

It is important to look back on this episode, because the violent events at the time left a deep mark on Dutch politics. These traces are visible and tangible to this day in style, culture and content. What stands out is the transformation of our party democracy into a people’s democracy.

Big shift, limited effect

Fortuyn showed how far one man can go in politics. Posthumously, nine days after his violent death, he won 26 seats at once. Not enough for the premiership he had lived, but enough to penetrate the center of power. That is the difference with the American system: there, a small electoral change can have decisive consequences, as Trump showed in 2016; in our coalition country, the effect of even an unusually large shift has generally been limited.

That may change, however, now that the party has lost political weight as a membership organization and culture bearer. Two examples: In 2021, Rutte invoked the two million votes cast to legitimize his renewed premiership. He regarded his mandate as personal.

Dead weight

An even more telling example was the famous CDA Congress in Arnhem in 2010. In retrospect, it appears to be the convulsion of party democracy, a final demonstration of involvement on the part of its members. CDA leader Verhagen called it ‘a party for democracy’, but he mainly meant a party for himself after a majority approved the coalition with the PVV that he targeted.

If Verhagen had put his arm around the deviants with understanding at the time, things might have been better. Because he failed to do so and demanded loyalty from the opponents and doubters, the party mentally disintegrated. The shadowy designation of the ‘outsider’ Wopke Hoekstra as party leader in 2021 essentially sealed the party’s fate as practically dead weight.

As a result, the political leadership acquires oligarchic features, which is of course a grateful target for populist opponents, of which Fortuyn was a forerunner. His display of extravagance against the gray suits of the purple politicians was more than a figure of speech. On a deeper political level, he exposed the breakdown in the relationship between government and society.

The consequences are loss of authority and alienation, a certain loneliness even among leading politicians. In addition, the purple coalitions lacked a recognizable alternative, stifling public debate. After three quarters of a century in government, the CDA had no idea how to lead an opposition and was locked in the middle covered by old rivals PvdA and VVD. The situation screamed, so to speak, for the revolt that Fortuyn provoked, especially after Minister Klaas de Vries (PvdA) declared it his mission to ‘make the Netherlands even more boring than it already was’.

Excess ballast

The government deserves a counterforce in the opposition that is recognizable and equipped to take over the government. The sharp debate, which must not be confused with today’s name-calling, is necessary to show the citizens which interests and values ​​are at stake. Liberal Hans Wiegel opposed purple because the unnatural purple alliance took that dynamic out of politics and would lead to wild flanking. Good thing we still have the pieces.

Strangely enough, in 2012 no one in the PvdA, including Melkert, warned of the risk of a new coalition with the VVD. Result: 29 seats lost; the liberals lost 8. The conclusion is that the leaders of the former people’s parties are abusing their political and human capital.

The signal that Fortuyn gave in 2002 has been misunderstood, except in the sense that political leaders are more likely to go their own way. Parties have become redundant ballast, even members of parliamentary groups play an almost anonymous role or are thrown overboard in case of headwinds. It breaks badly.

Every weekend, Hans Goslinga writes a reflection on the state of our politics and our democracy. Read them back here.

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