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Netherlands: The Rise and Fall of Forum for Democracy

In the Netherlands, national-conservative Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD-ECR) currently finds itself in an existential crisis. The man who founded the party, Thierry Baudet, got in an ever-widening rift with the rest of FvD following right-wing extremism in chats by members of the youth organization. He therefore resigned as party leader only to try to retake the leadership two days later. This eventually led to his expulsion from the party and in the end to a vote among members, resulting in Baudet’s reappointment as leader. With plummeting polling numbers at two per cent while having been the largest party only 20 months earlier, the question arises: how did this happen? 

By Lars van Maanen and Nassreddin Taibi

Going from another small party to the country’s largest

Thierry Baudet entered the national political spotlight as one of the figureheads behind the no-campaign in the 2016 referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Dutch voters rejected the agreement; nonetheless the government ratified it. As a reaction Baudet turned his eurosceptic think tank focussed on democratic reform, Forum for Democracy, into a political party. It received 1.8% of votes in the 2017 Dutch general election, translating into two MPs: Thierry Baudet and Theo Hiddema.

Afterwards, FvD experienced a surge in the polls by campaigning on reducing immigration, holding a referendum on European Union membership and scepticism of climate change. This attracted disillusioned voters from Prime Minister Rutte’s liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD-RE) and centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal (Christen-Democratisch Appèl, CDA-EPP) to Baudet’s party. Also, voters from Geert Wilders’ right-wing Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV-ID) switched because they felt FvD was moderate and had a more realistic chance of entering government. Eventually, the party rose to become the largest in the 2019 provincial elections and in the Senate, which is elected by provincial legislatures.

FvD at its height: the most popular party in the Netherlands

The road downwards

The joy of triumph for FvD was, however, short-lived. Baudet used more radical rhetoric, deemed by many as far-right. Almost all provincial government negotiations with FvD collapsed over this. FvD senator Henk Otten criticised Baudet and tried to prevent the party from moving further to the right. Otten was later in the summer of 2019 expelled from the party, with Baudet claiming financial fraud as the reason while Otten claimed ideological differences. Together with another senator, provincial legislators and an MEP of FvD, Otten created a new party: Group Otten (GO-NI).

In the new year, Baudet again caused controversy with a false claim of Dutch-Moroccans ‘attacking’ two friends and possible ties to the Russian government. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Baudet first advocated for a complete lockdown but later made a U-turn and demanded the abolition of all COVID-19 restrictions. The FvD leader began speaking at anti-lockdown protests, organised by conspiracy theorists, leading to criticism from within the party. All these events caused FvD to plummet in the polls to approximately five per cent from a peak of approximately 17% right after the 2019 provincial elections. 

Europe Elects’ polling average of FvD

Scandal in youth-wing, the fall and return of Baudet

In November 2020, newspapers reported about ongoing anti-semitism, racism and homophobia in the FvD youth-wing’s Whatsapp group chats. Three members, who had told the media about it before, were expelled earlier that year. On 22 November, many prominent party members demanded the dissolution of the youth-wing. Baudet–who has good relations to the youth-wing’s chairman–refused to act and to everyone’s surprise resigned as leader a day later. However, he still wished to be on FvD’s electoral list for the general elections in March 2021, hoping to be elected with preference votes. Annabel Nanninga, a senator, responded with the support of party prominents by demanding he leave the party board and the electoral list entirely. The FvD MP next to Baudet, Hiddema, grew sick of the chaos and stepped down from parliament with immediate effect.

Baudet did not follow Nanninga’s demands and announced a leadership election in which he would be a candidate, trying to delegitimise the party board. They responded that Baudet had no power to do that, threatened to expel him from the party he himself had founded and changed the party headquarters’ locks in order to deny him entry. With Baudet still owning FvD’s social media accounts, he first intended to send members a leadership election ballot to later call for the party to split and a vote on which side may use the name ‘Forum for Democracy’.

The party board, on the other hand, threatened to sue Baudet over his behaviour, made public that he adheres conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and called for a membership referendum on his possible suspension. The next day, the party board expelled Baudet, accusing him of ‘criminal offences’. Baudet, however, disputed the party board’s power to do so. Two days later the party board made a U-turn and promised to hold a referendum on reappointing Baudet as party leader on 3 and 4 December. Baudet won the vote, with 76% of members wanting him to return as leader. 

Meanwhile, many senators, election candidates, provincial legislators and after the referendum opposing Baudet renounced their membership. After the referendum also FvD’s three MEPs left the party while remaining part of the ECR group in the European Parliament. While several prominent members of the FvD claim Baudet has said anti-semite things—including the claim that COVID-19 is created by George Soros to undermine our freedoms and the ‘everyone I know is an antisemite’, FvD stays at three per cent in the first Peil poll after the mayhem and after having recorded over a ten percentage points more a bit over a year ago. As general elections in the Netherlands are set for 17 March 2021, the question is no longer whether Forum for Democracy could become the largest party of the Netherlands. Rather, it is whether the party will even be reelected into parliament.