Dutch Fall for Covid Conspiracies in Warning to Europe’s Leaders
(Bloomberg) -- Opposite the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, Plein square is a rare example of a public space where politicians and the people they serve can interact.
Until recently, students could find themselves alongside lawmakers and government officials enjoying after-work drinks at the square’s bars and restaurants. Politicians on their way to the chamber would stop to chat with protesters who regularly gather near Parliament’s main entrance to make their views known.
That was before the coronavirus returned. Demonstrators now scream, shout and intimidate while holding signs demanding the government “stop the lockdown.” Placards proclaiming that “vaccines are bad news” show a breakdown in trust for the authorities, political or medical. Messages such as “save the children” and insults directed at Bill Gates hint at wilder conspiracy theories pushed by QAnon, the U.S. web-based movement gaining ground in Europe.
“I tried to get away as fast as possible,” said Pieter Omtzigt, a lawmaker for the CDA, a junior coalition party in Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government, who was surrounded and threatened in broad daylight last month outside Parliament.
Protesters followed him shouting “Satanists” and “Deep State,” demanded to know why he was betraying “the people” and warned that they would target more lawmakers if he didn’t answer. “It all felt very threatening and it did not seem like they were open to a conversation,” Omtzigt recalled.
Cycle to Work
The Netherlands long enjoyed a relatively relaxed political culture by the standards of elsewhere in Europe or America, with the prime minister famously photographed riding his bicycle to work. That openness is changing as the political atmosphere turns ugly, a shift Omtzigt says mirrors rising tensions in society as a result of the pandemic.
The result is that some politicians no longer feel safe leaving Parliament by the front entrance and sneak out the back with a security escort to avoid confrontations. Dutch national broadcaster NOS has meanwhile been forced to remove its logo from TV vans after several cases of vandalism.
The national counterterrorism organisation cites increased polarisation as a result of Covid-19 and warns of the threat of heightened extremist behavior. Social media is the catalyst amplifying conspiracies across borders, said Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg, head of the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism (NCTV).
“Politicians are being intimated, journalists’ work is being made impossible and policemen are followed home,” Aalbersberg said in an interview. Whereas once journalists were able to go anywhere, “that is over,” while politicians being able to talk with demonstrators outside parliament is changing too. “Now we see hate, intimidating behavior and people shouting things like ‘child molesters.’”
The coronavirus “acts as a contrast fluid,” he said. “It makes things visible that were invisible before and it unites groups that weren’t united before.” While there are elements that support QAnon or are afraid of 5G networks, “the common denominator is an anti-government sentiment.”
With elections in less than six months and no guarantee of a Covid-19 vaccine before then, the Netherlands risks becoming a test bed for the kind of destabilization the growing support for covid conspiracies might bring.
Kees Aarts, professor of political institutions and behavior at Groningen University, sees parallels with the 2017 Dutch election that was framed as a bellwether of European appetite for populism after Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory. Germany votes in the fall of 2021, followed by French presidential elections in spring 2022.
Back then, Rutte’s liberals beat out the anti-immigrant Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. The force to watch this time around is far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD), which took just two seats in 2017 but scored a shock win in senate elections in May 2019.
Leader Thierry Baudet is gingerly embracing the anti-government demonstrators, praising them for “showcasing a different sentiment.” Party member Wybren van Haga has joined celebrity conspiracy theorist and rapper Lange Frans on his podcast.
Baudet’s party “is on thin ice but does reach a certain amount of people this way,” said Aarts. “By making conspiracies more mainstream, he could attract some people.”
Still, polls suggest support is waning for Baudet’s party, from a projected 16 seats in January to just five in October, with disaffected supporters citing concerns about its support for conspiracists and opposition to the government’s corona policy. One poll on Oct. 27 showed Rutte’s party with a whopping 42 seats, an increase of nine seats on 2017, as voters return to the governing party despite earlier mistakes over virus testing and delays in introducing stricter measures.
Yet even small seat changes can upset Dutch political calculations, and the uncertain course of the virus throws all predictions out the window.
What seems clear is that the Netherlands is losing some of its political innocence, but it’s far from naive. While today’s poisoned atmosphere is new to lawmaker Omtzigt, his colleagues tell of similar tensions after the 2002 murder of Pim Fortuyn, a libertarian populist forerunner of Wilders and his anti-Islam views.
Wilders has long been “severely intimidated and threatened,” said Omtzigt. “It seems to me that we have accepted this too easily.”
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