Wilders debate: shouting or convincing?
May Geert Wilders be described as 'extreme-right' and, more importantly, does anybody care whether he is?
The latest controversy involving the Dutch populist politician is about a 'scientific' study commissioned by the government. The study has sparked some furious reactions, but actual debate? Hardly.
In retrospect, nobody seems very happy with the leaked conclusion of the as yet unpublished report on 'radicalisation and polarisation' in Dutch society: that Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) is an extreme-right party and a potential danger to Dutch democracy.
Not Wilders, of course, who immediately responded by saying it was "yet another sick and scandalous attempt by the elite" to demonise him. "This is complete and utter nonsense," Wilders retorted on Dutch television. "We are a democratic party dedicated to democratic means. They are simply alarmed by our success."
The government isn't happy either, as the media got hold of the report before it could be reviewed and perhaps toned down. And even the three political scientists who drafted it are probably unhappy: in the days after their - they stress - incomplete conclusions were leaked, they received a number of death threats.
The PVV is potentially the largest party in the Netherlands, with up to 1.7 million people set to vote for it if elections were held now, according to recent polls. Opinions about the party and its anti-Islam leader have tended to be outspoken, and the label 'extreme-right' has been used - or abused - on many occasions.
What should have made this report different is that it was written by researchers, not opinion makers. To arrive at their conclusions, the authors applied current definitions of radicalisation and political extremism to a number of groups in the Netherlands. The PVV and its followers were one of those groups.
But critics point out that there is no universal definition of what is extreme-right, and that the word has increasingly been used by the Dutch left as a weapon against any opponent powerful enough to threaten its position.
Wilders' precursor, the populist maverick Pim Fortuyn, and Dutch conservative leader Frits Bolkestein were both accused of extreme-right leanings in the past. Pim Fortuyn was assassinated shortly after he became truly controversial, Bolkestein went on to become an MEP in Brussels. Few people would still argue that the accusations against either of them were valid.
So, just as in the story of the boy who cried wolf, anyone who trots out the term nowadays runs the risk of automatically disqualifying himself. If anything, people in the Netherlands - and not just Wilders voters - are now tempted to regard 'extreme-right' as a badge of honour.
Add to that the fact that the disputed report was commissioned by the Dutch government, which has been extremely critical of Wilders' rise, and it's hard to fault the PVV leader's followers for questioning not just the researchers' actual conclusions, but their right to speak at all.
The most troubling question of all is what the report could actually contribute to the debate about Geert Wilders and the PVV. His followers will dismiss it out of hand, his opponents will see their existing opinions confirmed, but will anyone be prompted to look at the issue afresh or change sides?
Dutch blogger Rob van Kan doesn't think so; he says the whole affair underlines a more general failure to appeal to potential Wilders voters. "Where are the arguments that might convince them?" he asks on the Lucaswashier* blog. Anyone who believes this report will do the trick "is ten years behind the times."
For their part, Wilders and his followers have yet to indicate what kind of criticism of their politics they would accept as valid - even if they don't agree with it - rather than an unfair attempt to "demonise" them.
Protestors stage a demonstration near a building where Dutch politician Geert Wilders held a press conference in Westminster, central London
If the row over the accusations against Geert Wilders marks anything then it's that it has become impossible to find even the smallest amount of common ground between his followers and his opponents.
The more the PVV rises in the polls, the more difficult it becomes to question or discuss that success without getting tangled up in deeply-entrenched and irreconcilable positions.
That stalemate - the lack of actual debate about one of the most striking developments in Dutch politics of the last ten years - may in the end prove to be the real threat to Dutch democracy.
Perro de Jong