Can Europe Make It?

The populist appeal – bottom-up perspectives: the Netherlands, a view from the south

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These extracts draw on citizen consultation in Maastricht, the capital city of Limburg, a southern region of the Netherlands that has its own identity, including its own officially recognized regional language. The region is known as a stronghold of the PVV, especially in former mining areas in the south-east.

Yvette Jeuken
18 March 2014

[A male participant opened up the floor saying that he was grateful that we took the effort to organize a meeting in the south of the Netherlands. He told us how important it is that someone listens to what people in that region have to say. He feels that politicians aren’t taking responsibility for society as a whole anymore. He was really bothered when our Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that “Everyone needs to sort themselves out”]

‘I have no idea who to vote for!’ Female participant

[Another female participant added that she cast a blank vote, not knowing who to vote for] ‘Where do I need to be? What party should I give my vote to?’

[Another female added that she is not really interested in political debate because]: ‘The politician who is the loudest always wins. I prefer switching to another TV channel’

[One male grew up in Curacao and mentioned that all political parties have the same programme for the Dutch Antilles]: ‘They want the same thing for the Antilles, who knows if they even know the Antilles.’ [For this reason, and of course due to the colonial history, there is a general lack of trust towards politicians and political parties in the Antilles.]

‘Politics. I vote, that’s for sure and I feel connected to a particular political movement. But having trust, it has all become a media game. Selfishness, power and money play an important role. This is not in the public interest.’ Male participant

‘People who really want to hold an important political position and who have a big ego are able to get the position. It’s not a question of competences [… ] Democracy is a game of words. You need the right people who are able to play with words. Silence is no good when in the Parliament.’ Male participant [He however was concerned that this has a negative influence on the quality of political decision-making.]

‘The political landscape in the Netherlands is as follows: one time we are confronted with left wing policies, two years later we have right wing policies. This is not cheering.’ Male participant

‘I miss ethics in politics, but also in people. Nowadays, politics is controlled by financial power. There is nothing left to decide. Companies make big profits, while there is a financial crisis and there are lots of poor people. I don’t believe in the system. They are too absorbed by their own interests, securing their own job positions. They are afraid of being judged by their colleagues and their bosses. Those who do a good job get fired. The way democracy is now functioning is not working. This has to change.’ Female participant

‘Politics needs to change; bottom up change is needed as well. People need to throw themselves into the discussion. We all have our bit of responsibility’ Male participant

‘People act on self-interest, they are not sincere. People make the party. You yourself are part of politics.’ Female participant

‘What is ideal in politics? It should not come from the top down but from the bottom up. Feasibility, finances and connections are important in this process. Does the up scaling of political decision-making cause this? They are more concerned with financial aspects and rules, rather than with the real issues that are at stake. [...] What can you expect of politics? It should disappear. They ought to defend our needs, but they don’t. [...] Should politics disappear? It would imply a radical change of the system. We cannot know what would happen. But, hey, we will see.’ Female participant

‘Do we still care about compassion? Do people still have the ability to listen to each other? That’s what is important for me. We are being ruled by our agendas. I am affected by this. People don’t have time for other people, they are under great pressure to reach targets. Political change is impossible. Everything will stay the same. You can take some action yourself. If you want something to change, you need to do it yourself. Humans need to be back at the centre stage of politics.’ Male participant

‘My ideal world is one in which everything is downscaled. Small-scale governments that are able to make ethically responsible decisions. If you want to grow, it is always at the cost of something else: you need to balance what you give and take [...] if we continue like this, it is going to explode. In the future we need to focus on human beings and ecological sustainability.’ Female participant

‘The political system should be downscaled. Every person should have the opportunity to engage. No intermediaries or achterkamertjes-politiek (decision-making behind closed doors). Politics should become far simpler.’ Female participant

‘It is important that there be someone who is impartial, someone who works towards a consensus between different stakeholders [...] and every politician ought to be able to make their own decision. Being pressurized by their political party, that’s no politics, is it? A politician who is not allowed to make judgments in the interest of the people, that is insane.’ Male participant

‘Politicians destroy our society. They should take a look inside people’s homes; sSee how much misery there is. Tolerance is needed. Politicians should learn to understand how thing go. We need reliable politicians who are aware of what is going on and who are able to use language that is understandable for common people. Only then ordinary people can get involved. Charisma is important, but not too much...’ Female participant

‘Politicians should stick to their promises. Not change their mind all the time because this is what happens all the time, they ‘turn’. People are being fooled with nice stories, but nobody gets anything out of it. The first step that needs to be taken is that those politicians have to become trustworthy. They should not compromise but instead stick to their initial promise.’ Female participant

The statements in context

Three main questions guided our meeting with citizens in Maastricht: 

1) Do you have trust in politics ?

2) Has there been a particular experience that affected your trust in politics?

3) What changes are needed for you to regain confidence in politics? Out of 13 participants only 3 said they still have trust in politics.

When citizens do not trust their politicians, become reluctant or even angry towards politicians, the legitimacy of the government is at stake. For this reason we decided to focus our meeting on the issue of the lack of trust rather than solely on the support for populist parties – even when we held this particular meeting in a PVV stronghold. We wanted to gain understanding of how citizens have reached such high levels of distrust and dissatisfaction towards politics. Furthermore, we wanted to know what they thought was needed for politics to change in order for them to trust it once again and, most importantly, how they perceived their own role in achieving change.

The statements above show that, even though citizens criticize politicians and politics in general, they still feel a strong responsibility to ‘do their bit’. However, it is still clear that levels of trust in politicians are extremely low and citizens constantly question their honesty. While most criticisms were mainly targeted at national-level politics and politicians, all the solutions that citizens discussed revolved only around the local level.

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