The first chink in Geert Wilders’ armour

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It’s not every day that a member of parliament decides to leave his or her party and go it alone. So Hero Brinkman’s defection from the Freedom Party was bound to make news.

Yet, this defection is more newsworthy than most. For one thing, it removes the parliamentary majority that the current coalition held in the lower house. The two parties forming the minority coalition, the VVD and CDA, depend on support from the Freedom Party (PVV) in parliament. Together, the three parties had 76 seats. With one now gone, they control just half the lower house.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte might take solace in the fact that the opposition does not firmly control the rest of the seats either. He already has the tacit support of the two-seat right-wing religious SGP party. Moreover, Brinkman has promised to continue to support “the best government this country has ever had”.
Still, Brinkman’s defection is a bombshell for the PVV.

Wilders is the party; the party is Wilders
Discipline is the PVV’s mantra. Geert Wilders runs an extremely tight ship and with good reason. After all, the PVV was the second right-wing populist party to emerge in 21st-century Dutch politics. The first, List Pim Fortuyn, captured 26 seats at its first parliamentary election, joined a coalition government and then fell apart in an avalanche of petty bickering.

Wilders, himself a VVD defector, knew he did not want to create something new only to see it disappear in a similar fashion. Everything about the PVV guards against revealing even the slightest hint of chaos. It is not a political party in the traditional sense. With just one member – Wilders himself – the PVV holds no conferences. Wilders delegates only to a handful of trusted colleagues, who are anyway limited in what they can do on their own.

First chink in the armour
Brinkman’s defection is the first major chink in this armour of rock-solid discipline. Until now, he has remained loyal even after voicing criticism. Brinkman came out publicly against one-man rule a few years ago, when he called for more democracy within the party. Though rebuffed, he pursued efforts to start a youth movement. Even after that project was reigned in, Brinkman stuck by Wilders.
Until now, that is. Brinkman is not only the first PVV MP to defect (a number of provincial politicians have left). He comes from the core group that began with Wilders in 2005. He was also one of the most visible MPs.

Core group
The damage to Wilders goes beyond a dent in the public image of an extremely disciplined party. Wilders loses a colleague who dared to talk back. PVV MPs say their meetings are free-flowing exchanges of information. But, given Wilders’ autocratic control, it is hard to imagine all MPs feel free to express their opinions. Brinkman claims he was comfortable standing up to Wilders. In the long run, the party leader may end up missing his opinionated feedback.

Secrets exposed
Now Brinkman is sharing his opinions with the outside world. Less than 12 hours after announcing his defection, Brinkman indicated that the PVV receives substantial amounts of money from ‘US lobby firms’. This was long suspected, but has yet to be proven. The party is under no legal requirement to divulge its sources of funds.

Brinkman also accused his former party of political opportunism, stigmatising groups such as Muslims and Eastern Europeans for political gain. The controversial PVV website for registering complaints about Eastern Europeans was not well thought-out, he said, particularly from a group wanting to be seen as a responsible, governing party.

More criticism to come?
Brinkman is by no means finished criticising his former party. He has announced that he is writing a book about the PVV.

Only once before, in its nearly seven years of existence, has the PVV had to deal with an insider revealing its inner workings. Towards the end of 2009, a journalist published a series of diary entries based on her experience working undercover in parliament for the PVV. The damage was primarily personal and psychological – nothing close to what a confidant could reveal in a kiss-and-tell memoir.

So, besides Brinkman, are there others? For now, he appears to be alone. He was the only PVV MP who openly called for more democracy in the party. All accounts of his last weeks indicate he had little support in the caucus, but claims support from a few of his former colleagues. They just don’t dare to speak out. What effect will his example have on the others?

A vulnerable time
Brinkman’s defection comes at a vulnerable time for Wilders. He is involved in intense negotiations about a new round of austerity measures, measures he himself does not want and which will be unpopular with his constituents. He has now lost his strongest bargaining chip – pulling out of the governing construction and taking the country to the polls. With a party weakened by defection, Wilders may now be stuck with whatever he can get at the negotiations.


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