While international columnists were fretting about the rise of Dutch far-right provocateur Geert Wilders, more than 5,000 people packed into an Amsterdam rock arena Thursday to hear one of his fiercest political rivals speak. Jesse Klaver, the charismatic 30-year-old GroenLinks (GreenLeft) leader, has quickly distinguished himself as the Wilders-antidote, the progressive left’s bright hope in dark times.
“I’ve been a long-time supporter of GroenLinks and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Coert van Gemeren, a 37-year-old Ph.D student in the crowd. “It’s very un-Dutch.”
Saying no to Wilders
In a race that has been defined by the explosive rise of Wilders – a radical right-wing populist who has pledged to close mosques, ban the Koran and halt Muslim immigration – Klaver, of Moroccan, Dutch and Indonesian descent, has positioned himself as the clearest counterpoint to his politics.
Many voters on the left feel the establishment parties have acquiesced too easily to Wilders’ xenophobic politics in a bid to blunt his populist appeal. In January, Prime Minister Mark Rutte stirred up controversy when he took a page out of Wilders’ playbook, publishing an open letter saying anyone who refused to respect Dutch customs should leave the country. Klaver has gone the other way, and believes the Greens can win big by forcefully rejecting Wilders’ harsh nationalist agenda.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s very un-Dutch”
“The Netherlands is built on values like empathy, freedom and tolerance,” he told VICE News. “My message to Geert Wilders and all the populists is: ‘I want my country back’.”
And Dutch voters are responding. Klaver’s success in selling an optimistic vision of tolerance, equality and environmentalism – through a slick, social media-driven campaign strategy unlike anything previously seen in Dutch politics – means his party looks poised to win five times as many seats as it did at the last election, and has made him the other big story in a race often described as a political bellwether for Europe ahead of major elections in France and Germany later this year.
Amid widespread fears about the far-right gaining power, Klaver believes the surging momentum behind his party could instead deliver the Netherlands’ first left-wing government in 40 years. He thinks he could even become prime minister.
It’s a bold claim, but the excited crowds at his rallies hint he may be onto something. Klaver’s elaborately-produced, pop concert-style rallies – featuring rappers, bands and motivational speakers on the bill – are an entirely new phenomenon, drawing newcomers to the party in droves (typically, only about a third at the rallies are party members).
“You hear all the time in this election campaign about Islamic radicalism and Moroccan criminals and how everything is in crisis,” says University of Amsterdam political scientist Meindert Fennema – himself a GroenLinks party member. “Instead, at these rallies, you have this optimistic atmosphere where everyone’s happy. It’s very American.”
Echoes of Trudeau
When Klaver finally takes to the stage, it’s plain to see how he cuts a distinctive figure on the Dutch landscape. Hailing from a minority background, and a couple of decades younger than his rival party leaders, Klaver delivers a new and unabashedly idealistic vision of progressive politics, one which challenges the establishment paradigm of “economism,” growing inequality and nationalism.
Squint a little, and with his tousled hair, olive complexion and easy smile, the speaker in the open-necked white shirt could almost be Justin Trudeau, telegenic prime minister of Canada and the world’s preeminent liberal heartthrob (“He has much more muscles than I have,” Klaver says later backstage, brushing off the now-familiar comparison).
Klaver frequently alludes to his own modest background – the son of an absentee Moroccan father, raised mainly by his grandparents in social housing – to underline his Obama-esque narrative that anything is possible. He does this without ever portraying himself as a victim of discrimination, which could turn off mainstream voters, says Fennema.
“If I had accepted it all those times people told me ‘it’s impossible,’ I wouldn’t be here,” Klaver tells the crowd. “Maybe the next days are the most important of our political lives. There is a growing movement that has had enough of hate, of fear, of egoism.”
In an anteroom after the speech, Klaver says his goal is “to change politics,” maintaining that “the classical center parties do not win elections anymore.”
GroenLinks’ rise has come at the expense of the beleaguered Labour Party (PvdA), the mainstream center-left party which voters have abandoned in droves since it formed a governing coalition with Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in 2012. One recent poll has Labour in seventh place, predicted to win about 10 seats – down from 35 at the last election.
Many older left-wing voters still have their reservations about Klaver, an ambitious politician who has spent his entire adult life working in the political sphere. “It’s all from the textbook of Obama – he seems to borrow a lot also from Trudeau and other popular left-wing politicians and packages it in a way that makes people suspicious of how real he really is,” says Bas Heijne, columnist for the NRC Handelsblad newspaper. Any discussion of Klaver invariably involves the word “slick.” “Some people are wary of [his style] – it’s too glittery,” says Heijne.
Revitalizing the left
Marjolein Meijer, GroenLinks’ party chair, says a senior campaign adviser had previously worked on Democratic presidential campaigns in the U.S. and “learned a lot” about designing a modern, grassroots campaign harnessing social media to build a movement. Klaver explains: “What we try to do is make sure that more people than ever are involved in politics, and we make sure that they go out and campaign for us.”
But Heijne concedes that while Klaver’s delivery may be a little too polished and derivative for his own taste, it holds a broad appeal, particularly for young people. For the past 15 years, he says, the Netherlands has been “a pretty bleak place for the left,” due to broad public antipathy towards a mainstream left-wing establishment “seen as weak, bureaucratized, slightly corrupt or hypocritical.”
Klaver has done much to rejuvenate left-wing politics by harnessing the energy of populist progressive movements and he has gained considerable traction with voters by challenging tax evasion in a country regarded as a low-taxation “fiscal paradise” for corporates.
“He’s trying to emulate Obama, but there’s nothing wrong with that,” says David Bot, an unemployed 19-year-old in the crowd who will be voting for the first time on Wednesday. Bot, like many others, has been drawn by Klaver’s strident opposition to Wilders. “A lot of people see that Wilders is wrong, and Jesse Klaver is the answer to that. I think he’s what the left needed.”
An unsure outcome
So how will GroenLinks fare on Wednesday? The peculiarities of the Netherlands’ proportional representation system, combined with a general mistrust of poll numbers and the fact about half of voters are undecided, has pundits reluctant to make predictions. Dutch politics is completely fractured — no party is expected to come close to a majority and a record 14 parties could end up winning a seat. “You’ll need at least four, maybe five parties to cooperate together to form a coalition,” says Stijn van Kessel, a political scientist at Loughborough University.
GroenLinks hopes it will be able to form a governing coalition with other left-wing parties, and has also been attempting to cozy up to the center-right-leaning Christian Democratic Appeal party, currently sharing second place in the polls with Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), van Kessel said.
For all the frenzy surrounding Wilders, it is unlikely he will lead the next government. Other parties have vowed not to work with him, and support for his party has also tapered off recently, with observers, including Heijne, saying this is partly due to potential PVV voters having second thoughts after seeing what happened when America voted in a right-wing populist.
Whatever the outcome, VICE News spoke to supporters and observers alike who believe Klaver and his party may have struck on a model to give hope to left-wing parties across the continent, at a time when progressive politics is overshadowed. Like the unexpected victory of a Greens-supported candidate over his far-right opponent in Austria’s presidential election last year, they say, it shows that the left is not dead, maybe just in need of some medicine.
“I think traditional political parties are in a crisis because people don’t believe them,” says Meijer. “I don’t think we’ve found the exact key already, but I’ve noticed people appreciate that Jesse doesn’t just tell them the advantages, but also any disadvantages of a policy.”
Klaver agrees. “Just tell the voters what you stand for,” he says.