Threats force Dutch politicians to seek protection

The Netherlands offers security measures to almost a third of its MPs after they suffered intimidation in person or on social networks

Mark Rutte primer ministro saliente de Países Bajos
Outgoing Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte arrives by bicycle at the Ministry of the Interior in The Hague on August 24, 2023.JEROEN JUMELET (AFP)
Isabel Ferrer

Dozens of politicians in the Netherlands now have protection measures due to the threats they have received, either in person or on social networks. As reported on August 31 by the Dutch investigative television program Zembla, at least 41 representatives — almost a third of the 150 members of Congress — cannot carry out their work with complete freedom. Stepping up their security ranges from protecting their personal data to installing emergency doorbells or alarm systems in their homes.

In their 2022 annual report, presented in April of this year, the Dutch intelligence services warned of the danger to society stemming from ultra-conspiracy theories in addition to the risk of attacks by the Islamic State terrorist group. In view of the data now collected by Zembla, the Minister of Justice, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius — in office, like the rest of the government until the November elections — has admitted, as stated in the program itself, that the country’s democracy “is under pressure.”

The image put forward by the television investigation is shocking in a society that proclaims itself open and tolerant. But the phenomenon is not new and has been increasing since the coronavirus pandemic. In 2022 there were 1,125 complaints of threats and intimidation directed against representatives and ministers, almost double those registered in 2021. Half referred to attacks against the far-right leader, Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), but there were other politicians who also received threats. Among them, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was supposedly the target of organized crime.

Torches in front of a minister's house

The Finance Minister, and leader of the D66 party, Sigrid Kaag, was also the target of intimidation. Her decision to leave politics altogether is due, in large part, to the death threats she received. A man named Max van den B. stood in front of her house in January last year with a lit torch while broadcasting live on social media. Known for his rejection of the Covid-19 protection measures adopted by the Dutch Government, he was arrested and later sentenced to five months in prison. Kaag admitted in a television program that her family feared for her life and also reported having been the target of misogynistic attitudes in a tense climate.

Since then, and especially since the fall of the Dutch government this July due to discrepancies in the asylum policy, around thirty deputies from across the parliamentary spectrum have decided to abandon active politics. “The greatest threats that reach judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and journalists come through social networks, in addition to organized crime,” says Edwin Bakker, professor of Security Studies and terrorism expert at Leiden University. “So they are varied and increasing and, in times of polarization like we have currently, with the upcoming elections and the appearance of new parties, they must be prevented,” the professor continues.

In a telephone conversation, Bakker recalls that in Congress there are now politicians, such as those from the extreme right-wing Forum for Democracy, headed by Thierry Baudet, who speak out in a way that was unthinkable a decade ago. “[They say] things like ‘the day of judgment will come and you will be put against the wall,’” the expert says, “statements that demonize other groups and communities in the chamber itself.” Bakker recalls how Sigrid Kaag has been called a witch and how far-right conspiracy theories are rampant. “The lack of respect,” he continues, “coupled with a series of activists who intimidate politicians, has an effect.” “Without forgetting what has happened in the United States with these theories, which certain groups interpret as a form of legitimization,” he concludes.

Among the visible examples of intimidation is the presence of a dozen farmers in front of the home of Christianne van der Wal, in charge of the Nature and Nitrogen portfolio at the Ministry of Agriculture. She has the position of minister in the Dutch government’s organization chart, but she is not the head of the department. Last June, protesters against the cut in nitrogen emissions from the countryside broke the protective police cordon set up in front of Van der Wal’s house. During the action, they damaged one of the law enforcement vehicles. According to police reports, they also emptied a manure tank near the building and spread animal feed on the ground. The minister was not at home, but her family was. Eight people were later detained by officers.

In June 2022, lawmaker Wybren van Haga, who has been a member of the right-wing liberals and the extreme right and is now an independent, told the press that a man had entered his home “yelling something about a machine gun.” The suspect was held until the police arrived by employees of a security company who at that time were installing an alarm at the politician’s request.

“Cabal” of harassers

Not all threats are filmed, as happened with Kaag and Van der Wal. There is also verbal abuse, insults, or cursing MPs. The police have a special unit called the Threatened Politicians Team and since 2020 the Dutch Prosecutor’s Office has referred these cases to judges to serve as an example. “Before, they used to be resolved behind closed doors and by imposing a fine or the obligation to perform community service,” states the tax department’s website. The same sources add that, sometimes, online harassers are “citizens who can be considered honest, even pensioners, who say they have acted in a fit of anger.”

In their 2022 report, the intelligence services reported the existence of groups that believe that there is an “evil elite”, who are enemies of the people and that hold power. Made up mostly of young men residing inside and outside the Netherlands, they keep in touch through social networks, develop the aforementioned conspiracy theories and in some cases glorify violence.

Bakker believes that it is difficult to be sure that the withdrawal of a string of Dutch politicians is due exclusively to threats or also to polarization, which facilitates the arrival of new candidates into many parties. “The registered threats are greater than ever, and now come the elections, which will require the police to be mobilized,” says the professor.

Another novelty is that the MPs report these threats to the police and the Prosecutor’s Office files the indictment, “which is also a way of telling the citizen that this type of behavior is unacceptable and punishable” “This atmosphere had not been seen before in the Netherlands, and the extreme right, in particular, generates tensions similar to those observed in the United States, which move from social networks to the political arena. It is an anti-government sentiment fueled by the pandemic that has left this legacy,” says Bakker. Recently formed political groups — such as the New Social Contract, which is the combination of social democracy and the greens, was set up the former Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt and led for the November elections by Frans Timmermans, former vice president of the European Commission — “seek to move away from this type of behavior,” the professor adds.

Conspiracy theories, however, will be more difficult to contain, according to the expert. He says that there are those who have turned online threats into a way to make money; a kind of subculture that is difficult to dismantle. “There are individuals held in remote places such as Portugal, or Ireland, who mix personal issues, spiritual, and anti-system ideas. And there are also groups that finance each other and even pay for this type of intimidation, which includes potential violence with ties in ultra [right] circles in the United States and also in Europe.”

Minister Yeşilgöz-Zegerius has described it as “incredibly cowardly that there are those who say all kinds of things against others, without daring to do so in their own name and showing their faces.” At the same time, he advocates addressing this problem at the European level. With a view to the upcoming Dutch elections, the security services are prepared to protect the candidates, Bakker says.

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