Populist Dutch politician Geert Wilders has been receiving financial support from American anti-Islam groups, a Reuters investigation revealed on Monday. While that information in itself is not new, the details provided in the Reuters report are, and they beg the question why the domestic Dutch media have seemingly ignored the fine print concerning Wilders’ finances.
“Campaign finance is a relatively new subject…it hasn’t been a big issue,” says Marc Chavannes, political columnist for NRC Handelsblad. “All of us could have looked deeper and deeper into the story but didn’t.”
Although he admits that’s a hard grasp for people steeped in the American political tradition—a country also in the midst of a national campaign—and says that some reporters have indeed looked into Wilders’ finances, as a whole, Chavannes says, the Dutch media didn’t pay much attention.
The Netherlands goes to the polls tomorrow and Wilders’ Freedom Party is currently in fourth place in the polls, trailing neck and neck front-runners: the Labour Party and the liberal VVD and the Socialist Party.
Most Dutch journalists and many voters are aware that Wilders has received funds from right-wing extremist sympathisers in the US who support his cause of countering Islamic influence in the West. But it’s the details of what they’re paying for and how they’re paying it that the Reuters report exposed.
According to Reuters, the Philadelphia-based, pro-Israeli think tank Middle East Forum funded Wilders’ legal defense during his 2010-2011 hate speech trial, sending money directly to his lawyer Bram Moscowitz. Wilders was acquitted of those charges last year.
Another American sympathiser, David Horowitz, who founded the conservative David Horowitz Freedom Center and edits FrontPage magazine, paid Wilders for speaking engagements and also paid some $1,500 for police protection and more for accommodation for Wilder’s Dutch bodyguards. Horowitz also said US funders helped Wilders raise money for his legal battle against a British ban on visiting the country in 2009. He won that case, too.
While the Middle East Forum won’t say how much it paid Moscowitz, and Moscowitz himself says that information is privileged under client confidentiality, Wilders says he receives donations from defenders of freedom of speech. “I do not answer questions of who they are and what they have paid,” he said in a statement. “This could jeopardize their safety.”
It is not illegal for politicians to receive outside support in the Netherlands. But because Wilders’ does not accept accept government funding as other Dutch parties do, he does not have to disclose his finances. Legislation forcing all parties to reveal their sources of income is currently before the Dutch parliament.
The Freedom Party, which won 15 percent of the popular vote at the last elections in 2010 has never revealed any details of how it is funded. And despite the popular suspicion that he’s being funded from abroad, such rumours have until now never been substantiated by tax filings or confirmed by those making the payments.
“Politicians get some leeway to attract outside money,” says Chavannes. “It has to become more of an issue. It’s a grey area that the media don’t like to delve into.”
Show me the money
One issue the Dutch media are focusing on now is the 4,000,000 euro that former PVV members say was allocated to them but hasn’t been accounted for. Parliament members of all Dutch political parties get 165,000 euro each year for expenses.
In the US, meanwhile, where campaign financing is always in the spotlight, it is illegal for non-profit organisations like the Middle East Forum and the David Horowitz Freedom Center to directly fund political candidates and parties.
Both groups have denied doing that as far as Wilders is concerned. But by law, they are allowed to finance policy debates. Where that line is drawn may well become the subject of future discussion as journalists both here and across the pond take up the issue.