This VJ-Turned-Politician Vows to Keep Crusading Against Geert Wilders and the Dutch Far Right
Sylvana Simons has spent her life speaking out, but in the last several weeks she’s delivered what might be her most vital message. Over the past year alone, the 46-year-old political newcomer and former television personality made a career change, entered politics, formed a political party, and ran for office to crusade against the xenophobic rhetoric of the Dutch far right. Her brand-new party, Artikel 1, did not win a parliamentary seat in Wednesday’s Dutch elections, but the defeat of Geert Wilders’ nationalist Party for Freedom has buoyed her cause.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte came out on top in the contest, winning 31 of 150 parliamentary seats, according to exit polls. Wilders’ party did make gains in Parliament, but fell far short of expectations with just 19 seats and 12.6% of the vote, tying two other parties for second place.
Wilders has been widely billed as the Dutch Donald Trump; he threatened to shut down all mosques, ban the Quran, tax the hijab, and make the “Netherlands great again” by pulling out of the European Union. Simons formed “Artikel 1”—the name is a nod to the Dutch constitution—to fight back against the rising tide of xenophobia that Wilders has stoked.
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“We see a rise of unconstitutional laws being presented, we see a rise of unconstitutional ideas being normalized. We feel that the first article of our constitution is under pressure, it’s in danger. I think the Dutch have always been proud of the idea that they’re incapable of racism, they’re incapable of intolerance,” Simons said in a recent interview. Asked why voters should reject Wilders at the polls on Wednesday, she said, “There’s too much at stake for us to be divided. The number one solution is for us to unite…Wilders, who is preaching a revolution against the establishment, is part of an establishment that has been around for hundreds of years.”
Indeed, Wilders’ xenophobic rhetoric has deep roots in Dutch society, as Jon Emont explains in The Atlantic. Just 70 years ago, the Netherlands was a majority-Muslim empire, but few in the country are familiar with its colonial past.
Simons emerged as a leading critic of Wilders after a wave of racist attacks propelled her towards politics. They began when Simons, who until May worked primarily as a TV and radio host on news programs and shows like the Dutch version of Dancing With The Stars, criticized an on-air guest for using a racial slur. The abuse worsened after she spoke out against the continued popularity of Black Pete, a Dutch children’s version of Santa’s helper, often depicted by white men in black face. She reported thousands of incidents to the police, resulting in the prosecution of 20 people tied to the threats.
“It made me realize racism is accepted in the Netherlands; it’s OK to be racist,” she said. “But I was encouraged that many people also wrote me, saying I had made it easier for them to speak out against racism. So the next logical step was to enter politics since I have a platform to address change.”
When Simons, who was born in the Dutch colony of Suriname, announced she was joining the liberal DENK (“Think”) party in May 2016, the threats “got really, really, really bad,” she told Broadly. Her decision to enter politics seemed to unleash an even worse tidal wave of hate: a photoshopped image of Simons’ face superimposed onto the body of a lynched man circulated online. In other attacks online and in the media, she was compared to a gorilla and told to pack her bags. At one point, Wilders tweeted that the best thing for Simons would be to protect herself against violent threats and for her political party to be disbanded.
When her colleagues at DENK welcomed the media attention the lynching image brought the party, Simons decided to go her own way. In December 2016, she left DENK to launch her own party, Artikel 1.
It was a long shot for Simon’s upstart party to win on Wednesday. As the results revealed that Simons had in fact fallen short of securing a seat, she promised a gathering of supporters that “whatever happens, we are not stopping.” After all, Wilders doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, even if his party performed worse than expected. Simons says she will run again in 2021.