Column | Everyone is the people, not just the winner of the election

“Populists often claim that winning elections means that everyone must now accept that they, and only they, represent the will of the people.” Jan-Werner Müller, professor of Political Science at Princeton University, wrote this two years ago in his book Democracy Rules.

Hard not to think of these words after the November 22 elections. The PVV became the largest party, with more than 23 percent of the votes. That’s a fact. No one can dispute that. But it also means that almost 77 percent did not vote for the PVV.

Yet Geert Wilders wrote on X (former Twitter): “The PVV must govern. The people have spoken. And made us the greatest. That’s called democracy. Don’t play games with that.”

The latter was a threat. PVV supporters keep repeating those texts. Some even write ‘people’ with a capital letter. As if the election results are the expression of some kind of mystical popular will. As if three quarters of the electorate now have to fold to that one quarter, or not even yet.

It is precisely that reasoning by which you recognize real populists – even those who are so eager to come to power and subjugate the rest that they are willing to put their unconstitutional proposals “temporarily on hold”. There are more parties that become the largest and yet remain outside the government, such as: the Social Democrats in Sweden. Does Wilders find that undemocratic?

In 2016, before he won the elections, said Donald Trump that he alone represented the American people, and “the other people don’t matter”. What he meant was that his opponents cannot speak for the people because they do not belong to the people. That people who are not for him are against him. That they are traitors who must be excluded.

With that one sentence, Donald Trump denied the essence of democracy: its pluralistic character.

In a democracy, citizens of all origins with different religions, opinions and beliefs live within a common framework of rules that everyone must adhere to. It is not about one group becoming the ‘winner’ and being able to sideline other groups on behalf of ‘the people’. No, in a democracy it is about the opposite: that all these groups can live together peacefully. That they don’t be at each other’s throats.

Everyone is the people. Everyone must be heard and accept that others are heard too. Dialogue and compromise are essential. Minorities always keep their rights and their voice in this system, to ensure that one group that considers itself the only ‘representative of the people’ does not subjugate the rest again. Everyone knows where that leads.

And besides, because societies are always changing and there are always new challenges, the relationship between groups is also subject to change. By definition. Some groups weaken, others rise. That is why democracy, which must ensure social and political balance between these groups, is constantly in motion. What ‘the people’ is is not a static matter.

What strikes Müller is that populists who say they speak on behalf of ‘the people’ often do not even get a majority of the votes. Trump won the 2016 election thanks to the American electoral system, but Hillary Clinton really received more votes than him.

Narendra Modi, who firmly rules India on behalf of the BJP, came to power with 37 percent of the votes. The PiS in Poland also received 37 percent in 2015, but managed to form a governing coalition and began to disable independent institutions such as the judiciary and the public broadcaster – guardians of pluralism in a democracy.

Wilders’ tweet shows that it is an illusion to think that this cannot happen in the Netherlands.