Politicians prosecuted for their statements never lose votes

9 September 2020

Sentenced or not, a politician prosecuted for statements made does not risk electoral loss due to a criminal case. However, the trust in politics drops, reveals international Vidi research from Professor of Political Science Joost van Spanje. This is a topical issue in view of the second trial of Dutch politician Geert Wilders and provides food for thought for the Dutch public prosecutor and also the media.

The self-assured look of Geert Wilders during the court cases related to his statements about Muslims and Moroccans is understandable. He does not risk a prison sentence or the loss of political rights, because that does not happen in the Netherlands. It does, however, in Belgium where the chair of Front National, Daniel Féret, besides a community service order, was not allowed to stand for election for ten years from 2006 onwards. In Germany, NPD leader Günter Deckert was imprisoned for two years in 1995 after making anti-Semitic statements.

Joost van SpanjeJoost van Spanje

Drop in level of trust in politics

Political scientist Joost van Spanje dug up these examples after his research into five European countries into court cases against politicians who are prosecuted for their statements. ‘In the Netherlands, we can remember the cases against Centre Democrats Hans Janmaat and Joop Glimmerveen in the 1990s.’

 

In the project led by Van Spanje, the focus is on the electoral consequences of such criminal trials and the effect of these on citizens’ trust in politics. None of the parties investigated suffered an electoral loss after the prosecution of their leader due to statements that were possibly discriminating, hate-mongering or insulted a group. Wilder’s Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands and the Front National in Belgium even made electoral gains in opinion polls that were held during the time that the criminal court cases against their leaders were in progress. At the same time, the overall level of trust in politics drops among citizens who are highly critical about the multicultural society. ‘We saw that effect under about 35% of all citizens.’

Enormous amount of free broadcasting time

The Dutch public prosecutor should consider this knowledge when deciding whether or not to prosecute a politician for possible hatred-inciting statements, thinks Van Spanje. But the media also need to reflect on what they are doing. ‘Media attention is very important for politicians. The attention paid to the criminal cases is probably in part responsible for the electoral advantage we saw. The first case against Wilders was transmitted on TV in its entirety, and that was an enormous amount of free broadcasting time.’

More information

Joost van Spanje is Professor of Political Science at the University of London and holds a position at the University of Amsterdam. The results discussed in this article, which he also talked about in the Dutch current affairs programme Nieuwsuur on 4 September, come from a study that he started in 2009 and continued in 2016 with a Vidi grant from NWO. Between 2013 and 2019, Van Spanje wrote monthly columns on the Dutch opinion website Joop.nl. The following columns [in Dutch] concerned the court cases against Geert Wilders.

04-06-2018: What works against hate-mongering?
18-12-2016: Geert takes neither side: voters’ response to sentence Wilders
05-11-2015: France repeats the first Wilders case
30-05-2015: The next “Case of the Century”
22-09-2014: Do you want more or less PVV seats?
17-04-2020: Why Wilders wins
15-02-2014: Gerard versus Geert

On the critical Dutch academic website Stuk Rood Vlees, Van Spanje together with Roderik Rekker published the article Vervolging Wilders ondermijnde vertrouwen in democratie en rechtspraak [Prosecuting Wilders undermined the trust in democracy and jurisprudence] on 8 September 2020.

Source: NWO