A little local difficulty

Richard de Mos on the campaign trail during the 2022 local elections. Photo by author

Something is rotten in the city of peace and justice. On Monday the leader of the largest political party in The Hague, Richard de Mos, went on trial alongside two colleagues and five businessmen accused of running a Tammany Hall-style political machine on the doorstep of Dutch democracy. Whether or not De Mos is found guilty of corruption – he fervently denies any wrongdoing – the case raises urgent questions about the state of local politics in the Netherlands.

De Mos, 46, is one of the most recognised politicians in a city with, by Dutch standards, a stark divide between rich and poor. He has carved out a niche as a street fighter, a champion of the working man and woman, and the three-year investigation into allegations that he abused his office to promote his friends’ commercial interests has barely dented his popularity. Though he previously sat on the council and in parliament for Geert Wilders’s right-wing anti-immigrant Freedom Party (PVV), he has taken a less ideological tack since falling out with Wilders and founding his own party, Groep de Mos, in 2013. He describes his style of politics as ombudspolitiek, fixing problems people raise with him by e-mail or on his frequent walkabouts, however small. Unlike his former mentor, who limits his media appearances to soundbites in the parliamentary corridors, De Mos takes a high-impact approach to campaigning. He tours the suburbs in an American-style battle bus flanked by a pair of limousines, all painted in the city’s colours of yellow and green. Out on the streets he keeps a notebook and pen to hand, ready to jot down grievances about double parking, loose paving stones or broken street lights. It has proved a successful formula: Groep de Mos, also known as Hart voor Den Haag (Heart for The Hague), became the largest party in the municipal elections of 2018 and 2022, picking off many voters who defected from the PVV.

But the line between ombudspolitiek and clientelism can be hazy. The essence of the charges against De Mos is that his troubleshooting services worked on a graded scale. A crooked lamppost could be sorted out with a quiet word and a scribble in the notepad, but getting the leader of the city’s largest party to really fight your corner required hard cash. The five businessmen on trial alongside De Mos donated a total of €113,000 to his party, which, according to prosecutors, bought them exclusive access to Groep de Mos and its policymaking structure. De Mos said he had set up a klankbordgroep, or feedback group, from his contacts in the business community, but insisted its role was purely advisory.

The party’s manifesto for 2018 contained a plan to limit the subdivision of houses into apartments by landlords in response to concerns about suburban overcrowding. According to Nieuwsuur, which obtained the case files, De Mos took the line out of the manifesto after one of his co-defendants, a property developer named Edwin Jansen, objected to it. Jansen is alleged to have told another developer that he had ‘made sure he [De Mos] removed the limits on subdivision’. Two days later Jansen sent De Mos an app message after noticing that the measure was still in the version of the manifesto posted on the party’s website. Within two hours De Mos replied saying: ‘It’s been changed’. De Mos told Nieuwsuur he had consulted ‘friendly property professionals’ in the course of writing his party’s manifesto, but rejected the suggestion he abandoned the policy as a direct quid pro quo.

De Mos also lobbied hard to open up The Hague’s tightly regulated nightlife sector. He told friends he had threatened to withdraw his support for the mayor, Pauline Krikke, unless she increased the number of late-night licences for clubs and bars. Those friends included Atilla Akyol, a nightclub owner who donated €40,000 to Groep de Mos and is also a defendant in the case. After Krikke agreed to issue five night licences, De Mos allegedly tipped off Akyol that he would be handing them out on a first come, first served basis, in his capacity as city alderman. ‘You’ll get the application in your app this afternoon. You need to apply right away, and then I’ve arranged a night licence for you for 10 years,’ he told Akyol in a phone call. In the end Akyol managed to secure two of the five licences.

But the De Mos case also exposes a structural weakness in Dutch local democracy. Almost three in 10 votes in municipal elections go to local parties – independent groups that field candidates for a single council. Unlike the national parties with seats in parliament, they are wholly self-funding. Politicians and academics have argued for years that this imbalance needs to be redressed, but repeated efforts to reform the funding mechanism have come to nothing. It leaves local parties vulnerable to influence from large donors, particularly in the light of another anomaly in the funding system: because they receive no central funding, local parties are not obliged – unlike national parties – to keep a public register of donations. Richard de Mos himself highlighted the corrosive effect of the rules when he responded to the criminal charges against him in October. ‘Donating a million euros to D66 is acceptable,’ he told Omroep West. ‘Unlike national parties, local parties receive no subsidies. But if they bring in €100,000 for their campaign it’s suspect.’

De Mos began his trial in typically combative mood, turning up in a yellow and green stretch limousine at the courthouse in Rotterdam, where he was greeted by a small crowd of banner-waving supporters. He has published a book, Mijn verhaal (My Story) rebutting the charges, but claims he is the victim of a media witch-hunt. At the weekend he reported the leak of his confidential case files to the police. ‘I have every confidence in a good outcome,’ he told Nieuwsuur at the weekend. He has dismissed ‘clientilism’ as a term of abuse used by elitist politicians who look down on his grassroots style of politics. But the accusation that he and his associates constituted a criminal gang touched a raw nerve: ‘I’ll never be rid of that,’ he complained to the court.

As De Mos stepped out of the green and yellow limo, emblazoned with his party’s logo, he was asked who had paid for it. De Mos pointed to the driver of the vehicle, a bald man sporting a Groep de Mos football scarf, and said cheerily: ‘That’s the owner, it’s his car. I didn’t have to pay a thing.’ How this bombastic gesture fitted into his concept of ombudspolitiek was a question that went unanswered.

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