With Dutch elections less than a month away, Cormac Murphy probes the political atmosphere that may cause fresh upset across a struggling post-Brexit EU.
Firebrand rhetoric, ferocious Euroscepticism, and fake, bouffant blonde hair – the similarities between Geert Wilders and his American counterpart Donald Trump might seem uncanny. However, hidden underneath the hyperbole lies a country with a history of far right politics.
Closing all mosques, banning the Koran, and ending immigration from Muslim countries are among the many radical stances held by Wilders. His views might seem extreme, even unreal, but this is the man who may well be the next Dutch Prime Minister come March 15.
Far to the right but far from the fringe, his divisive brand of politics has taken the Netherlands by storm. But why has he been so successful in a country widely viewed as both tolerant and liberal?
The Netherlands is an anomaly in a sea of discontent. Suffering no apparent economic woes, the Netherlands is a relatively prosperous country with no pronounced reason for its far-right pandering. Yet with faith in the political system at an all time low, Wilders dominates Dutch polls.
A poll by Motivaction showed that more than 61 percent of respondents viewed their politicians as elitist and unreliable. A spike in asylum seekers to the Netherlands in the wake of Europe’s migrant crisis does appear to have impacted the situation, as does a series of high profile trials involving Wilders.
Unlike Trump, however, Wilders is no maverick. The path for his Party For Freedom (PVV) has been paved by others – namely Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay politician who questioned the uneasy relationship between Muslims in the Netherlands and the country’s famed liberalism.
Fortuyn triumphed in polls at the run up to the 2002 Dutch Presidential Elections. He would have been the likely victor had he not been gunned down in a car park nine days before Dutch voters were set to cast their ballots.
Film director Theo Van Gogh, great grand-nephew of the famous Dutch artist, followed. His brutal assassination in November 2004 was linked to the provocative documentary Submission. His death sparked outrage, polarising opinions further with respect to the country’s one million Muslims.
Somali born, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was told she was next on a letter pinned to Van Gogh’s partially decapitated body.
A self declared ‘ex-Muslim’ and feminist, she worked with Van Gogh on his film Submission while also serving as an MP for the PVV. Subsequently, she moved to the US and has been in hiding ever since.
Since then, Wilders has served as the sole leader of the Netherlands’ anti-Islam political party. Like his predecessors, this position has made him a prime target for Muslim radicals.
Barely a week after Van Gogh’s death, two suspected attackers armed with three grenades were captured after an hour long siege. Their planned targets were reportedly Wilders and Hirsi Ali. Following this incident, security around him has drastically increased.
This has taken a great personal toll on him – unable to step foot outside his heavily guarded home, he can only visit his wife once a week. As a result, his politics has become even more hardline and incendiary.
Wilders tweets his gratitude to law enforcement for their protection during campaigning in Spijkenisse.
Policies and positions of the PVV
In the last seven years, Wilders has been tried several times for inciting hatred. The first trial in 2010 collapsed after it emerged that one of the judges tried to sway a witness, while a second in 2011 resulted in no charges.
The most recent trial in December 2016 found Wilders guilty of inciting racial hatred. Wilders reportedly asked a roomful of supporters whether there should be “more or fewer Moroccans.” When they answered back “fewer” he responded “well, we’ll take care of that.”
Instead of silencing Wilders, the verdict has emboldened him, reinforcing an idea among his supporters of politically motivated persecution. It also intensified debate around immigration and allowed Wilders to portray freedom of speech as a value under siege.
Besides his anti-Islamic policies, Wilders has pledged to exit the EU, slash all foreign aid, abolish the asylum process and increase defence spending – all in a single page manifesto released by the PVV.
Other notable controversies include a website urging citizens to report Central and Eastern Europeans. The site, created by Wilders, encouraged Dutch workers to complain about Eastern Europeans, who he accused of saturating the Dutch job market and stealing employment.
By clicking on “Meld uw verhaal hier” or “Tell us your story” angered members of the public could fill in a form outlining their ‘experiences’.
Protests about the website reached as high up as the Polish government and the European Commission, but the then minority Dutch government refused to ban it.
What are his chances of winning?
If polls are accurate, Wilders’ PVV is on course to take the most seats in the Dutch parliament. Current polls have indicated that the PVV will win around 30 seats out of a total of 150.
In a series of statements, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has warned that it would not be wise for other Dutch politicians to ignore the will of the people. He also added, in relation to immigrants “behave normally, or go away”.
Rutte heads the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). In a political phenomenon dubbed ‘contagion from the right’, Dutch politicians appear to be swaying more to the right in a desperate attempt to hoodwink potential PVV voters.
In spite of his increasingly hardline rhetoric, Rutte has vowed that there is “zero chance” of the VVD forming a coalition with the PVV. This is despite the fact that Rutte’s 2010 minority government received the formal backing of the PVV until its collapse in 2012.
Other parties have also ruled out creating a coalition with the PVV, meaning that a broad coalition of movements opposed to the policies of the PVV will have to be built in order to keep Wilders away from power.
What does it mean for Europe?
The Netherlands is a founding member of the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU. With its 17 million inhabitants, the Netherlands is currently the eighth most populous country in the EU, and boasts the sixth biggest economy by GDP.
A Dutch exit, would be a significant blow to the EU. The Netherlands has also adopted the Euro since its inception in 2002, making any potential break-up messier.
The real threat, however, is a wider fallout from the results with French and German elections looming. The Dutch elections are a litmus test for other far-right European parties who may potentially use it as a catalyst for their own bids at power.
Marine Le Pen, head of the French far right Front National will be eyeing the results eagerly as she awaits her own shot for the Élysée Palace in May. The AFD in Germany is also hoping to capitalise on the global political shift by securing itself a comfortable place in the Bundestag during the German federal elections in September.
Whether Wilders will triumph and frolic in the populist footsteps of Brexit and Trump remains to be seen, but his increasing popularity follows the success of far-right counterparts across Europe and America.
The possibility of Geert Wilders as the next Dutch Prime Minister is minimal though. Without Wilders commanding a majority in parliament, ‘Nexit’ goes up in smoke. A broad coalition involving multiple parties seems like the most likely outcome.
It will only be a pyrrhic political victory for mainstream parties however. Contending with an ideologically fractured government won’t be an easy task for the factions involved.
In addition to being the largest party, it is also likely to leave an electorally emboldened PVV waiting in the wings as the foremost opposition party in the Dutch parliament.
Regardless of the final results, the potency of the PVV in Dutch politics is a sign of wider discontent.