The Hunt for Moderate Voters: Will Geert Wilders Move toward the Center?

By Mirjam Hecking

Geert Wilders is known for his provocative positions on Islam and immigration. But the Dutch right-wing populist may moderate his rhetoric in the run-up to national elections in June, where his party is expected to do well. His rise, however, may ultimately end up benefiting left-wing parties.

Geert Wilders may moderate his stance in a bid to broaden his support ahead of June elections. Zoom
AFP

Geert Wilders may moderate his stance in a bid to broaden his support ahead of June elections.

Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders is known for his strident opinions and his strong words. But he exceeded even himself with his megalomaniac rhetoric after the success of his populist, anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) in two cities in last week's municipal elections in the Netherlands.

"Today Almere and The Hague, tomorrow the whole of the Netherlands," Wilders crowed jubilantly on Wednesday evening. "We're going to take the Netherlands back from the leftist elite that coddles criminals and supports Islamization (and) still believes in multi-culturalism (), a European super-state and high taxes."

But now the peroxide populist is suddenly striking an uncharacteristically moderate tone. After initial hesitation, he announced earlier this week that he has decided to take up his seat in the city council in The Hague, where his party came second in the election with 17 percent of the vote. "I am going to see if I can combine it," said Wilders, who is also a member of the Dutch parliament. "I will give it a go for a while."

Politically Incorrect

Wilders had previously put provocation at the heart of his political business model, and it had made him one of the most successful right-wing populists in Europe. Some observers asked themselves if the rabble-rouser had suddenly turned into a diplomat.

But that seems hardly likely. Just a few days ago, Wilders made an appearance in London where his speech was as strongly worded and politically incorrect as ever. He called Islam a "fascist ideology," and announced once again that he would ban the Koran and hold a referendum on a ban on minarets in the Netherlands, should he come to power.

Wilders is doing everything he can to make sure that happens after the Netherlands' national elections on June 9. That includes lowering himself to take a seat on The Hague's city council, where, as a first-time candidate, he got an impressive 13,000 votes. It's a clear electoral mandate that Wilders can not ignore. "If he had refused a seat on the council, his political opponents would have accused him of deceiving voters," says Dutch political scientist Joop van Holsteyn.

The right-wing populist is unlikely to show excessive enthusiasm for local politics. As well as retaining his seat in the Dutch parliament, Wilders also has to campaign for the June elections, where his party is expected to do well.

Brief Interlude

Wilders' biographer, political scientist Meindert Fennema, has low expectations for Wilders' role on The Hague's city council. "He'll probably try to make sure that the whole thing takes up as little of his time as possible," he says. "He might appear at meetings once a month."

Amsterdam-based political scientist Andre Krouwel believes Wilders' participation in the city council is just a brief interlude. "After the national election, the excursion into local politics will surely be history," he says.

But Wilders could use the position to make headlines and boost his popularity. And he has experience in local government: In the late 1990s, he was a member of Utrecht city council for his former party, the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).

Krouwel believes that Wilders, for strategic reasons, may take a more moderate tone than usual on The Hague's city council, in a bid to broaden his support and attract voters closer to the center of the political spectrum. A recent poll showed that only 8 percent of Dutch voters want him to be prime minister after the June elections, putting him in fifth place behind candidates from the right and left camps.

Sticking to His Core Message

That in itself is a good enough reason for the wily populist to hone his image. "He's certainly not going to become tame," says Krouwel. "He will stick to his core message of immigration being the root of all evil. But he will leave his more extreme demands, such as shooting Muslim criminals in the act, to his party colleagues. After all, such shrill rhetoric does not go across well with most of the electorate."

Almost all pollsters put Wilders' PVV among the top three parties in the June elections, along with the conservative Christian Democrats (CDA) and the Labor Party (PvdA). But even a strong showing in the election does not necessarily mean that Wilders will be part of the next Dutch government. A recent poll puts a left-leaning coalition of the PvdA, the liberal D66, the GreenLeft and the Socialists in the lead.

It is quite conceivable that Wilders, who so far has appealed almost entirely to right-wing voters, will actually steal votes from his potential coalition partners on the right. "It may be absurd," says Krouwel. "But the result of Wilders' rise may turn out to be a left-wing coalition."

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