The Dutch Donald Geert Wilders Rides Populism Wave
With Dutch parliamentary elections approaching in mid-March, right-wing populist Geert Wilders is hopeful he can emerge on top. Already, he has managed to push other parties further to the right.
The photo on his Twitter timeline is apparently right up Geert Wilders' alley. It shows him in a dark suit, his hair vainly swept back in his trademark coif, and surrounded by stern-looking bodyguards. "Geert Wilders gave up his freedom to fight for ours. The definition of a hero," it says beneath the picture. An Islamophobic blog posted it on the web and Wilders shared it further.
That, after all, is how the founder and head of the right-wing Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) sees himself: as someone who endures suffering for a good cause. For the last 12 years, the radical opponent of Islam has lived in secrecy, cut off from the real world and guarded around the clock out of fear of being attacked by radical Islamists. And now, in just over a week, his cocktail of heroism and victimhood will be put to the test when voters in the Netherlands cast their ballots in parliamentary elections.
From Wilders' perspective, the timing of an investigation into a policeman of Moroccan heritage could hardly be better. The officer, who was part of the right-wing politician's security team for a time, is under suspicion of having sold sensitive information to a criminal gang. Nothing has thus far been proven and the Dutch chief of police has said that Wilders was never at risk as a result of the information.
But the right-wing populist canceled campaign appearances in response, though he never had very many planned in the first place. For Wilders, who is fond of portraying himself as the voice of the people, it isn't necessary to make frequent public appearances. His most powerful campaign tool is Twitter, where he has 782,000 followers.
The strategy has proven successful. Until a new survey late last week, Wilders had spent months leading public opinion polls. It is a significant personal success, since Wilders is the only member of his party, allowing him to choose his parliamentarians as he sees fit without onerous democratic procedures. The Dutch law has nothing against the practice.
A Political Earthquake
Currently, Wilders is in a neck-and-neck race with Prime Minister Mark Rutte for first place. Should the anti-EU, anti-Islam, xenophobic populist emerge as the strongest political power, it would be nothing short of a political earthquake -- the third after Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
Moreover, the Netherlands is one of the European Union's founding countries, a nation widely considered to be cosmopolitan, tolerant and prosperous. Holland is an important hub of European trade, exporting more products than the United Kingdom -- and its wealth is more evenly distributed among its 17 million citizens than in most other European countries. The economy has grown by more than 2 percent annually for the last couple of years and unemployment has been steadily shrinking of late. The center-right government under Rutte's leadership has even been able to pay down the country's national debt.
There is, in fact, only one conclusion that can be drawn: The Dutch are doing well, or at least better than most others on the Continent.
And yet, hundreds of thousands of voters in the Netherlands still intend to cast their ballot for Wilders, the extremist who would like to amend the country's constitution, ban the Koran, close down mosques, shut the borders and lead the country out of the European Union. He is a provocateur who promises to throw out refugees and Moroccans, a master of Twitter whose unhinged use of the platform is reminiscent of Trump.
It is a comparison he has fostered, even adapting the U.S. president's slogan to "Make the Netherlands Great Again!" CNN has taken to calling him the "Dutch Donald Trump." Like Trump, his campaign is focused exclusively on himself, and he has found great success doing so, having shifted the entire Dutch political system to the right -- even if he isn't able to defeat Rutte's party in the end. "Some traditional parties have adopted a more nationalist path to attract voters," says Tom van der Meer, a political science professor at the University of Amsterdam. Leading the charge to the right has been the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the prime minister's party.
Fishing in the PVV Pond
In late January, Rutte took out a full-page newspaper advertisement to publish an open letter to Dutch voters. "We are experiencing increasing discomfort with people who take advantage of our freedoms to stir things up," Rutte wrote. He added that he "understands all too well when people think: If you are so fundamentally hostile to our country, then I'd rather see you leave. It's a feeling I have too. Behave normally or leave."
It sounded a lot like Wilders himself.
"Rutte and his VVD are fishing in the PVV pond," says van der Meer. And they aren't the only ones in the country's fragmented party landscape that are doing so. The conservative Christian Democrats, who have occupied the prime minister's office for 25 of the last 40 years, have demanded that residency permits be withdrawn from migrants unwilling to integrate "in extreme cases." The pensioners' party 50Plus has called for increased border controls and "strict" policies regarding foreigners. The party is currently the only larger one that hasn't categorically ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders should the PVV emerge victorious.
But the shifting messages have thus far done little to help the more established parties gain support. Many voters would rather listen to the more radical original.
It's a recent cold and wet Saturday in February and the odor of fry oil is wafting above the market square in Spijkenisse, a town near Rotterdam. A black 7-Series BMW is parked on the square and Wilders, surrounded by bodyguards, television cameras, fans and opponents, is standing a few meters away. Some are cheering while others prefer to boo. "Wilders for president!" somebody calls out and the politician shoves his way forward to shake the man's hand. That, after all, is what he is there for -- to talk to the people.
'Think About Us!'
A small, elderly lady fights her way through the crowd to Wilders, shakes his hand and takes out her mobile phone. Wilders bends down in front of her for the photo before striding off, followed by his handlers. The woman is pushed to the back and falls to the ground, injuring her leg. Tears well up in her eyes.
But it was worth it she says.
Ieg van Haperen, a 66-year-old pensioner, only recently became a Wilders supporter. Back when she was still working for the post office, she always voted for the Social Democrats like most of her coworkers. But now she refers to the party as "liars." The government, van Haperen complains, raised the retirement age and her pension is no longer increasing. "Each month, I have to pay 151 euros for health insurance, but the Muslims get everything for free." And, she continues: "We will never see all the money for Greece again. Think about us, politicians!"
Later, her partner, who retired early, admitted that the two of them aren't doing poorly financially. Together, they have a net 2100 euros per month at their disposal and they don't have to pay rent, just a small mortgage payment. "But everything is getting more and more expensive," says Ieg van Haperen. Cigarette prices, in particular, have climbed, she complains.
"Many Wilders supporters see themselves as victims of a Dutch society split into three parts," says the sociologist Koen Damhuis, who spent months visiting with supporters of the right-wing populist for his new book "Paths to Wilders." "At the top is the political elite, who help the lower classes: immigrants and people in developing countries. But they themselves, the normal Dutch, are in the middle and they have to pay for it all. They feel taken advantage of by both groups." That is what Wilders has told them.
At the beginning of his political career, Wilders, 53, was a member of Rutte's party, a liberal in the European sense, one who railed against the nanny state. In the early years of the PVV, he wanted to cut both the minimum wage and social welfare payments. Today, though, he has changed his tune: earlier retirement, lower health insurance payments and more money for old-age care.
A Strain on Their Wallets
"There are three main groups of Wilders voters," says Damhuis. The smallest of these consists of upper-class citizens who are concerned about the growing influence of Islam and who believe the EU threatens national sovereignty. The two other, much larger groups, are primarily concerned about themselves.
One of those groups sees migrants as a threat because they think they receive preferential treatment in the fight for jobs, social welfare and apartments. "They think they receive too little," Damhuis says.
The other group, primarily made up of middle-class voters, sees refugees, euro bailout packages and development aid as a strain on their wallets. "These people believe they are paying too much," says Damhuis.
"We work hard for our money," says Teunis den Hertog, "but the state takes it away from us to give it to asylum-seekers, adventurers and Muslims."
The 34-year-old small businessman takes a deep drag on his cigarillo as he steers his car through Montfoort. "Refugees live somewhere back there," he says pointing to a side street. "Muslims want to take over our society. It's a good thing that we don't yet have a mosque here in Montfoort."
The town, with a population of 13,700, is like a Dutch cliché: brick buildings, neatly trimmed hedges, canals and an old windmill in the town center. Montfoort lies an hour by car from Amsterdam, but it is a completely different world. Only 4 percent of the people here are "non-Western allochtoons," as those with at least one parent from Africa, Asia, Latin America or Turkey were referred to by government agencies until recently.
Den Hertog bought a nice home for himself and his family on the outskirts of town and he earns 120,000 euros per year as a self-employed electrician and heating technician. But he complains that the state is making his life difficult with bureaucratic regulations and high taxes. "They are twisting my neck," he says.
Polarizing the Electorate
Den Hertog has his idol Wilders with him wherever he goes, as the screensaver on his mobile phone. "This man is a true fighter for his people," den Hertog says and looks at his display. "If he were to go into a supermarket, the Muslims would murder him." On Facebook, den Hertog calls Wilders "our leader" and he claims that everything will be better after the election. "When Wilders takes over the government, there will be a revolution against the elite. Dutch first. Then all refugees will have to go, the borders will be fortified, we'll lock up the jihadists and change our constitution."
But even if Wilders' PVV does in fact emerge as the strongest party in parliament in The Hague, it isn't likely to win more than a fifth of the seats. Dutch election law is rooted in the concept of broad consensus and there is no 5-percent hurdle for parties to enter parliament. As such, between 10 and 15 parties will win seats and almost all of them have ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders. Recently, Prime Minister Rutte tweeted "It. Will. Not. Happen."
More likely is a multi-party, centrist coalition. Or a minority government opposed to Wilders' PVV. Either variety would be fine with the right wing. "In a broad coalition, individual parties are unable to draw attention to themselves due to the need for compromise," says political scientist van der Meer. "That would allow Wilders to say for the next four years: me against the elite -- and to position himself as the only opposition party." In other words, he would be able to polarize the electorate even further.
Wilders provides a preview of that strategy during his campaign stop in Spijkenisse. "Do you want to spend our money on foreign countries? Do you want everything to become unaffordable? Then vote for another party," he says into the cameras. "Do you want the Netherlands to belong to you again? Do you want the government to spend our money on you? Then you only have one choice." After a few more selfies with supporters, he turns back to his BMW.
In total, Wilders didn't even walk 300 meters in Spijkenisse and was in the town for less than an hour. But once again, the entire country was talking about him. That evening, Wilders sent out a photo to his Twitter followers. It showed him surrounded by microphones and cameras. As the focus of the campaign. He has at least managed to get that far.