Surprise Success in Dutch Elections 'Wilders' Voters Are the Disgruntled'

On Wednesday, populist right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders performed well in the few municipal elections his party ran in. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, political columnist Marc Chavannes speaks about why Wilders did well, the reasons his chances of entering into government are slim and how his party would lose its appeal if it were to win.
Geert Wilders celebrate the outcome of the Dutch municipal elections on Wednesday.

Geert Wilders celebrate the outcome of the Dutch municipal elections on Wednesday.

Foto: Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/ dpa

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Geert Wilders wants to see headscarves banned in public buildings, compares the Koran with Hitler's "Mein Kampf" and has called for "urban commandos" to provide "additional safety" on city streets. Now, in Wednesday's local elections in the Netherlands, Wilders' populist right-wing Party of Freedom (PVV) took first place in Almere and second place in The Hague. Why are so many Dutch people voting for him?

Marc Chavannes: Wilders' success hasn't come overnight. In 2001 and 2002, Pim Fortuyn took advantage of people's dissatisfaction with the established political parties. In large part, Wilders' current success has depended on the failure of the ruling parties, which haven't taken a position on problems like crime and immigration. Likewise, established politicians haven't taken seriously the middle class's disapproval of having immigrants be able to get state-supported apartments and social services very easily. Wilders' voters are the disgruntled. According to opinion polls, 40 percent of the people who voted for him would otherwise not have voted at all. Wilders mobilizes the non-voters who feel like they are globalization's losers.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is Wilders so popular in Almere and The Hague, in particular?

Chavannes: The municipal elections were a special case. In his campaign in The Hague and Almere, Wilders played the safety card -- and he especially hit a nerve in Almere. Almere is full of middle-class people who have moved there from Amsterdam, people with normal and not particularly well-paid jobs. As they see it, Amsterdam is too unsafe and has too much crime. But, now, things in Almere have become just like they were in Amsterdam. Once again, they are surrounded by young Moroccan immigrants, who actually are behind a majority of the minor crimes. Politicians have kept completely mum on this problem. Fortuyn was the first to break the silence, and now Wilders is building upon the dissatisfaction of those who say that politicians don't care about their hardships. The Social Democrats have freed themselves of the problem by implicitly advertising themselves as the party of immigrants, the party that will defend their interests. That is why they haven't done as poorly there as Prime Minister Balkenende's Christian Democrats. Balkenende's party hasn't figured out how it will deal with Wilders. Wednesday's election made clear for the first time just how big this problem is.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: "Whatever is possible in The Hague and Almere is also possible throughout the country," Wilders said as the election results were coming in Wednesday night. And he told his supporters that the municipal elections would serve as "a springboard for our victory." Do you think Wilders can repeat his victory on the national stage?

Chavannes: Well, at least that is what he his aiming to do. It was very clever of him to only enter his party in municipal elections in two cities where his party had done well in opinion polls. But it's questionable whether he would also be able to enjoy comparable success on the national level. In more rural areas, for example, anti-Islamic issues find less fertile ground.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Balkenende's coalition partners, the Labour Party, recently quit the government and forced the coalition to collapse because Balkenende tried to extend the Dutch mission in Afghanistan. New elections will be held in June. Balkenende's Christian Democrats have not ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders' populist right-wing party. What would it mean for the Netherlands if Wilders' party was part of the ruling coalition?

Chavannes: The most recent polls show that a coalition made up of the Christian Democrats, the liberal VVD party and Wilders' party would still not attain a majority. Likewise, Balkenende's recent statements have been very vague about whether he would entertain the possibility of entering into a coalition with Wilders. He doesn't say it is impossible, but he does say it is highly unlikely. One problematic aspect of Dutch politics is that there are so many parties, that it is impossible for any of them to fulfill their pledges, even when they are part of a majority government. When there are multi-party coalitions, you always have to make major compromises, and your party platforms gets totally diluted. That's one of the major reasons why so many voters are unhappy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But what if Wilders still pulls it off?

Chavannes: If -- contrary to the current polls -- Wilders actually succeeds in entering into the government, it would mean the end of his success. He brings hardly anyone with political experience with him, and he has never been part of a government himself. Wilders' movement would lose most of its appeal -- just as Fortuyn's party did in 2002. What would be ideal for Wilders would be if the future government depended on his party's support, without his having to be part of the ruling coalition himself. In that case, he would have maximum influence but minimal risk.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Wouldn't a coalition between the conservatives and the PVV be unstable from the outset? For example, Wilders continues to demand that Dutch troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan. That's the exact same issue that brought down the last government.

Chavannes: Indeed, there are three issues that would make any coalition between the Christian Democrats and Wilders' PVV very difficult: the headscarf issue, the stance toward the Afghanistan deployment and pension reform. After much serious wrangling, the Christian Democrats, with the support of the Social Democrats, have just succeeded in lifting the retirement age from 65 to 67, something which Wilders' party vehemently opposed. On this issue, his party's position is actually closer to that of the Socialists.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you sometimes worry that the Netherlands might lose its reputation for being a liberal country?

Chavannes: Well, with Wilders, the Netherlands is certainly not showing its best face. Still, the other political parties need to finally take seriously the things he criticizes. In the wake of Fortuyn's assassination, the centrist parties said they had learned their lessons from it. But Wilders shows that that's not true. Dutch politicians continue to promise too much and deliver too little.

Interview conducted by Anna Reimann
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