How did a politician like Geert Wilders gain so much influence in a liberal country like the Netherlands and how much power will he really have after the 15 March election?
On the afternoon of 6 May 2002, nine days before national elections, Dutch society was uprooted by the first political assassination in decades, if not centuries. The nation held its breath. The victim was Pim Fortuyn, a leader in the polls and an outspoken critic of the multi-cultural policies of the social-liberal government that had been in power since 1994. With declarations ‘No more Muslim immigrants!’ Fortuyn became the centre of a heated campaign and received many threats.
In view of Fortuyn’s statements on Islam, just eight months after 9/11, many were surprised to learn the man who killed Fortuyn was not a Muslim, but a radical Dutch environmental activist, who opposed Fortuyn’s plans to legalise fur farming, a minor footnote in Fortuyn’s electoral programme. The rise and demise of Pim Fortuyn, and his subsequent legacy, would mark a watershed in the history of Dutch politics.
Another ‘radical realist’
In the foreign press, Geert Wilders, even more than Fortuyn before him, has often been labelled as a populist and an extreme right-wing politician. Wilders prefers to call himself ‘a radical realist’ or ‘new realist’. But what does his ‘New Realism’ stand for?
Until the elections of 2002, Dutch politics, as well as Dutch society, had been neatly divided up into different pillars: Liberal, Socialist, and Christian Democratic. Such labels, along with the traditional ideological markers of ‘left’ and ‘right’, have since lost much of their meaning as carriers of political affiliations.
Better than realists, Fortuyn and Wilders can be described as ‘eclectic’, i.e. combining different and seemingly contradictory elements from traditionally irreconcilable ideologies. Fortuyn, a former communist sympathiser and open homosexual, who had declared that Islamic culture was inferior to Western secular culture, publicly admitted having sexual feelings for young Moroccan boys.
While criticising the social-liberal policy of deregulation, he simultaneously favoured free market mechanisms in the private sector; he defended the welfare state and in the same breath attacked its ‘bureaucratisation’. Campaigning for elections, he was hailed as the hero of ‘the common man’, while being driven around by a chauffeur in his Jaguar, dressed in tailor-made Italian suits, invariably accompanied by his lapdog.
On 11 February 2002, two days after his controversial statements on immigration and the Islam, and three months before the general elections, Fortuyn was forced to step down as the leader of a confederation of local parties and founded his own party, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF).
Wilders was one of the many to contest Fortuyn’s legacy. On 3 September 2004, Wilders, previously an MP for the liberal VVD party, founded his own party, first known as Groep Wilders, then renamed the Party for Freedom (PVV) in 2006. The split came after he clashed with the VVD’s official line on Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. Wilders also criticised his party for being too soft on socio-economic reforms: he advocated pruning the welfare state back to a bare minimum.
Competing with other pretenders to Fortuyn’s legacy — the beheaded LPF still won 17% of the votes —, Wilders’ one-member party nevertheless began with a single goal: opposing immigration. In a bid to stop Muslim immigrants and refugees settling in the Netherlands, he advocated a ‘one-nationality’ policy. Citizens – and their descendants – of countries that do not allow the renunciation of citizenship, such as Morocco and Turkey, would thus be ineligible for Dutch nationality. What is more, Wilders wanted convicted Muslim criminals to be sent back to the country of their ‘origin’, even if they had been born in the Netherlands.
Electoral success gradually followed. At the 2006 general election, Wilders gained nine seats in the 150-seat parliament. In 2010, he took almost 10% of the popular vote, obtaining 24 seats.
Blaming the other: first Muslims, then the EU
By that time, Wilders’ PVV had added other ‘populist’ strings to its bow. In contrast to Fortuyn, who was pro-EU, Wilders aptly delved into the Euroscepticism that had been growing since the Great Recession of 2007-8. With his socio-economic programme, on the other hand, Wilders retreated from his neo-liberal agenda of 2004, positioning himself instead as the saviour of the unique Dutch welfare state. Accordingly, he now wants to reduce the age for retirement from 67 to 65 and revert the student loans back to free scholarships.
Wilders’ programme for the 2017 general elections shows further radicalisation. He no longer wants to fight the excesses of radical Islam, he wants to completely de-Islimase Dutch society. Wilders portrays himself as the last stronghold against, what he calls, ‘the Muslim tsunami’.
Wilders wants to ban the Quran, which he compares to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and close all mosques.
To begin with, he wants to ban the Quran, which he compares to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and close all mosques. This would require constitutional reform: Article 1 of the constitution, forbidding discrimination on the basis of colour, race or religion, must be substituted for one underlining the Jewish-Christian and humanist values of Dutch and European society. Not the law but cultural assimilation would be the criterion for good citizenship. Muslims who refuse to integrate fully into Dutch society must leave.
Conversely, Wilder cherishes the achievements of the secular Enlightenment – the emancipation of women, abortion, gay marriage and euthanasia –, which he heralds as the achievements of Western civilisation. This distinguishes him from many of the other extreme right politicians with which he and the PVV are often associated. Political parties like the French Front National, the Austrian FPÖ, the Italian Lega Nord and even the Flemish Vlaams Belang are much more conservative on social issues.
The PVV formed a political group with these parties in the European Parliament in June 2015, called Europe of Nations and Freedom and united mostly around their anti-EU stances. Since 2008, Wilders has become a prominent critic of the euro, advocating a return to the Dutch Florin and a much smaller and more democratic European Union, consisting mainly of Germany, the Benelux countries and some Scandinavian countries. In that case, he would allow for a ‘neuro’ (a northern European euro).
Ideally, however, he seeks a position for the Netherlands comparable Norway or Switzerland: an independent sovereign nation outside of Schengen, which takes back control of its borders, while benefiting from a unified and free European economic market — a somewhat odd goal, as both countries allow free movement in return for economic access to the common market.
A Nexit after Brexit?
Even ten years ago, the mere suggestion of the Netherlands leaving the EU would have been preposterous. That is no longer the case. For all kinds of reasons, Euroscepticism is gaining strength in a country that was one of the bloc’s founders and that historically has gained tremendously from its membership.
Wilders is certainly in favour of a referendum on whether the Netherlands should leave the EU. He is, in general, an advocate of more direct democracy by introducing corrective referenda. But what are the odds that Wilders could pull this off? Can he win the elections?
The Netherlands’ electoral system allows for great volatility.
One must bear in mind that the Netherlands’ proportional electoral system allows for great volatility. Large fluctuations were for a long time held in check by voters’ fidelity to a certain ideology or confessional pillar. This all changed with the growing secularisation and individualisation of society.
Furthermore, unlike Germany, for instance, the Netherlands has no electoral threshold to stop small, extreme parties entering parliament (in Germany it is 5% of the total votes). This makes the system more democratic, but also extremely unstable in times when people change their political orientation or preference, or when votes are scattered over many small parties. And this is what is likely to happen with the upcoming election on 15 March.
The question is, then, not so much whether Wilders will win the March election, but if he can make into government. At first sight, several factors play to his disadvantage. At the height of his power, after the elections of 2010, the liberal party (VVD) and the Christian democrats, after an agonising party conference, decided to lift the ban on collaborating with Wilders and asked him to support their two-party coalition in parliament.
An unreliable partner
But this cooperation didn’t last long. The government Wilders was condoning was intent on making considerable budget cuts, forcing him to make some painful decisions. No wonder, then, that the cabinet fell to pieces after 18 months in power. Wilders showed himself an unreliable partner. After this experience, neither Wilders himself nor the other parties will be very keen for a repeat performance.
Secondly, for its political campaign Wilders’ party depends heavily on free publicity, which it gets largely through social media. In December 2016, he was convicted for inciting supporters of his party to shout “Fewer Moroccans” at a party meeting. In reaction to this, other parties have reinstated the ban on collaborating with the PVV.
The last party to do so was Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal party, possibly for strategic reasons. During the current campaign, they claim to be the only viable right wing alternative to Wilders’ party. This strategy might also boomerang back, however, if people who had doubts about voting for either the VVD (Rutte) or the PVV (Wilders) will decide they’ll have to vote Wilders to make a real change.
In the last week, Wilders has lost a few percentage points in the polls, but this seemed to be due to a false photo Wilders tweeted of one his fiercest rivals, the liberal democratic leader Alexander Pechtold, participating in a pro-sharia demonstration. Clearly the image had been doctored. For his own safety, among other reasons, Wilders is also hesitant to appear in public debates and it seems that the Dutch do not appreciate that either.
Even though the election is just two weeks away, any prediction of the outcome is still a long shot. Not only are the polls sometimes simply incomplete, ignoring important sections of today’s fragmented society, but people might also be hesitant to own up to politically incorrect opinions in public. Whatever the reason, more than 50% (some say even 70%) of the Dutch population is still uncertain about their choice. In pre-Fortuyn times this would have been unthinkable.
Let’s look at what is most likely to happen. After the elections, it will be difficult, all but impossible, to form a coalition government of less than four five parties. The Netherlands has a long tradition of coalition governments, but with all mainstream parties in government, Wilders would be left as the de facto leader of the opposition. Will the other parties be willing to take that chance?
On the other hand, Rutte has shown himself to be an utter opportunist on earlier occasions. Neither should it be forgotten that Wilders originally belonged to his party and therefore still has many points in common. After the elections, confronted with a fragmented political spectrum, Rutte can defend the need to collaborate with the PVV and ignore the ban appealing to ‘force majeure’.
Rutte is famous, not to say notorious, for his ability to strike deals. Yet, after the setbacks in his own country of the referenda on Maastricht (2005) and Ukraine (2016), and after the Brexit precedent, he will not be keen to negotiate a referendum on the EU with Wilders. However, a 2014 law only requires the support of 300,000 eligible Dutch citizens to organise a legal referendum. And Wilders’ Euroscepticism will certainly resonate with some of the smaller parties in the new elected parliament.
A year of folly?
There will still be an EU after the Dutch election, at least until the first round of the French presidential election is held on 23 April. Europe itself will surely survive, but will the EU make it to the elections in 2019? Will the bloc turn the tide of history and go back to how it all started: a ‘Coal and Steel Community’?
According to Chinese astrology, 2017 is the year of the red rooster: the symbol for ‘folly’. Be that as it may, even though all eyes will rightly be turned on the Netherlands on 15 March, it is my strong conviction that, in the end, the near future of the Europe will depend more on the prowess of the Gallic ‘coq’ and the strength – or lack thereof – of the German bear, than on the volatility of the Dutch sparrow.