Can the populist far-right win the elections in the Netherlands?

Afke Groen |

Second post on our series on the Dutch general elections.

On Wednesday 15 March, Dutch voters will head to the polls to elect a new parliament and prime minister. And for once, the rest of Europe is very interested, as the question looms whether the leader of the far-right populist Party for Freedom (PVV) Geert Wilders may become head of government after these elections.

Good colleagues in the EP.

In good company in the European Parliament.

Although the Freedom Party’s election programme only consists of one single page with eleven bullet points, it does not fail to shock many. Geert Wilders promises a Dutch exit from the EU, the closure of all mosques, a ban on the Koran, and closed borders for refugees and immigrants from Islamic countries. Just a few months ago, Wilders was convicted by a Dutch court for group defamation and incitement of discrimination after he had stirred up an audience to chant ‘fewer, fewer, fewer Moroccans’. Yet Wilders has headed the election polls for well over a year and is now in a neck-and-neck race with the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte from the Liberal Conservative Party (VVD).

Wilders’ popularity is not new, but has seen some high peaks recently. Indeed, the court conviction seems to have been ‘grist to Wilders’ mill’. It has fuelled the image that he is the only politician with the courage to say what is going ‘wrong’ in the Netherlands. Another important rise in popular support occurred in fall 2015, when the refugee crisis led to heated debates about immigrants taking advantage of the Dutch state and protests about the location of asylum centres. Wilders spoke in parliament about a ‘tsunami’ of asylum seekers, and said that the IS was smuggling thousands of terrorists into Europe.

Broadly speaking, it seems that a large group of Dutch voters feel that their quality of life is threatened by pressure from outside. Such pressures include the presence of Muslims, who are seen as a menace to the culture of gender equality, tolerance and freedom, perceived as ‘typically Dutch’. Moreover, the budget cuts over the course of the economic crisis are seen to have disproportionally hit the ‘hard-working’ Dutch citizen and the pensioners, and thereby threatened their social security. And finally, many do not only see the European Union and ‘Brussels’ as a threat to national culture and sovereignty, but share a widespread perception that the Dutch have paid billions of euros to Eastern and Southern member states in the wake of enlargement and the economic crisis. In this context, Wilders puts the blame on elitist politicians and promises to give ‘our money’ and the Netherlands back to ‘us’.

So the question is: can Wilders ‘win’?

In good company at the German carnival.

In good company at the German carnival.

Current polls indicate his chances to become the largest party are good. But there are bumps in his road ahead. First, Wilders is a supporter of the presidency of Donald Trump (politico even claims he has ‘invented Trumpism’), but Dutch media have been overwhelmingly negative about Trump’s personality, behaviour and policies ever since he took office. Second, Wilders has caused some fuss in the run-up to the first election debates. He tweeted a fake picture in which the leader of the Liberal Democrats (D66) appeared to stand in a group of protesters demanding ‘sharia for the Netherlands’. He also cancelled two out of four initially scheduled debates, after a television channel adjusted the number of parties invited to participate in the debate and published an interview in which Wilders’ own (estranged) brother severely critiques his ideas. Both Wilders’ support for Trump and his absence from most major debates may diminish potential voters’ sympathy for him personally, which may lead to a shift away from his Party for Freedom, as previous occasions have shown.

But even if the Party for Freedom were to become the biggest group in the Parliament, Wilders’ chances of becoming Prime minister seem very slim. In the Netherlands, the 150 members of the House of Representatives are elected from party lists through proportional representation. The threshold for a party to enter the House is one seat – 0.67% of the votes – so that the percentage of votes roughly determines the percentage of seats won by a party. Moreover, political preferences of Dutch voters have become highly fragmented (as elsewhere in Europe). Altogether, it is likely that almost 15 parties will enter parliament after the elections, and that even even the biggest party in parliament will only assume around 30 seats. In this scenario, Wilders would need to find at least three partners to form a coalition government with a stable majority, but potential coalition partners have already announced that they are unwilling to cooperate with Wilders. This seems to leave him in an isolated position.

The election debates will really take off in the final three weeks before the election. It remains to be seen what the decisive issues will be – likely contenders are the costs and quality of health care and care for the elderly, pensions, defence, European integration (or disintegration), or immigration and asylum. Whether the bumps in Wilders’ road will turn out to be roadblocks remains to be seen.