Just over a month before the Netherlands heads to elections on March 15, conventional wisdom in political circles has it that the man expected to win — right-wing rabble-rouser Geert Wilders — will be unable to form a governing coalition.
But while he may not become prime minister, to dismiss him would be a mistake. No political leader has had a larger impact on Dutch politics over the past decade than Wilders, a harsh critic of Islam, immigration and the European Union.
In the decade since his Freedom Party (PVV) won its first parliamentary seats in 2006, Wilders has reshaped the politics of a country with a long tradition of tolerance and liberalism. Policy debates, political language, media attitudes, party landscape — all have been affected by Wilders’ politics.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of the election, expect the controversial “Dutch Trump” to keep playing an outsized role.
Between a rock and hard place
Last month, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a fiscal conservative, set the stage for the final campaign months. He pointed out that there is no chance — “I mean, zero” — that his party will govern alongside Wilders after the election.
This all but certainly isolates the far-right leader from power. In a fragmented party landscape, Wilders currently has the support of about 20 percent of the vote in the polls. Rutte — who is, on policy terms, Wilders’ closest available partner — comes in second with 16 percent.
But then Rutte has also made another big campaign move. He published an open letter that partly echoed the anti-immigrant sentiment Wilders has been cashing in on. Rutte advised immigrants who refuse to accept Dutch cultural standards to leave the country: “Act normal or leave,” he wrote.
Observers from outside the country were stunned. Rutte’s strategy “could have come from President Trump’s playbook,” wrote the New York Times.
In Dutch political circles, however, none of this came as a surprise. Over the past four years, Rutte has done fairly well in second-tier elections largely thanks to similar remarks. During a campaign for regional elections two years ago, he said he preferred Dutch nationals fighting alongside the Islamic Sate in Syria to die on the battlefield instead of returning home.
Rutte’s party has also struggled to respond to Wilders’ crude remarks on people of Moroccan descent. In 2014, the populist leader said he would “take care” of reducing the number of Moroccans allowed in the country. Late last year, he was convicted, but not punished, by a Dutch court for inciting discrimination.
Rutte has pointed to Wilders’ remarks as an important reason for his unwillingness to govern with the far-right politician. But Rutte’s party — like most in the country — has shied away from attacking Wilders on the topic during the campaign. After all, Wilders’ conviction only boosted his support in the polls.
Wilders has boxed in his opponents: The harsher they criticize him, the better his chances of winning the election.
Co-opting the left
And so instead, politicians from all stripes have started copying his language. The new leader of the struggling Labor party, Lodewijk Asscher, has made “progressive patriotism” his campaign slogan. The leader of the Green Party, Jesse Klaver, who could become the new face of the Dutch left, attacked “the elites” in the early stages of the campaign.
The left has suffered the most from Wilders’ rise. As a former MP for Rutte’s party, Wilders has long held right-wing economic views. After his criticism of Islam and immigration turned out to do very well with less educated voters — traditional supporters of the left — he suddenly opposed attempts to slash funding for health care and other welfare state programs, confessing behind closed doors that these policies made no sense to him.
The effects were huge. Together, progressive parties traditionally held close to 50 percent of the vote. They are now down to 30-35 percent in most polls, largely because voters have flocked to Wilders.
In the meantime, Wilders also managed to change the media’s attitude towards him. Skepticism toward him has largely disappeared over the years. Reporters are now eager to land his quotes. Wilders’ controversial statements tend do be a boon for ratings and clicks — and he knows that.
So he simply ignores tough questions and hardly ever sits down for one-on-one TV interviews. Instead, he holds back — and his tactic has worked remarkably well. Because he hardly ever responds to requests from individual political reporters, when he grants one newspaper a long interview, his remarks tend to get picked up by every outlet.
Like Trump in the U.S., Wilders regularly bashes “the media” on Twitter. And with his more than 700,000 followers, he easily beats the circulation of most newspapers.
Scandal erupts again and again in his party. Over the years, his MPs have gotten in all kinds of trouble — for thing like urinating in a neighbor’s mailbox or running a porn company. Last year, Wilders’ spokesman was caught stealing close to €200,000 of party money to pay for his cocaine and alcohol addictions.
As a consequence, the party has become an extremely secretive affair. There is no democracy there: His party does not allow citizens, or even PVV politicians, to become party members. The only exception to this rule is Wilders himself, meaning that he never faces opposition within his party. Investigative reports on the inner workings of the party show a distrustful party leader with little respect for his MPs, whom he often refers to as incompetent or crazy.
The contrast with his public performances is striking. The electorate perceives him as a strong and confident leader. But in his party he is known as being too suspicious to build longstanding relations, even with his closest allies.
But the bottom line is that none of the scandals or inside reports have harmed his poll numbers or his reputation among supporters. So most political reporters have accepted that reality — and cover him by mainly running his quotes and tweets.
And Wilders gained a huge psychological victory when the editors of the country’s major news outlets invited him to a closed door session last September. Though some were rather critical of his media tactics, the overall message was quite clear: We’re eager to talk to you, despite the fact that you’ve refused to answer our questions for so many years.
The Wilders way
Not only did Wilders manage to shrink the left, he catalyzed its fragmentation.
A new pro-immigrant party emerged two years ago, after the left had internalized parts of Wilders’ criticism of Dutch immigration and integration policies. The governing Labor party had vowed to get tougher on immigrants who, in their eyes, failed to fully integrate in Dutch society. When two Labor MPs — both Muslim and of Turkish descent — disagreed, they were kicked out of the party.
They founded Denk (“equal” or “balanced” in Turkish —and “think” in Dutch), a party that mirrors Wilders’ confrontational style. Where Wilders criticizes Muslims and immigrants for not acknowledging the supposed superiority of Western culture, Denk criticizes him for not acknowledging their contributions to Dutch society. Denk soon became a huge success in immigrant circles, where frustration with Wilders’ abrasive politics has been simmering for years.
Denk attracted a TV personality with Latin American roots, Sylvana Simons, who soon became a leading figure in a toxic debate over Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), traditionally celebrated as Santa Claus’ servant on Saint Nicholas, a tradition widely perceived as racist. The debate pitted “traditionalist” Dutchmen against immigrants in a polarizing atmosphere, out of which both Denk and Wilders benefited politically.
Pollsters had predicted huge success for Denk. Then, in late December that year, news broke that Simons had left Denk and started a party of her own. A typical Dutch outcome — in a country where close to 30 parties will compete in elections — that shrinks the chances of both Denk and Simons’ new party.
The incident showed that the Netherlands’ immigrant population — and their supporters — are clearly susceptible to a party that mirrors the style and tactics of Wilders, setting the stage for further polarization and fragmentation in the future. And it confirmed what Dutch political analysts have seen happen for over a decade now: At the end of the day, things go Wilders’ way.
Tom-Jan Meeus is a political columnist for NRC Handelsblad. He was awarded best political writer of the Netherlands in 2015.