Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), speaks at an election night party in The Hague, Netherlands. Photo: Peter Boer/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Dutch far-right MP Geert Wilders was always expected to do well at last week’s national elections. But no-one foresaw the staggering win for his stridently anti-immigration, anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV), whose extremist politics have traditionally seen it kept from the levers of power in the Netherlands.“Can you imagine it? 37 seats!” Wilders said in near disbelief in the wake of his party’s huge presence in the 150-seat parliament, after finishing in first place with 23.6 percent of the national vote, and securing 12 seats more than its closest rival.
The shock outcome has turned Dutch politics on its head, raising fears it has cemented the mainstreaming of Wilders’ far-right politics in the Netherlands, and that it could augur a wider lurch to the far-right in other European countries. It’s left the country pondering what the future could look like if the bleach-haired, 60-year-old populist, whose manifesto calls for a ban on Islamic schools, Qur’ans, mosques and Islamic headscarves, actually becomes prime minister - a matter that will be resolved through complicated coalition negotiations with other parties.READ: A far-right anti-Islam firebrand won the Dutch electionsIn the meantime though, one question political scientists have been focusing on is: how did this happen?“It was not a surprise his PVV would be one of the largest parties, but this huge win - it took everyone by surprise, ” Stijn van Kessel, associate professor of European politics at Queen Mary University of London told VICE News. “It’s largely due to a normalisation of far right politics. You could say that the type of politics that Wilders stands for is not automatically considered beyond the pale any more.”
Van Kessel said Wilders’ growth in popularity had been driven by the same mix of anxieties over immigration and its impacts that has seen support for the far right find fertile ground across Europe. In Italy, the government is led by Giorgia Meloni, of the right-wing populist Brothers of Italy. In Sweden, the government is supported by the far-right Sweden Democrats, and in France, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen finished second in last year's presidential elections.“Clearly societies are getting very polarised,” said van Kessel.But what really helped to shift the needle for Wilders’ party in the Dutch election, political scientists believe, was the behaviour of the mainstream parties. In particular, the failure of the centre-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) to ward off the threat posed by the far-right, by co-opting and giving credence to Wilders’ views on immigration.Immigration was a central issue on the campaign trail, as it had played a key role in the collapse of the VVD-led coalition government in July, amid a failure to agree on how to limit the number of asylum seekers. The VVD promised a harder line on immigration during the campaign, pledging in its manifesto to “regain control.” But political scientists say this merely legitimised the PVV’s anti-immigration agenda. Rachid Azrout, an assistant professor of political communication at the University of Amsterdam told VICE News that while the centre-right VVD party hoped they could take ownership of the issue and thus profit from immigration being a main topic in the campaign, “the actual issue-owner of immigration is” Wilders’ party.
The centre-right party’s second mistake, say political scientists, was to signal during the campaign that they would potentially be open to working with Wilder’s party, which mainstream parties have typically shunned working with in the past. This had the unintended consequence of further bolstering the PVV’s credentials as a legitimate political prospect and a party with the potential to enter government, encouraging many potential supporters to cast their vote for the party.“This meant … that a vote for the PVV was not a ‘wasted’ vote anymore, as the party could actually get into power,” said Azrout. “The PVV was [for a] long time not a sensible alternative, as the PVV could not deliver. That has changed [in] this campaign.”In response, Wilders moderated his more extreme rhetoric in a bid to present himself as someone capable of governing, saying he had more pressing priorities than his trademark hardline anti-Islam positions, and that he was prepared to put policies such as a potential ban on mosques “in the fridge” for the time being. “Wilders moderated his rhetoric without really changing his key positions,” said van Kessel, pointing out that while the PVV leader had stopped publicly campaigning on some of his more extreme policies, there was no suggestion that he had abandoned those beliefs.Azrout said he did not believe that the strong support for the PVV indicated that the Dutch voting public had become significantly more anti-immigrant, and that they all shared Wilders’ extreme positions on Islam.
“There has for a long time been a substantial group of voters that feel concerned about immigration and issues related to immigration,” he said.“These people … feel that the traditional parties have not delivered on that issue, and are now allowing the PVV to give it a try.” Whether Wilders gets the opportunity to implement his policies now hangs on the outcome of complex negotiations to form a coalition. Van Kessel said the right-wing parties viewed as potential coalition partners with PVV - the VVD and the recently-formed New Social Contract - are divided internally over whether to cooperate with the far-right party, although there appeared to be a clear appetite among their voters for them to attempt to form a coalition.“There is still this stigma, which is understandable because this is a really far-right party, with quite extreme ideas,” said van Kessel.Coalition talks could drag on for months - the previous government took a record 271 days to agree on a deal. But what is clear in the meantime - and a potential lesson to other countries - is that the centre-right’s tactics in attempting to blunt the threat of the PVV had backfired spectacularly.“With the knowledge of hindsight, we can say the VVD’s strategy has completely failed,” said van Kessel. “Trying to copy the far right is a risky strategy, as it primarily legitimises their agenda and helps them grow further.”