With his uncompromising language about immigration and Islam, Geert Wilders has been stirring up Dutch politics for several years now. But since the election campaign in the Netherlands formally began Wednesday, polls have shown that his popularity is on shaky ground. His far-right Freedom party (PVV) still holds an advantage over the ruling Conservative (VDD) party, but one that is narrowing.
Wendy Jansma, a 29 year-old healthcare student, was considering voting for Wilders. She likes that he has “the guts” to talk about problems, and is willing to put Dutch people ahead of newcomers. But the behaviour of newly elected U.S. President Donald Trump has caused her to reconsider. “I am afraid when I look at Trump – I don’t want to have someone like that in power here. That would be taking a big risk,” she told Vice News.
Jansma is not the only one who has been put off. Two polls released this week show Wilders lead has dropped by the equivalent of 5 seats. He is now slated to win 26 seats in the Netherlands’ 150-seat parliament. That puts him just 3 seats ahead of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party.
The Trump effect
Reaction to Trump is one explanation for the drop, posits Gijs Rademakers, a pollster for EenVandaag. “Since he has entered office … the more moderate PVV electorate are scared by the effects of that, the intensity of it.” 43 percent of voters who intend to vote for the PVV dislike Trump’s policies. Among voters who were going to vote PVV in December but have since changed their mind, that rises to 60 percent.
But the most important reason, according to Rademakers, is that voters are unsure about the effectiveness of a protest vote. “Now the elections are coming closer, people are reconsidering. Instead of just sending a signal, they are also thinking about their vote really being a vote.” He calls the poll a “warning” for Wilders.
Other voters say that they are unsure how he will make his campaign promises come true. Leon Rijsdijk, a primary school teacher who is “definitely” voting PVV, is concerned that Wilders “dictatorial tendencies” will ensure he is unable to form a government. “He is never willing to compromise,” he says.
Nevertheless, Rijsdijk hopes Wilders will be allowed to try. “I would say, give him a chance.” Even if Wilders does not gain power, he feels his vote will count. “It’s about sending a wake-up call to the Hague,” he says, referring to the country’s political capital. “If he gets a large share of the vote, politicians will have to think about why so many voters chose him, and adopt some of his policies.”
Wilders is counting on a strong showing to force other parties to overcome their objections to working with his party. The ‘Dutch Trump’ is currently slated to win roughly 20 percent of the popular vote, and would need to forge a coalition in order to govern. All but one party have ruled out the option of sharing power with the PVV, due to the extreme nature of his policies.
But speaking in his first one-on-one interview of the campaign, Wilders stated that a showing of 30 seats or more (out of a 150) would force them to reconsider. “You can’t just shove two and a half million people aside after democratic elections, that would be very ill-advised,” he said on Sunday during an interview with broadcaster WNL.
The TV interview offered Widers 40 minutes of airtime to expand on some of his most controversial policies – such as the banning of the sale of the Quran. Wilders often compares it to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and has also vowed to close all mosques.
Such interviews are rare and Wilders has not committed to any more. The risk of allowing a journalist to question him was on display when Wilders agreed to meet with John Sweeney for BBC Newsnight. Sweeney confronted Wilders on his position on Muslims and at one point asked him if he was a fascist.
An unorthodox campaign
Instead of reaching out to voters on the ground, campaign activity is focused on the candidate’s Twitter account. Deputies and candidate MPs are instructed not to speak to the media. The party has limited itself to online activity and the launch of a new campaign video.
The advert promises to bring about change and to follow in the footsteps of Brexit and Trump’s victory in the U.S.. It warns of the dangers of immigration from Muslim majority countries, and the risk of future immigration from Africa. His campaign slogan “The Netherlands is ours again,” concludes the message.
As other politicians traverse the country, Wilders has yet to hit the campaign trail himself. Part of that is due to security – any public appearance is accompanied by a heavy police presence due to the threats on his life.
This weekend Wilders plans to kick off his campaign in person. He has called on his supporters to join him to distribute flyers. The meeting will this year’s first show of power offline – many PVV voters have until recently been weary of publicly expressing support. With just a month to go, a rally could go some way towards re-energizing his base.