Can a Populist Become Dutch Prime Minister? QuickTake Q&A

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Populism Takes Over the World

After Brexit and Donald Trump, is Geert Wilders the next voter thunderbolt? The Netherlands holds parliamentary elections on March 15, with the populist leader’s Freedom Party riding high in the polls. But to form a government, Wilders will need allies. And he doesn’t really have any.

1. Who is Geert Wilders, anyway?

Originally a Liberal, Wilders, known for his bouffant blond hairstyle, eventually broke away to become an independent lawmaker before setting up the Freedom Party, known as the PVV in Dutch, in 2006. His vehement opposition to Islam has led to him being given round-the-clock police protection. Last year a court found him guilty of inciting discrimination with comments about Moroccan immigrants, but the judges imposed no penalty. He made global headlines at the start of his election campaign by calling some Moroccans “scum.”

2. What does the Freedom Party want?

The party’s manifesto is just one page long. The most detail it offers is on de-Islamicizing the Netherlands, which would include barring immigrants from Muslim countries, closing all mosques and banning the Koran. Wilders also wants to withdraw from the European Union, close the borders, and spend more on defense and police and less on international aid and wind power.

3. How will the party do in the election?

The Peilingwijzer aggregator shows Wilders’s party has lost its opinion-poll lead in the past couple of weeks. It slipped to second place in the March 7 tally, behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals, though the difference is within the margin of error.

4. Can we trust the polls?

Dutch opinion polls in the past few elections have been “not spot on, but they reasonably reflect the trends,” according to Tom Louwerse of the University of Leiden, who puts together the Peilingwijzer. While in the past the Freedom Party ended up with less support than final polls suggested, there’s no indication that will be true this year. “There are no shy PVV voters anymore,” says Louwerse.

5. What does it take to form a Dutch government?

The lower house of Parliament has 150 seats. No party ever wins a majority, making coalitions inevitable. A coalition needs to have the support of parties totaling at least 76 seats to ensure it can get its legislation through. (It needs a majority in the indirectly elected upper house as well.) There will be at least 11 parties in the new lower house -- possibly as many as 14.

6. How would Wilders put together a coalition?

He may not be able to, and in any case victory for his party wouldn’t guarantee the right to try. Once the final results are confirmed, Parliament will meet and appoint a senior politician to explore what sort of coalition can be formed. And so far, none of the mainstream parties appears willing to work with Wilders. Rutte used his personal Twitter account for the first time in six years to say there’s no chance of an accord: “Zero percent, Geert. ZERO percent.”

7. Wait — the biggest party can be shut out?

Yes. Three times since World War II, the “winning” party has been excluded from the government. In each case, it was Labor. In 1971, the four parties that formed the previous center-right government lost their majority, but added the new Democratic Socialists to their coalition to restore their parliamentary majority. Six years later, Labor was again left out of power even though it took more than one-third of the vote.

8. So what would the government look like?

A coalition with four or five parties. Even if Rutte is able to put together a deal with his existing coalition partner, the Labor Party, his former partners, the Christian Democrats, and Democrats ’66, the other mainstream center party, they may still be a seat or two short of a majority. The Greens might join them, though party leader Jesse Klaver hasn’t been enthusiastic about working with Rutte in the past. Or the Greens could replace Labor in a four-party tie-up. Smaller players like the Party for Animals, which polls show could take five seats, now also dream of being courted. There’s also the possibility of a minority coalition. Rutte and the Christian Democrats tried that in 2010, relying on Wilders for just enough votes to get legislation through Parliament. But it lasted just a year and a half; the collapse meant new elections were needed in late 2012.

9. Anything else?

Because of fears that hackers could try to tamper with the election, the government announced Feb. 1 that software can’t be used to calculate the results. More than 12 million people are eligible to vote, but the Dutch electoral council says there will be no delay to the preliminary results on the evening.

Reference Shelf

  • The Dutch House of Representatives website explaining how the elections work.
  • A Bloomberg news report on the polls tightening and another on the final full week of campaigning.
  • In its profile of the Freedom Party Leader, the Berlin Policy Journal used "Wild, Wilder, Wilders."
  • The New York Times described how a "Ukrainian team" helped sway a Dutch referendum vote in April.
  • Bloomberg View columnist Leonid Bershidsky says the established Dutch parties are losing ground due to a "feeling of disconnection between the ruling elite and the people."
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