Wilders Jumpstarts Campaign as His Party Sinks in Dutch Polls

  • Netherlands to vote in national elections on March 15
  • Prime Minister Rutte’s Liberals edging ahead of Freedom Party

Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders resumed his campaign for this month’s elections as polls suggested that voters were turning away from his populist message.

Wilders, who has lived for more than a decade under government protection, picked up his public appearances on Friday with an unannounced visit to the fishing village of Volendam north of Amsterdam. Dutch media reported that it was his first campaign stop since he canceled all public events last week citing security concerns.

The visit to a local restaurant -- where Dutch broadcaster NOS carried pictures of the owner serving Wilders a beer -- came on the back of an Ipsos poll showing his party slipping still further against Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals less than two weeks out from the March 15 election. That’s a turnaround from a lead of as many as 12 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament at the beginning of the year.

“The reason for the decline might be that Wilders is invisible in the election campaign so far,” Theo de Kort of ABN Amro said in a note on Thursday. “He cancelled most of the television debates and is mainly campaigning by using his Twitter account.”

Poll Aggregator

While Thursday’s poll showed Rutte extending his advantage over Wilders to four seats, the margin is far closer in the Peilingwijzer aggregator released the previous day. It projected the Liberals would take between 23 and 27 seats versus 22 to 26 seats for the Freedom Party.

Rutte has responded by stepping up his warnings over the prospect of Wilders placing first and the economic “chaos” that would ensue if the anti-euro Freedom Party leader did manage to get a hold on power. In an interview on Thursday, he said the Netherlands has a chance at the election to draw a line in the sand over the spread of populism through western democracies, and “stop that trend.”

Wilders, who was convicted last year of making discriminatory comments toward immigrants, is campaigning to reintroduce border controls, stop all Muslim immigration and withdraw from the European Union -- a platform that has prompted the mainstream parties to refuse to enter a coalition with him, but which resonates with some voters.

According to the NOS account of his Volendam trip, as related by the owner, Wilders had visited the same restaurant some two years ago and was offered a beer. He declined and said “next time” -- and so he was presented with a beer upon his return Friday.

‘I’m Scared’

“I think it’s safe enough to go outside,” Wilders, who has been subject to death threats for his anti-Islam views, was cited as saying in Volendam by Dutch news agency ANP. “I’m scared every now and then, but I have to campaign and I want to campaign.”

Local police tweeted a picture of the crowds and praising the “great teamwork” with Wilders’s security detail.

For Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the country’s finance minister and a member of the Labor Party, Wilders has created a “poisonous atmosphere,” one in which “an entire population is characterized as a problem.”

The Dutch election illustrates the splintering of politics as voters abandon the mainstream in favor of single issue parties or radical voices that address specific concerns. With 28 parties contesting the election and as many as 14 of them forecast to enter the parliament, forces on all sides are in with a chance of sharing power. That doesn’t extend to the Freedom Party, or PVV as it’s known in Dutch.

“Since few people are prepared to work with the PVV and Wilders, they wouldn’t be able to form a coalition even if they there the largest party,” said Leon Cornelissen of Robeco Groep NV. “So there’s no cause for alarm.”

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