Wilders’s Identity Politics Cast Long Shadow Over Dutch Vote

  • He is sliding in the polls but his ideas are gaining ground
  • Wilders has put immigration, identity at heart of election

The Anti-Islam Populist Who Wants to Run the Netherlands

Dutch populist Geert Wilders may not be in the next government, but a part of his agenda might be.

With less than a week to go before the March 15 vote, Dutch party tactics make it all but certain that Wilders won’t be part of the new coalition government no matter how well he fares. Yet a more tepid version of his anti-immigration, anti-European Union stance has seeped into the campaign platforms of the other established parties, making them issues for the next government to contend with.

“Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom remains unlikely to enter government, but its increased influence on mainstream politics is clear to see,” Lars Lundquist, an analyst for Roubini Global Economics, wrote in a report Wednesday. “The election illustrates the increasing xenophobia in Europe, and is perhaps a sign that the Netherlands will play a more obstructionist role in European decision-making,”

A strong showing for Wilders -- who has said that calling for a referendum to leave the EU would be one of his first acts if he becomes prime minister -- would put pressure on whichever governing constellation ends up in power to adopt a more skeptical stance toward the bloc. The outcome would risk souring ties between the EU and one of its founding members, fanning the flames of anti-EU sentiment from France to Germany.

Watch More: Profile of Geert Wilders

“There is a ‘contamination effect’,” said Joost van Spanje, associate professor in the Communications Science Department of the University of Amsterdam. “The electoral success of anti-immigrant parties such as the Freedom Party precedes the copying of their most important issues by other more mainstream political parties.”

No Immigrants

Not unlike his fellow populist Marine Le Pen in France, which votes in a two-round election in April and May, Wilders is unabashedly opposed to what he sees as the growing “Islamization” of Europe. He has said he would bar immigrants to the Netherlands from Muslim countries, close all mosques and ban the Koran. He also wants to withdraw from the EU, close the borders, and spend more on defense and police and less on international aid.

About 5 percent of the Netherlands’s population is Muslim, and most of its Muslim immigrants come from Turkey and Morocco. Wilders’s 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. The court case boosted his poll numbers at the time.

Veering Right

Rutte: Dutch Elections Can't Be Won by Changing the Story

The other parties have taken note and have been drawing liberally from Wilders’s playbook. In January, Prime Minister’s Rutte’s campaign veered sharply to the right, publishing a full-page advertisement warning immigrants “to be normal or be gone.” The ad said people who come to the Netherlands for freedom but then “reject our values” don’t belong in the country.

While all the established Dutch parties, including the Liberals and Labor, have excluded governing with Wilders, they haven’t been coy about courting his followers. Immigration featured in a televised debate among party leaders on Feb. 26, with Labor and the opposition Christian Democrats both arguing for a halt to new arrivals.

Read more: Who Will Wilders and Rutte Face in the Dutch Election?

Wilders has also taken to voters his gripe about what he calls the intrusion of Brussels in Dutch life.

“The European Union is a political bureaucratic organisation that took away our identity and our national sovereignty,” he has said. “So, I would get rid of the European Union and be a nation-state again."

The mainstream parties have scrambled to get their own stances on the EU ironed out to address the frustration with institutions in Brussels.

‘Tactical Competition’

At the World Economic Forum in January, Rutte said the post-Brexit-vote EU can’t go on as it is and said EU officials who’re trying to turn the bloc into one United States of Europe are “accelerating its dismantling.” He called instead for a new “pragmatic” relationship between Brussels and member states that would show more respect for national sovereignty, and asked for an overhaul of some of the EU’s basic guiding principles.

Granted, the Greens, whose leader Jesse Klaver says his is the “only left party” in the election, are polling strongly, with about 17 seats compared with 4 at the last election. Alexander Pechtold, who heads the D66 Democrats, is also on course for some 17 seats campaigning on a platform to put Europe “back at the center” of policy.

The slide to the right has also been called out by politicians including Deputy Prime Minister and Labor leader Lodewijk Asscher, who said that Rutte’s “tactical competition with Wilders” for votes was failing. Still, Labor support has collapsed from 38 seats in 2012 to about 11 now.

Original vs Copy

What’s more, Wilders’s long shadow is evident in other moves by his opponents. Sybrand Van Haersma Buma recently proposed that children in primary and high school should sing the national anthem in class, a move Wilders says the the Christian Democratic Party leader had rejected two months ago.

The new stances have pleased Wilders, who has been sliding in the polls with the latest survey from I&O Research showing Rutte’s Liberals leading with 24 seats and his Freedom Party four behind at 20.

“It looks as if we won the elections even before the election date because many of my colleagues are copying our thoughts,” Wilders said on Sunday. “The whole campaign today in Holland, which is a good thing, is about immigration, national identity, values, the European Union. Because people are afraid to lose votes to us, they are copying us. That’s why we are losing some votes. I hope that on March 15 people choose the original. Let me tell you, the original is always better than a copy.”

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