Wilders Back Out in the Cold After Early Dutch Lead Evaporates

  • Wilders party looks set to become largest opposition bloc
  • Freedom Party fell short of Wilders’s own expectations

Given the most promising set of circumstances for a populist campaign in a generation, Geert Wilders failed to deliver.

The anti-Islam Freedom Party leader led for much of the campaign but was unable to convert that early poll support into votes in Wednesday’s election in the Netherlands. Soundly beaten by Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals, by his own admission his party fell at least 10 seats short of its target.

After voters heeded Rutte’s call to put a halt to “the wrong kind of populism” and predominantly backed pro-European centrist parties, Wilders’s bid to pull the Netherlands out the European Union -- a so-called Nexit -- and abandon the euro looks to have had its day, for now at least. The question is what now for the silver-haired bouffant radical and his populist platform.

“The Netherlands is not the next populism domino to fall,” said Marieke Blom, chief economist for the Netherlands at ING Bank NV. Early results showed the Freedom Party gaining four seats on its 2012 result, “but this is not the landslide win the polls alluded to only a couple of months ago,” she said. “Against expectations, these were not the elections that focused on Nexit after all.”

Opposition Calls

Donald Trump in the White House, the worst refugee crisis since World War II, Britain’s exit from the EU and terrorist attacks in neighboring Belgium, France and Germany all failed to bring voters to Wilders’s side. Even with the gains, his party’s seat tally was less than in 2010, when he provided support for Rutte’s first coalition government.

Now the best he can hope for is to become the biggest opposition bloc. Sarah de Lange, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, said the Freedom Party might have suffered as a result of public unease over the Trump administration. Rutte’s handling of a dispute with Turkey may have also helped the Liberals to outperform poll forecasts.

The explanation for the outcome “is complex: possibly tactical voting, the way Rutte acted over the weekend or how Trump has acted,” she said.

Media gathered in parliament in The Hague early in the evening to wait for the Freedom Party leader -- and sole party member. But while the other leaders appeared on television, Wilders thanked his supporters via Twitter, his favored form of communication, then didn’t show himself for hours.

Where’s the Party

All the Dutch parties had rented a venue in either Amsterdam or in the seat of government, The Hague, to celebrate or commiserate with supporters and party members. All except Wilders and his Freedom Party. When he finally spoke to reporters in the early hours of Thursday, Wilders was defiant, saying that his party was among the day’s winners even though “we didn’t get the 30 seats we hoped for.”

“Rutte still has to deal with me,” said Wilders, 53, promising to form “a tough opposition against the cabinet and give them a hard time every time.”

“I can assure you, the patriotic spring will start and is already going on,” he said.

The Freedom Party scored some local election victories, placing first in Maastricht, a city in the south of the country that is synonymous with the European ideal Wilders rails against. Wilders tweeted a scorecard showing the Freedom Party winning in his home town, Venlo. But even there, the scorecard showed his party’s support dipped from 2012.

For Jesse Klaver, the Greens leader who took his party from four seats to a projected 14, the lesson was clear. “Populism didn’t break through in Europe,” he said.

— With assistance by Rudy Ruitenberg

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