All eyes on far-right politician Geert Wilders in Dutch election

Next week’s Dutch election is being widely regarded as a bellwether for populist parties throughout Europe, with the extreme right expected to dramatically increase its presence in parliament.

As recently as a few weeks ago it looked as if right-wing populist Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) might be the outright winners of the March 15 parliamentary election in the Netherlands, but recent polls show that his support is slipping, putting him in a dead heat with sitting Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).

The current Peilingwijzer poll of polls has the PVV party garnering 14.7 percent of the vote, and the VVD taking 16.1 percent. That would still mark a significant gain for Wilders, who stands to snag about 25 seats, more than double the 12 it currently holds.

Even if Wilders manages to win more parliamentary seats than any other party with his platform of closing mosques, banning the Koran and shutting down immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, he will still need to form a coalition government. And with a dearth of parties willing to play ball with him, his chances of being able to govern are exceedingly slim.

A fragmented electorate

With a record 28 parties competing in the election, this is a pivotal moment in Dutch politics, the like of which hasn’t been seen since the late 1960s and early 1970s, said Sarah de Lange, professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. Then, too, Dutch politics was plagued by fragmentation and polarisation.

“The issues are different, but the dynamic is the same,” she said.

Wilders warns that given the current state of factionalisation, he will be hard to dismiss. With so many parties splitting the vote, it could now take four to five parties to form a majority, leading to far more instability.

While Wilders has a core group of voters who share his world view, a portion of those who support Wilders do so because they are fed up with the mainstream parties or because they agree with his leftist economic agenda, which includes lowering taxes, reducing the retirement age and increasing funding for the elderly.

Indeed, there is an economic factor to this election as well. While the Dutch economy is the strongest performer in the Eurozone, low- to middle-class voters feel they disproportionately bore the burden of austerity measures Rutte implemented in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

A rising star

Five parties are now conceivably in the running for a first-place finish in the March 15 poll: the PVV, the VVD, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), the leftist Democrats 66 (D66) and the rising GroenLinks green party.

Green leader Jesse Klaver, who has been nicknamed “the Jessiah”, has a Moroccan father and Dutch-Indonesian mother and is, in many ways, the one to watch. His unruly dark mane and raffish good looks have invited comparisons to Canada’s Justin Trudeau.

Klaver himself borrows liberally from former US president Barack Obama’s playbook with a Dutch version of “Yes we can” (Het kan wel) that he is taking to the people in US-style political rallies.

The topics consuming Dutch voters are the same as those that electorates throughout Europe are grappling with: identity, immigration, integration and membership in the European Union. As elsewhere in Europe, those anxieties have been amplified recently by the influx of refugees and increased fears of radical Islamist terrorism.

But many of those fears have been present in Dutch society for quite some time, pointed out University of Amsterdam guest researcher Ineke van der Valk, who specialises in multiculturalism, racism and Islamophobia. Van der Valk recalled the 2004 murder of documentary filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, who was shot by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim man because of a controversial film he made criticising the treatment of women in Islam. Since then, though, those feelings have been politicised, most recently by Wilders’ PVV.

Immigrants engage

Among the 28 parties participating in the electoral process are some notable newcomers. One of those is DENK, or Think, which was founded by two Labour Party MPs of Turkish descent to promote the acceptance, as opposed to integration, of minorities and to fight xenophobia and racism.

If the rise of the far right is a reaction to immigration, DENK is the counter-reaction. Its arrival on the political scene has not been entirely smooth. The party has been accused of anti-Semitism and of being a mouthpiece of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“It accentuates differences of opinion that were previously not visible,” de Lange said, explaining that that includes views that are anathema to the majority of the Dutch public, such as its more restrictive views on press freedom and its denial of the Armenian genocide.

Date created : 2017-03-07

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