Analysis

Geert Wilders, Netherlands' Take on Trump, Faces One Obstacle His U.S. Doppelganger Didn't

The Turkey-Netherlands diplomatic meltdown was a boon for Wilders' far-right party so soon before the election. But even if he wins a plurality, the premiership will almost certainly remain out of reach.

Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders during a rally in Heerlan, Netherlands, March 11, 2017.
DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS

Donald Trump has a doppelgänger in the Netherlands.

Like the U.S. president, Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders is a white male populist equipped with a mop of blond hair who fires many of his political shots on Twitter. And as part of Wilders’ plan to “de-Islamisize” the Netherlands, he has proposed a travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries.

Moreover, the Dutchman seizes every chance to deliver an “I told you so” to his opponents and other skeptics when a situation arises that fits his doomsday-esque worldview.

Yet one similarity between Trump and Wilders is also the one that differentiates them the most. While the establishment so hated by Trump had no choice but to accept his victory, the political elite so heavily criticized by Wilders could be the force that keeps him from ruling the country. This week’s diplomatic meltdown between the Netherlands and Turkey just before the Dutch general election could be seen as a reminder of the politics that lies beyond Wilders’ control.

Some analysts argue that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cool and firm reaction to Turkey’s aggressive stance provided a golden opportunity to boost his falling poll numbers before Wednesday’s election. After Turkey called for sanctions against the Netherlands for preventing Turkish ministers from campaigning in Rotterdam before a Turkish referendum, Rutte said he would never bargain under the threat of blackmail.

Indeed, this rational and unapologetic stance might have pushed voters fond of Wilders’ anti-Turkey hard line but repelled by his extremism into the arms of the prime minister, who has what Wilders lacks: an understanding of diplomacy and leadership.

But one could argue that it was Wilders, with his “I told you so” tactic, who received the golden opportunity. With the diplomatic meltdown, the far-right leader too got a chance to lift his ratings. The latest polls show Wilders’ Party for Freedom trailing Rutte’s ruling center-right party and tied or slightly ahead of the Christian Democratic Appeal.

And Wilders might not just capitalize on the clash between the Dutch government and Muslim-majority Turkey, he might target Dutch citizens with a Turkish background. It could be Wilders’ latest “I told you so” moment.

The far-right leader frequently refers to a fifth column, a term with roots in the Spanish Civil War that was a favorite of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy when he was tormenting perceived communists in the 1950s. When Wilders uses that term he’s referring to the Netherlands’ Muslim citizens, whose loyalties he says lie abroad.

As such, the image of Dutch Turks rallying for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Rotterdam could legitimize Wilders’ “fifth column” rhetoric in the eyes of certain undecided voters. For them, Wilders’ hard line in the diplomatic row might be enough to vote for his Party for Freedom. But what then? If Wilders’ party wins, will he wind up running the country?

Probably not. Wilders’ road to the premiership would be riddled with obstacles, not least his perceived lack of diplomatic skills and leadership.

Like other European countries and Israel, the Netherlands has a proportional system of coalition building that forces parties to compromise in forging a governing coalition. But all the main parties the Christian Democratic Appeal and left-wingers D66, the Labor Party and the GreenLeft have ruled out cooperating with him. Even Rutte’s party, which took a long time to rule Wilders out, closed that door when the prime minister said the chance of collaborating with the far-right leader was “not 0.1; that chance is zero.”

Besides, working inside a coalition would force Wilders to soften or even take back some of his election promises, something the man who has branded himself the voice of the people isn’t keen to do.

And what would happen if Wilders couldn’t form a coalition? One can’t help but be reminded of the pledges by Trump and his supporters before the U.S. election. Trump promised to put Hillary Clinton behind bars, while some of his supporters predicted that a Trump defeat in a “rigged election” would produce nothing short of a revolution.

While Wilders’ supporters haven’t yet made such pledges, their leader has said that if he wins and is excluded by other parties, “who will blame us if we call on the Netherlands to rally in protest?”

Such a scenario isn’t unthinkable, but any post-election demonstrations by the far right would look very different in the Netherlands than they would have in the United States. Whereas American protesters would have rallied against a “rigged election,” Dutch protesters would demonstrate against something entirely different: the very essence of Dutch democracy and its system of proportional representation.

But considering the unexpected victories by Trump and the Brexiteers, an elected-but-unable-to-rule Wilders might turn out to be wishful thinking. Either way, such an outcome would give the anti-establishment populists the ultimate “I told you so.”