Analysis

Win or Lose, Geert Wilders Has Won Netherlands' Battle for Hearts and Minds

The far-right leader is slipping in the polls before Wednesday’s election, but he has managed to turn it into a referendum on migrants and Muslims.

Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders campaigning in Breda, Netherlands, March 8, 2017.
AFP

Last week, on a roadside in Amsterdam’s industrial zone, Geert Wilders held an impromptu press conference. His mane of hair used to be white but nowadays he’s going with Trump-style yellow. When asked why his far-right party is slipping in the polls, he said it’s “because all the other parties are adopting our platform and underscoring the issues of migrants and national identity, just as we do. One could say we’ve won even before the election has taken place.”

And this was even before the Dutch government infuriated Ankara by preventing Turkish ministers from speaking in Rotterdam, heightening a clash over whether President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be able to campaign in the Netherlands and Germany before Turkey's referendum on increasing its president’s powers.      

>> Get all updates on Europe and the Middle East: Download our free App, and Subscribe >>

In any case, a fact check proves there’s much truth in what Wilders says. Whether or not he wins on Wednesday, Wilders has in many respects turned the general election into a referendum on migrants and Muslims who, in his words, “are threatening our Dutch way of life.”

A day earlier, local media reported that the leader of the Christian Democratic Appeal, Sybrand van Haersma Buma, declared his support for children singing the national anthem at school. “When we brought this before parliament, Buma opposed it,” Wilders said, flashing a scornful smile.

And then of course there are the people who note the letter by Prime Minister Mark Rutte last month, telling Muslims that “if you don’t accept our way of life, you can leave the country just get out.”

>> Netherlands-Turkey crisis explained: What just happened between 400-year-old allies >>

Wilders isn’t new to Dutch politics but last year’s wage of refugees across Europe many of them fleeing the war in Syria has given him a lift. All of a sudden his thin but very clear platform including the "de-Islamization" of the Netherlands, the shutting down of mosques, the forbidding of the sale of Korans and the ban on migrants from countries with a Muslim majority – is falling on attentive ears. In the current campaign, it’s Wilders who put these topics on the agenda.

Indeed, up to three or four months ago, surveys showed that the major parties in the 150-member parliament were in a tailspin. Rutte’s center-right party dropped from 40 to between 24 and 28 seats, while its coalition partner, the Labor Party, dropped from 36 to between 10 and 12 seats. Wilders’ Party for Freedom, on the other hand, surged from 12 to between 30 and 36 seats. For a while it looked like it would be the largest party in the next parliament.

Dark-haired Israelis

How did this happen? Lodewijk Koon, a 34-year-old worker in Amsterdam’s public transportation system, says he used to vote for left-wing parties before changing his tune in recent years.

Geert Wilders poses for a selfie with supporters during a campaign stop in Heerlen, Netherlands, March 11, 2017.
Muhammed Muheisen/AP

“I looked around and saw more and more workers who pray five times a day and who think it’s forbidden to shake hands with a female colleague. I began to wonder where I was living. I went to a Wilders rally and listened to what he had to say,” Koon said.

“I quickly realized he was right. We were wrong we were too soft and didn’t see the risks this religion, Islam, brings with it. I no longer know if my children will grow up in the country I knew.”

At a time when people are feeling insecure and full of doubt, Wilders has a clear message in no way cautious or politically correct. “Do you believe, as I do, that there are too many Moroccans here?” he asks participants at rallies. “Mosques are Nazi prayer houses” he says without hesitation, noting that “if Mein Kampf can’t be sold here neither should the Koran.” He promises to take the Netherlands out of the wide-open European Union, closing its borders to foreigners.

Amir Avital, a 45-year-old former Israeli and now a Dutch citizen (In most cases, people who acquire Dutch citizenship through naturalization must give up their other nationality) sees things a bit differently. “I manage a group of more than 2,000 friends on Facebook ex-IsraeIis and Israelis who live here. They have many questions about this election,” he said.

“I tell them it’s great that Wilders is for Dutch people and against Arabs, but  the day after the election he’ll forget about us. His constituency doesn’t like us either. We’re dark-haired too, just like the Palestinians.” But Avital believes that the foreign media “is exaggerating the Wilders story; it’s not everything the election is about.”

A factor outside the topics of national identity and xenophobia is that the Netherlands has been enjoying steady economic growth for several years. Growth last year was 2.1 percent, the highest in a decade. The economy has been expanding consistently and Holland is one of the richest countries in Europe.

Meanwhile, unemployment has been dropping to 5.3 percent from 7.9 percent at the beginning of 2014. Treasury officials are also proud that investment in clean energy has paid off since the start of this year all trains in the country are running on electricity produced by wind turbines, a modern-day windmill. What’s more Dutch than that?

On Wednesday, the Dutch will elect 150 members of parliament; there are 12.9 million eligible voters. In 2012, 9.5 million people voted, with only 68,000 votes needed for a party to get one parliament member. This is more or less what’s expected this time.

No fewer than 28 parties are competing, some of them marginal or downright delusional like Jesus Lives, Party for the Animals, 50Plus and the Pirate Party.

Rutte’s party rallies

In recent weeks Wilders’ gains have narrowed. The most recent polls showed that the gap between his party and the prime minister’s had closed, with 24 to 28 seats projected for Rutte’s party and 21 to 25 for Wilders’. According to a Dutch political scientist who makes forecasts based on polls across the country, “This isn’t an increase in Rutte’s strength but an electoral erosion of Wilders, who has lost five projected seats since December.”

Wilders says this is happening because everyone is adopting his ideas, so he’s calling on his voters to vote “for the original.” But pundits find other reasons. One explanation is that Wilders is losing ground due to the antagonism produced by Donald Trump’s policies. Another explanation is that most parties have already pledged to exclude the far right from the government.

But in the Brexit-Trump era in which forecasts are shattered one after another, it’s not clear whether experts can count Wilders out.

The European Union, currently plagued by secession anxieties, is anxiously watching events in the Netherlands, knowing that this is the first in a string of elections this year in an era of uncertainty. After Holland comes France, Germany and Italy. A Wilders victory could get the momentum going.

Doomsayers with a long memory remind us that the Netherlands has already been a harbinger of change in modern Europe. Student riots broke out there in 1966, two years before the strikes and riots in France. Nowadays, anti-Muslim demonstrations started in Holland before spreading elsewhere in Europe.