Everybody Loves Geert: Why Wilders Always Wins

Tomas van den Heuvel discusses the reasons far-right populist Geert Wilders is a favourite to win the upcoming Dutch elections.

Photo: Creative Commons

On 15th March, the Netherlands’ general election takes place. Predictions show local populist, Geert Wilders, as a favourite with his Party for Freedom (PVV). A politician who runs on a platform of anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-intellectual and anti-Islam rhetoric – in a country once famous for its soft drugs, liberalism and tolerance! How the hell did we get here?

Everybody has their own reasons for voting for a particular party, however in many cases we can link pro-PVV sentiment to a sense of uncertainty and loss of control. Local communities, once tight-knit through tradition and familiarity, are unraveling. For many, the world has gotten too small, too quickly. To this we can also add a slow but steady decline of people’s trust in traditional politics: many believe that “those in The Hague” don’t really care about them. It is no surprise that the PVV and its small satellite parties have all proposed the introduction of referendums and direct democracy. The dictatorship of the majority is their version of “power to the people.”

Most worrying is a widening gap between those with and without higher education. A 2014 government report found that Dutch voters with university education were more likely to be positive about globalization, immigration, and politicians. Those without higher education linked globalisation and immigration to more insecurity and uncertainty, and were much less likely to trust politicians. Different groups are increasingly living in different worlds.

The PVV was founded in 2005, and is still riding the waves of Pim Fortuyn’s success after his assassination back in 2002. Fortuyn’s campaign voice was charismatic and did not shy away from controversy, which was key in a post-9/11 world growing more distrustful of globalization.

Wilders knows what people fear: loss of identity, control, security, and community. International media are calling him ‘The Netherlands’ Donald Trump’ – a title he wears with pride. He is a clever media manipulator, well aware that all cameras will be on him during election season, and he relishes the idea that he represents a global revolution. On his Facebook page, all his messages and campaign slogans appear in both Dutch and English.

Like his counterparts elsewhere, Wilders cares for free speech – his speech, that is. You might have heard his name on the news recently, as he was on trial for inciting hatred and discrimination, illegal under a controversial Dutch law. Naturally, Geert exploited the whole business to the absolute extreme: he directly questioned the neutrality of the judges. Any media outlet critical of him or his supporters is ‘politically correct’ at best, and a tool of the ‘elite’ at worst. He decides where the political debate will be had, what it will be about, and what counts as an argument.

Few people realise how radical the PVV have actually become. Their current manifesto consists of nothing more than one A-4 sheet, full of surreal one-liners and faulty mathematics. One of the scarier propositions is “de-islamisation”, which involves “closure of all mosques and islamic schools, prohibition of the Quran.” Amidst all the jokes about the brevity of the manifesto, this detail went largely unnoticed. A politician who claims to love free speech basically proposes banning a world religion, including its holy book. How will he enforce such a thing?

Wilders represents an idea, not a concrete set of policies, thus not being held to account: he is counting on voters’ desire to break with the past, the same desire that helped Trump win in the USA. He may exploit and deepen divisions in society, but he did not create them: discontent with the state of Dutch politics is widespread. Established parties desperately try to find some sort of middle ground, blunting the sharp edges of Wilders’ rhetoric with their business-as-usual. A real alternative, someone who represents real change and takes concerns about loss of community and identity seriously (without resorting to cultural racism), is nowhere to be seen. Thus, voters flock to the next best thing: the PVV.

The polls may show Wilders as the favourite now, but many voters are still undecided and Dutch democracy has no two-party or winner-takes-all system. There are about a dozen parties ready to fight for every last vote they can get. The “winner” hardly ever gets a full majority in parliament, and usually has to form a coalition. But Wilders doesn’t need to be in power to win. Even if he doesn’t become Prime Minister, he will have changed the norm; he will remain a force to be reckoned with. Unless a real alternative shows up soon, the PVV can continue to present politics as a fight of ‘new vs. old’ and ‘us vs. them’. And in such a fight, Wilders always wins.