After Brexit and Trump, can Geert Wilders pull it off in the Netherlands?
While most politicians across Europe – Nigel Farage excepted – responded to Donald Trump's presidential candidacy with sneers of condescension and greeted his victory with either grudging congratulations or cries of apocalyptic alarm, Geert Wilders was an outspoken Trump cheerleader all along. The day after the American election, the crusading Dutch politician characterized America's verdict as “a political revolution” and a “stunning and historic achievement” that “sent a powerful message to the world.” He added: “I never doubted Mr. Trump would win. We are witnessing the same uprising on both sides of the Atlantic. The Patriotic Spring is sweeping the Western world.”
Well, let's hope so. So far the only other evidence of any such Patriotic Spring has been Brexit (and even that's starting to look shaky, thanks to the court ruling that the British Parliament has to ratify the referendum vote). The next major test of the “Patriotic Spring” will come on March 15, when Wilders's own Freedom Party (PVV) will compete in the elections for the Tweede Kamer, the more powerful lower house of the Dutch Parliament. Things have changed a lot since the last election, in 2012, when the two big vote-getters were the left-wing Labor Party (PvdA) and the conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Wilders's PVV came in far behind, more or less tied with three other parties, each of which took about a dozen seats out of 150, the rest being distributed among five even smaller parties. In the wake of the 2012 election, the VVD and PvdA formed a coalition government, with VVD head Mark Rutte staying on as Prime Minister.
The new government wasn't in office for long, however, before Wilders's PVV skyrocketed in the polls, becoming the nation's largest party. Next thing you knew – surprise! – the demonization of Wilders kicked into high gear. The pretext: in a speech to supporters, he asked if they wanted more or less of the EU, more or less of the Labor Party, and more or fewer Moroccans. Wilders's suggestion that the Netherlands might not want to take in limitless numbers of Moroccans outraged pretty much the entire Dutch establishment: the political and media elite savaged him; schoolteachers denounced him in classrooms; clergy decried him from pulpits. Wilders responded by pointing out that three in five Dutch-Moroccan men under age 23 had rap sheets and that Moroccans were 22 times more likely than ethnic Dutchmen to commit violent crimes. But it didn't help. The slime campaign worked. The PVV's numbers dropped, and it became the nation's #3 party.
But not for long. The PVV soon rebounded, and since summer before last, it's been the Netherlands's top-polling party, leading the VVD by a comfortable margin and leaving the fast-disappearing PvdA entirely in the dust. After living through their country's distinctively dramatic post-9/11 history – the assassinations of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Theo van Gogh in 2004, the Ayaan Hirsi Ali debacle that ended with her emigration to the U.S. in 2006, and the rise (and international vilification) of Wilders – Dutch voters seem finally to be on the verge of making the PVV the largest party in the Tweede Kamer.
And it's about time. Given some of the events that have occurred in their neighborhood since 2012 – including mass terror strikes in Paris, Brussels, Nice, and Berlin – and the recognition that these acts have been made easier by reckless EU immigration policies and open borders, it's little wonder that more and more Dutchmen are responding positively to Wilders's tough posture on Islam and the EU. This is, after all, a country where Muslims now account for more than a quarter of the population of the two largest cities, Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and almost equally sizable proportions of The Hague and Utrecht. It's also a country where a court recently found Wilders guilty of criticizing Islam – a verdict that seems only to have increased his public support.
In response to the PVV's growing popularity, Rutte has toughened his rhetoric on immigration. But everybody knows it's a phony political move, and in any case it doesn't seem to have made much difference. Polls suggest that the PVV may secure as many as a fifth to a quarter of the seats in the Tweede Kamer. But chances seem slim, alas, that Wilders will become PM. Under the Dutch system, parties invariably have to strike post-election deals with one another to cobble together majority coalitions and form governments – and the problem is that the leaders of the Netherlands' political establishment, availing themselves of the famous cordon sanitaire approach that is used throughout Europe to isolate non-establishment parties – have already announced their refusal to work with Wilders.
Whatever the results of the March election, then, the VVD and other parties will likely end up forming a wobbly coalition that probably wouldn't last long – and that would presumably necessitate a new election, in which case Wilders might stand a better chance of winning. To be sure, even if he doesn't get an opportunity to form a government, a heavy pro-Wilders vote would, in and of itself, make a strong statement, perhaps even compelling Rutte & co. to take action on the EU and immigration. It's hard, however, to imagine them going as far as is necessary to save the Netherlands. For that, we have to hope that the electorate shifts to the PVV fast enough to get Wilders in there soon enough to save the day.
Then again, who knows? Like Brexit and Trump, he may end up stunning the world. Mark March 15 on your calendars. Either way, it's going to be a red-letter day.