Wilders’ victory shows Europe must stand up to far-right threat
What has happened to the Netherlands? This is a country that once ruled the seas, that founded an empire that stretched from the Caribbean to Indonesia and that founded New Amsterdam, which became New York. It was the Netherlands that gave us Rembrandt and Vincent van Gogh and that invented the CD and the DVD. But now it has plumbed the depths of the political ecosystem to favor a man, Geert Wilders, who for a long time has ranked as one of the world’s worst Islamophobes and Muslim haters. This is a country known for its extraordinary liberalism in nearly everything; and yet so many voters have chosen a man who wants to ban the Qur’an and mosques.
So, will Wilders, the leader of the Freedom Party, which is known as the PVV, become the next Dutch prime minister at the head of arguably the most far-right government in Europe? In last week’s elections, he shocked European politics by getting 37 seats, comfortably ahead of the other parties and more than double the PVV’s existing tally of 17. Somehow, Wilders will have to cobble together a coalition of 76 seats to achieve a majority in the 150-seat Dutch parliament. It may take a long time. It was almost a year before a coalition was formed after the last elections in 2021.
To what extent did others act as enablers for Wilder’s ascent to possible power? Some blame Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius, who leads the conservative-liberal VVD. By stating that she could work with the PVV, she legitimized the party and made it worthwhile voting for them as an avenue to influence government policy. The VVD came third with 24 seats, so it could be a coalition partner. However, beyond the VVD, things look tough for Wilders. He needs at least three other parties to join him to make it over the line. There is a possibility that the PVV might become the junior partner in a coalition.
Dutch politics used to be so dull. It was all about building consensus. Nobody ever seemed to be too controversial. But like all major populists, Wilders embraces controversy. He craves it even. He has that populist charisma and the ability to bring slogans and soundbites into every speech. Should he take up a post in government, he will revolutionize Dutch politics, not just on the EU and immigration, but also by ripping up key climate change pledges.
His success is further evidence that the Dutch are more concerned about immigration than any other EU nation
Being anti-immigration and anti-Muslim is at the core of everything Wilders stands for. His success is further evidence that the Dutch are more concerned about immigration than any other EU nation, as polls indicate. He has even been in legal trouble for his vicious attacks on Moroccan immigrants. The Netherlands, for him, is divided into the indigenous population and those of immigrant stock. He wants “zero asylum-seekers.” During the 2017 election campaign, he labeled some Dutch Moroccans “scum.” In 2016, he was convicted of discrimination for claiming that, if he won, there would be “fewer Moroccans.”
What does this mean for Dutch Muslims? They constitute about 5 percent of the Dutch population. Muslim women wearing headscarves fear discrimination. Wilders pledged to ban women wearing hijabs from entering public buildings. But more than that, he also had in the PVV’s manifesto a ban on all Islamic schools, Qur’ans and mosques. Dutch Muslims will have to work with the allies they have.
Wilders is not adored internationally, beyond states with far-right leaders. The UK banned him from entering the country in 2009 due to his extreme views on Islam. Many in Europe will be alarmed. Some will see this as a warning to be more anti-immigrant, whereas others will escalate their political attacks on far-right parties.
Arab states were rightly quick to condemn Wilders’ statement that the Palestinian people should be relocated to Jordan. The Netherlands could now have a challenging relationship with such states, as well as the wider Islamic world.
Wilders has adopted some horrifying rhetoric toward Palestinians. He backs illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He implies that he would support the forced transfer of millions of Palestinians. Alarmingly, Wilders seems to have had a Gaza poll bounce. Between Oct. 7 and the elections, support for him rose from 12 percent to 23 percent.
The far right in Europe is anxious to ingratiate itself with Israel’s leaders. They love this form of crude identity politics. It also plays to the dominant trend of anti-Muslim prejudice.
The Netherlands could now have a challenging relationship with Arab states, as well as the wider Islamic world
Many see this as a sign that Europe is heading into the grip of the far right. This certainly looks like it will please President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is always happy to see the EU and NATO divided and undermined, as Wilders wants to end military support to Ukraine. Many far-right European politicians, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy, could not wait to congratulate their fellow Islamophobe. Le Pen might fancy her chances in the next French presidential election in 2027.
Elsewhere, the Freedom Party of Austria is faring well. However, only last month, the Polish elections saw the ejection of the far-right Law and Justice party. In Britain, the current right-wing government looks likely to lose the coming general election. What this perhaps indicates is the dangerous degree of polarization in many democracies — and not just in Europe. In those democracies that depend on the building of consensus, such as the Netherlands, this poses huge challenges for the stability of governments.
Is Wilders going to do a Meloni? The neo-fascist Italian prime minister, while still extreme and hostile to immigrants, is widely viewed as having moderated her tone since coming to power. If Wilders wishes to govern, he has to hold a coalition together. He accepts he may not be able to do everything he would like. He would like a “Nexit” — for the Netherlands to join Britain in leaving the EU. This is unlikely. He also wants to end the free movement of labor, which EU membership does not allow.
Many will hope Wilders cannot form a coalition. This may be the case and he could end up playing the political martyr from the sidelines, proclaiming that he has had victory stolen from him and the people. Yet, even if he does not become prime minister, he has still shaken Dutch and European politics to the core.
European politicians need to wake up to this far right-threat — it is no longer fringe. They must challenge it, not cave into it. This brand of politics is not based on solutions to the continent’s challenges, but rather on appealing to base emotions. True leaders need to stand up and be counted. Anti-Muslim parties and politicians should be shunned in just the same way as politicians who espouse anti-Black or antisemitic messages are.
- Chris Doyle is director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding in London. X: @Doylech