Geert Wilders: far-right populist who paints himself as an outsider
Freedom Party leader has inflamed the political climate ahead of the Dutch election
Geert Wilders says if he wins the popular vote and is excluded from government it will be patently undemocratic. Photograph: Martijn Beekman /AFP/Getty Images
The most depressing thing about the controversial suggestion by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte recently that immigrants who no longer like living in the Netherlands should leave, was that it might just as well have come from the lips of his far-right nemesis, Geert Wilders.
That statement, spread in the form of an advert across the morning newspapers, confirmed – just weeks after the US elected Donald Trump – that even in the Netherlands liberals have lost the battle of ideas and resorted instead to stealing Wilders’s populist clothes.
In his message to “all Netherlanders”, Rutte was, he said, challenging immigrants guilty of “anti-social behaviour”, specifically those “who don’t want to adapt . . . who attack gay people, who shout at women in short skirts, or call ordinary Dutch people racist”.
The problem is that what those who are, in fact, racist will have heard was their prime minister warning migrants who have made the Netherlands their home and who have the temerity to speak out on . . . anything at all: Tough, if you don’t like it, then leave.
What was missing from the prime minister’s message was any attempt to make the argument that immigrants are both necessary and good for a country, that the Netherlands welcomed them with open arms in better economic times – or that the influxes repeatedly forecast when Poland, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU were not anywhere near as big as anticipated, and did not last.
That’s because an embattled Rutte’s primary aim was to depict himself as just as tough on immigration as Wilders – while staying on the right side of the tastefulness line that the Freedom Party leader has frequently crossed, to the delight of his more hardcore followers.
With anger over migrants – with death threats, riots outside local council meetings, and pigs’ heads thrown on refugee centre building sites – having inflamed the political climate, it was as if the case in favour of immigration was one nobody could possibly have wanted to hear.
“It was,” says Dutch writer and historian, Ian Buruma, author of Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, “the panic of a politician realising, perhaps too late, that he has not done enough to stop a populist challenger.”
Buruma is right. But, when it comes to Wilders, the phenomenon of hunkering down and hoping he will go away is nothing new.
Politicians of other parties too have been consistently unwilling to grasp the issues on which the far-right leader makes hay – such as leaving the EU, sealing the country’s borders, closing mosques and banning the Koran (which he has compared to Hitler’s Mein Kampf) – for fear of a populist backlash.
That means a healthy public debate on these questions, if such is possible, simply never takes place.
As a result, just weeks from the election, the other parties will be banking on fear of the economic impact of a Brexit-style Nexit (which Wilders has promised to emulate), and fear of Trump-style post-election uproar (which he has praised), to spook voters away from voting Freedom Party.
Will fear be enough? On January 26th, a poll by research consultancy Kantar showed that a remarkable 70 per cent of the electorate still had no idea how they would vote on March 15th. And if 2012 is anything to go by, fully 40 per cent will make up their minds in the final week of the campaign.
Whichever way those “undecideds” jump, what is remarkable is that a country once regarded as among the most open in the world has become so polarised by the political ideas of a single dogmatic individual selling a divisive ideology.
While he lives in a “safe house” under 24-hour police protection, there are aspects of Wilders’s personal background that offer intriguing glimpses into his political make-up.
Dutch Indonesian mother
He was born in 1963 in Venlo, in the predominantly Catholic province of Limburg in the south of the Netherlands, to a Dutch father and a Dutch Indonesian mother. In order to “fit in”, many Dutch Indonesians in those days were anxious to prove themselves “more Dutch” than the native Dutch – and so, despite their ethnic backgrounds, it became normal to go even as far as joining the far-right Dutch National Socialist Party.
In regard to Islam, which he has described as “a backward religion”, a formative experience, it seems, was a visit to Israel after leaving secondary school, during which he worked as a volunteer on a community farm, becoming, he says, “a true friend” of the country. He later visited neighbouring Arab states where he was struck, in comparison, by their “lack of democracy”.
Like Donald Trump, Wilders likes to paint himself as an outsider, although he’s nothing of the sort.
Ironically, he began his political career as a scriptwriter for Mark Rutte’s Liberal Party (VVD), becoming a parliamentary assistant to its leader, Frits Bolkestein, in the mid-1980s – and for a while a local councillor in Utrecht, for an area popular with immigrants, where he was once mugged.
When Bolkestein was appointed an EU commissioner in 1999, Wilders stayed behind – but his former mentor’s influence ran deep, says Meindert Fennema, author of Geert Wilders: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
“Mr Bolkestein never really cared too much about what the political circles in The Hague dictated,” he recalls. “He preferred to vent his political ideas outside of parliament, which appealed to Mr Wilders.
“His interest in Mr Bolkestein was fuelled by the fact that they both felt they operated on the right wing of the VVD. Mr Bolkestein’s firm point of view on Islam was fully embraced by Mr Wilders.”
What Wilders learned from Bolkestein was that it gave him more credibility with his anti-EU, anti-Muslim, anti-migrant constituency to cast himself as anti-establishment and appeal to them over the heads of his fellow politicians than to remain as one cog among many in an “establishment” party.
Thus the Freedom Party was born in 2004 when Wilders was expelled by the Liberals for rejecting their new policy in favour of EU accession negotiations with Turkey – a carefully-chosen moment.
For the past year, Wilders’s Freedom Party and Rutte’s Liberals have been neck-and-neck in the opinion polls. In recent months, Wilders received a huge publicity boost from the court case in which he was convicted of incitement to discrimination against Moroccans at an election rally in 2014.
The Freedom Party leader has made no secret of his desire to become prime minister, and either he or Rutte will win “the popular vote” in March – to the extent of emerging with the greatest number of seats in the 150-seat parliament.
But it doesn’t end there. If Rutte wins, the likelihood is that he will succeed in forming a third coalition government, probably, given the figures, a five-party coalition. If Wilders wins, however, the other main parties say they will refuse to work with him.
That means he will be unable to form a government and the initiative is once again with Rutte. That’s how the Dutch system works.
Wilders says that if he wins the popular vote and is excluded from government it will be patently undemocratic and the electorate will “revolt”, though exactly how remains to be seen. Everyone is on notice. No one can afford to be out-manoeuvred.