Will Dutch voters leap to the far-right for Geert Wilders?

Analysts watch for the ‘Trump effect’ as Netherlands gears up for election in March

 

It’s market day in Almere, a Dutch town 30km east of Amsterdam. The central square is packed with shoppers, as locals stock up on the assortment of fresh produce and Christmas gifts on display.

Next March, voters in towns like this across the Netherlands will go to the polls in elections that will be widely seen as a barometer of anti-EU sentiment.

Along with France, Germany and possibly Italy, the country is one of several EU member states to hold elections that could have profound impacts on European politics and the future of the European Union.  

Already, analysts are watching for a “Trump effect”, amid signs that the seismic move against the political establishment expressed in the Brexit vote and US election could be replicated across Europe.

Almere was one of the many planned towns established in the 1970s, built on land reclaimed from the sea.

Originally intended to house the overspill from Amsterdam, it swiftly developed into a town in its own right.

It is far from the ideal of the Dutch town of windmills and cute cottages.

Rather its concrete roads and shopping centres make it a typical grey, post-industrial commuter town, a place that could be anywhere in the western world.

The town of 200,000 people is also home to a significant population of non-white immigrants, many from north Africa and Asia who settled in the area, part of a wave of immigration into the Netherlands from the 1960s.

Almere is also a stronghold of the Freedom Party (PVV), the controversial far-right party founded by Geert Wilders.

In 2010 it topped the polls in municipal elections.

Ban on mosques

With another general election on the horizon, attention in the Netherlands is focusing on Wilders.

The maverick 53-year-old, known for his shock of peroxide blond hair, founded the PVV party in 2004 on a strong anti-Islamic message.

Having won nine out of 150 seats in the 2006 general election, the party gradually cemented its presence as a significant political force in Dutch politics, becoming the third-largest party in the 2010 elections with 24 seats.

The party has called for the “de-Islamisation” of the Netherlands, proposing a ban on mosques and the Koran. It has also pledged to withdraw the country from the European Union.

On December 9th, Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination at a rally in 2014 when he asked the crowd whether they wanted “more or less Moroccans” in the country.

A panel of three judges ruled that the comments were “demeaning and thereby insulting towards the Moroccan population”, though they stopped short of finding him guilty of inciting hatred.

But despite the conviction, the man who was once banned by the British home office from entering the UK over public security concerns is topping the polls.

An opinion poll conducted following his conviction found that the PVV would win 36 out of 150 seats in the lower houses of parliament if the election were held this week, making it the biggest single party in the country.

In Almere on this icy December morning there are mixed views about the prospects of the PVV and the right step forward for the country.

Dirjk (55), from the nearby town of Lelystad, says he hasn’t yet decided who to vote for. But his views on the governing VVD-Labour coalition are clear.

“Terrible. They have done nothing for the country, nothing economically. There are a lot of problems in the Netherlands.”

Pushing his mother in a wheelchair, he cites healthcare as a major issue.

Others echo this view, raising parallels with the millions of voters in Britain and the US who voted against the establishment this year as a result of a growing sense of disfranchisement – the sense that, socially and economically, they have been left behind.

Silent majority

A silent majority defied the polls in the US presidential election, and it is difficult to find anyone here who will publicly endorse the PVV, even though Almere’s voting record suggests the opposite.

Pressed on whether he would support PVV, one middle-aged man, Mark, typifies the response.

“Some of their extreme views I don’t agree with, but we will have to see what they say in the campaign about their plans for the country, their economic plans . . .” he trails off.

There is a sense that, although voters may not agree with Wilders’s more inflammatory comments on religion and culture, if his party makes a strong economic case they will back it.

But others suggest otherwise. Many younger female voters are unequivocal about Wilders.

A 28-year-old shop worker says she “just wants peace” and hates the rhetoric espoused by Wilders and other anti-EU parties. 

Stephanie, an Australian woman wheeling her two-year-old twins around the market, says that most of her friends are vehemently against the PVV.

“This is not what Almere is about. It’s a welcoming place, with lots of white and non-white immigrants from all over the world. Many people are embarrassed that the party did so well in 2010.”

Married to a Dutch man, she explains that she had to complete a Dutch integration course on arrival at a cost of close to €3,000.

“I worry that that’s going to put a lot of immigrants off coming here, even if they do have a job.”

Three months out from the election, a number of polls put PVV ahead. But the particularities of the Dutch electoral system mean that a government led by Wilders is still unlikely, according to Dr Tom Louwerse of the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University.

 “It is possible that the PVV end up the biggest party but not in government. That is not unheard of and has happened to the Labour Party, for example, in the past.”

Most of the major parties are likely to rule out a coalition with the PVV, though current prime minister Mark Rutte’s VVD party did enter a minority government bolstered by the PVV in 2010, sparking controversy.

Fragmented politics

Louwerse also notes that smaller fringe parties such as the over-50s party may make gains, causing even greater fragmentation in the political landscape.

Whether the Trump victory has emboldened far-right parties such as the PVV and the National Front in France in next year’s elections remains to be seen.

Wilders was one of the first to congratulate Trump on Twitter, hailing the “historic victory” as a “revolution”.

“We too will give our party back to the Dutch,” he tweeted.

But the Austrian presidential result, which saw voters reject far-right candidate Norbert Hofer, suggests that electoral developments elsewhere may help to solidify the centre ground.

What is clear is that the final shape of the next Dutch government will be difficult to predict.

Louwerse cautions against extrapolating too much from the current polls.  “During the last election in 2012, there was quite a major upset in the last month or so when the Socialists went from 35 to 15 seats and Labour went from 15 to 38. All of this happened within the last five weeks of the campaign,” he says.

“A lot can change. This time is unlikely to be any different.”

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