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Close-Up: Geert Wilders

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With less than three months to go until parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is leading the polls. But winning the election is only the first hurdle for the far-right leader – the Dutch multi-party system could likely keep him out of government.

© Artwork: Dominik Herrmann

There is no doubt about it – Geert Wilders is ready to take the next step. “When I become the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, I will clear the decks,” he warned in de Telegraaf, the largest Dutch daily, after he was found guilty of inciting discrimination on December 9, 2016. It wasn’t entirely clear whether “clearing the decks” was a shot at the judges who convicted him, or whether Wilders meant his controversial comments about Moroccans. Either way, the conviction could cost the leader of the right-wing populist Freedom Party (PVV) a seat in government next year. Still, with around twenty percent of the vote, Wilders and the PVV are leading the latest polls.

The Dutch political system has splintered over the last decade; the present coalition partners, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Labor Party (PvdA), only hold a paltry 25 percent of the vote. They have been challenged by a dozen political newcomers on the left and the right, not to mention single-issue groups like the 50+ Party for the elderly, the “migrant party” DENK or the Party for the Animals. The coalition carries a majority in the House of Representatives but not the senate.

That has rendered policy making a messy business, involving makeshift coalitions with a rotating cast of parties. A reform on housing, for example, was supported by the social-liberal democrats D66, the Reformed Political Party (SGP), and the Christian Union (CU). In the “labor and social reform coalition,” two more parties joined – the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Greens. Almost every party cooperated with Rutte in some sort of coalition – every party except for Geert Wilders’ PVV.

In a political system built upon compromise, Wilders remains the uncompromising one-eyed king. And so far, no party has showed any willingness to cooperate with Wilders after the 2017 elections either. This year’s vote will reveal whether the far-right leader can rebrand himself as Wilders 2.0, willing and able to make drastic compromises in order to govern, or whether he will remain glued to the opposition benches for another four years.

Wild, Wilder, Wilders

Geert Wilders was born on September 6, 1963, in the small southeastern city of Venlo, nestled along the German border. He is the youngest in a family of three children and was therefore “a bit spoiled,” as he admitted in a radio documentary in 2006 – the last documentary on his life where he actively cooperated in its making.

His father worked as a manager at the city’s largest firm, Océ, a printing and copying hardware manufacturer. His mother was born in the Dutch East Indies into a colonial Dutch-Indonesian family. A quiet, peaceful childhood was followed by a markedly wilder adolescence. Wilders grew his hair long, donned leather jackets and gold earrings, drank beer, and skipped college classes. After graduating, he took a course in social security insurance and was later drafted into the Dutch army. After he was conscripted, he left for Israel where he worked for two years and travelled around the Middle East, an experience that left a deep impression. Wilders became a self-professed “friend and fan” of the state of Israel, which he called “the only democratic ray of light surrounded by suppressing dictatorial regimes.” For Wilders, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the forefront of a global culture clash between political Islam and Western, Judeo-Christian values, making Israel an important and symbolic ally. His ties to the country have been close ever since.

In 1990 Wilders was hired as the parliamentary assistant and speechwriter of Frits Bolkestein of the VVD, a Dutch lawmaker who would later serve as the European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services. It was during this phase that Wilders became a fierce critic of multiculturalism, Islam, and the European Union. Bolkestein was one of the first established politicians in the Netherlands who openly criticized Dutch migration policy and multicultural society in the 1990s. It was only natural that Wilders became Bolkestein’s “sorcerer’s apprentice.” He entered parliament as part of the VVD in 1998 and soon became a spokesman for the far-right.

During the rise of conservative Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn (also an outspoken critic of multiculturalism and Islam) and after Fortunyn’s assassination in May 2002 by a radical animal rights activist, Wilders’ criticism of his party’s socially liberal course sharpened. It ultimately led to a showdown in 2004, when Wilders refused to support the VVD’s position on Turkey’s accession to the EU. He left the party but kept his seat in parliament and founded the Group Wilders, which became the Freedom Party (PVV) two years later.

Shifting to the Right

The PVV entered parliament in 2006 with nearly six percent of the vote. In the party’s early years, Wilders positioned himself as both a strict conservative and a market liberal; he was tough on socio-cultural issues like migration and integration, but his free market economic policies were still very much in line with those of his former party. After 2006, though, his position and tone started to radicalize, particularly on the issues of multiculturalism and Islam. In August of 2007 he compared the Koran with Hitler’s Mein Kampf. His apocalyptic short film about Islam, “Fitna,” was released one year later to great controversy. In a 2010 press conference in London, he called the Prophet Mohammed a “barbarian, a mass murderer, and a pedophile.”

It was during this phase that Wilders remade his liberal market views and fashioned himself as something of a gatekeeper for the Dutch welfare system. “Our carefully-built social welfare state is a source of pride, but it has become a magnet for low-educated, non-Western migrants,” he wrote in a 2010 manifesto.

During the height of the European financial crisis, Wilders made a dramatic pivot on the EU, too. Until then, he had supported the concept of the single market and the euro. But by 2012 he wanted out of the EU, out of the euro, out of the visa-free Schengen zone, and out of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Both his anti-EU and socio-economic stance were closely linked to his views on Islam. Wilders often speaks of “EUrabia” when talking about European politics. He holds the “liberal, multicultural elite” in Brussels responsible for what he has referred to as an Islamic asylum “tsunami” across the continent. And he fears that the bloc’s basic social structures at under threat. “Islamization in Europe has enormous consequences for our education, housing policy, social security, and the welfare state,” he was quoted as saying in 2009.

His incendiary comments on Moroccans signaled a new, even more radical turn. During a rally in The Hague in March 2014, Wilders asked his supporters whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in their country. When they called for fewer, he promised to take care of it. Until that point, he had criticized Islam as a religion, not specific groups. Many PVV politicians were disgusted by Wilders’ comments and left the party. For the court in Schiphol, too, singling out Moroccans was one step too far.

But Wilders was quick to flip the story into a battle with the “corrupt political elite” trying to silence him, a group that included media and the judiciary. He deemed the Dutch House of Representatives a “fake parliament” and claimed he was convicted by a “politicized court.” The fact that he fundamentally questioned the validity of basic democratic institutions drove a deeper wedge between Wilders and any possible coalition partners.

Populist 2.0

Wilders is not your usual far-right populist, at least not compared to his European counterparts Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front in France, or Frauke Petry of Alternative for Germany (AfD). He is among the three longest-serving members of the Dutch parliament (18 years) and has been a junior partner in government (2010 – 2012), making him an integral part of the very establishment he claims to detest.

That also makes him one of the most experienced right-wing populists around. Throughout the years, he has succeeded in deftly combining a fairly leftist socio-economic policy and a euroskeptic agenda with far-right views on migration and integration. He has an uncanny sense of timing and dominates the media with his Twitter account and YouTube channel.

Wilders is also quite unique in his claim that he wants to protect the liberal social order. Islam is his primary target, no matter what issue is on the table. He believes the “liberal Netherlands” of old is being threatened by a “culturally backward Islam.” Jews and homosexuals are very much part of Wilders’ “liberal Netherlands” and have to be protected against Muslims.

You will never hear Wilders speak of conservative family values issues, unlike Le Pen or Petry; nor does the PVV express anti-Semitic or homophobic sentiments. That makes the party far more appealing to a broader spectrum of voters, including Jews, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. They, too, might be longing for the illusion of the “open and tolerant Netherlands” of the past.

Still, it seems highly unlikely that Wilders will land a seat in the next Dutch government come March’s elections. Even if the PVV becomes the strongest party, it will probably need more than two partners to form a coalition, and Wilders will be hard pressed to find them. He would find himself in the role of dealmaker, one he has never had and most probably would not like very much. The question also remains whether the PVV will be able to identify suitable ministers and state secretaries from within their ranks. Up until now, Wilders has never allowed any party members to outshine him; the PVV has always been a one-man show.