Political Upset in The Netherlands: Voters Turn to Firebrand Leader

In an election upset without precedent, Dutch voters on Wednesday chastised the ruling coalition of longtime prime minister Mark Rutte and handed the levers of power to political provocateur Geert Wilders whose Party for Freedom (PVV) unexpectedly secured 37 seats (+20) in the 150-strong Lower House and became the largest bloc in parliament.

Marginalised and ostracised for over 17 years by the mainstream political establishment, Wilders saw and seized his chance after Rutte’s successor as leader of the centre-right VVD (Popular Party for Freedom and Democracy), Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, broke with tradition and refused to rule out the anti-immigrant PVV as a possible coalition partner.

Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders

Today, Wilders was invited to name an “explorer”, Gom van Strien, to map the preferences of the fifteen political parties represented in the new parliament, a first step in a coalition-building process that is expected to take months.

The massive PVV gains took most political pundits by surprise and threw the left into disarray. Whilst the Green/Labour electoral alliance gained eight seats, it did so at the expense of smaller progressive parties. The overall representation of the left was reduced to just 50 seats.

The outcome of the vote was a great disappointment to Green/Labour leader Frans Timmermans, the former climate tsar of the European Commission who gave up his Brussels job with the express intention to succeed prime minister Rutte.

However, Timmermans alienated voters with his refusal to blame immigrants for the country’s ills and his insistence on meeting the climate targets set by the EU. His statesman-like appearance and demeanour were no match for Wilders, an experienced political street fighter, who doggedly stayed on message and promised to prioritise the interests of native-born Dutch. Whilst no climate change denier, Wilders opposes vast outlays of cash on the energy transition.

Tsunami

In a country that saw immigrant arrivals increase tenfold over the past decade to more than 220,000 annually, it proved easy for Geert Wilders to blame the acute housing crisis on this “tsunami” of newcomers. Wilders found an unlikely ally in Pieter Omtzigt, the country’s most celebrated member of parliament.

Long a thorn in the flesh of the ruling Christian-Democrat Party (CDA), Mr Omtzigt left that party to eventually form his own. In its first election run, Mr Omtzigt’s New Social Contract (NSC) secured twenty seats in parliament.

Whilst not as radical as Wilders’ PVV, the NSC seeks to limit immigration to around 50,000 per year. Amongst others, it aims to reduce the number of foreign students by reinstating Dutch as the primary language of instruction at Dutch universities.

Omtzigt rose to near stardom after taking the government to task over several scandals and failures involving an overzealous tax service and the inadequate compensation offered to thousands of homeowners whose properties were damaged or became uninhabitable due to severe subsidence in Groningen province caused by seven decades of natural gas extraction.

Toning Down the Rhetoric

The NSC leader expressed a willingness to open coalition talks with Wilders as long as the PVV refrains from its pursuit of the unconstitutional policy proposals contained in its programme such as the closure of mosques and the banning of the Koran. Wilders, meanwhile, has indicated his readiness, if not eagerness, to tone down the rhetoric and let go of his signature obsession with Islam: “We now have bigger issues to address,” he said.

Whilst the NSC seems a probable coalition partner, the leadership of the liberal VVD may not be ready to serve in a cabinet led by Wilders. Although opinion polls detected a strong preference amongst VVD voters for a “deliciously” right wing government, the party just lost ten of the 34 seats it secured in the 2021 general election.

Earlier today, VVD lead candidate Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius reiterated that she would not serve under Wilders. She also said that the party may, at most, be counted upon to provide incidental support to a PVV-NSC minority government. That unusual scenario would imply both instability and a lack of experience in government. Whilst the NSC has attracted several experienced administrators, the PVV faction includes a host of blue-collar workers who have never held public office.

However, Mrs Yeşilgöz-Zegerius’ own position in the VVD is far from secure after running a ramshackle election campaign in which she miserably failed to impress and had to rely on post-it notes to recite one-liners. The oft-repeated assurances that she was ready to serve as prime minister sounded hollow and prompted one pundit to remark, “if you feel the need to say that repeatedly, you’re probably not ready for the job.”

Mrs Yeşilgöz-Zegerius is blamed for the party’s dismal performance at the polls – and for flip-flopping on Wilders’ suitability as a possible coalition partner. Whilst Mrs Yeşilgöz-Zegerius ran on a moderately anti-immigration platform, her party was held responsible for failing to respond decisively to the crisis, even denying its existence. Voters turned to the “real deal” instead, hoping that Wilders can succeed where prime minister Rutte failed.

However, it is far from certain that Wilders will become The Netherlands’ next prime minister. His extremist views on Islam and past reluctance to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine make the PVV frontman a nightmare for the foreign service. In Brussels, news of his electoral triumph caused consternation. His anti-EU stance is well known as is his admiration for Brexiter-in-Chief Nigel Farage. The hope is that Wilders will prove more accommodating once in power, following the example set by eurosceptic prime minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy.

Geert Wilders is, however, not expected to find anywhere close to a majority in parliament for a binding referendum on a ‘Nexit’. The EU did not feature during the election campaign, not even as a footnote. The PVV, wisely it would seem, did not table its objections to Europe and said it would try and negotiate with Brussels for opt-outs on a case-by-case basis.


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