A voice crying in the Wildersness


As you are reading this story, the Dutch people are voting in their much-anticipated – more so by the outside world than the Dutch people themselves – national election.

Over the past few months and weeks you are likely to have come across, mostly on the right side (or at least the Trump side) of the blogosphere and the commentariat, some breathless reporting on how the populist Geert Wilders is leading in the polls and might win this election.

The former observation has been true at times but largely meaningless, the latter one was always merely wishful thinking. Both betray a lack of understanding in some sections of the English-speaking world of the Dutch political and electoral system. We in Australia, Great Britain or the United States are used to binary contests where one of the two major parties (Liberal or Labor, Conservative or Labour, Republican or Democrat) is always in power, even if sometimes in a coalition with some minor parties. The landscape in The Netherlands is much more complex. It is expected that seven different political parties from across the entire political spectrum will each win at least 10 seats in the 150-seat lower house of the Dutch parliament: Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom (PVV), the ruling centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), Christian Democrats (CDA), centre-left Democracy 66 (D66), the Green-Left, the Socialists and the social democrat Labour Party (PvdA), currently in coalition with VVD – yes, only in Europe do you get left-centre-right governments. Of necessity, the next Dutch government, like the previous ones, will be a coalition one, of at least two, but perhaps even three or four different parties.

Wilders’ support in the opinion polls has declined over the recent months, and is now sitting somewhere in the mid-teens, which should give him over 20 seats. Even before, with a support of around 20 per cent of voters, PVV’s likely parliamentary representation was being estimated at around 30 seats – remember, out of 150. Just because Wilders had led other parties in the polls, and was going to have the largest block of seats in the new parliament, never meant he was going to be able to form the next government – particularly since all the other Dutch parties have ruled out joining such Wilders coalition. To govern alone, the Party of Freedom would have to win 76 seats, an electoral impossibility in the fragmented political landscape of modern Netherlands. On the current polling, Wilders might recover from the electoral slump of the 2012 election (when he won just over 10 per cent of the vote and 15 seats) and go back to the 2010 election representation (15.4 per cent and 24 seats). He will continue to play an important role in the Dutch and the European politics but from the lonely opposition benches, shunned by both the government parties and other opposition parties.

Wilders’ recent persecution and conviction over “hate speech” certainly has not done him any harm. As I recounted a few months ago,

The remarks in question occurred at a party rally two years ago when Wilders asked his supporters whether they would like “fewer or more Moroccans in your city and in the Netherlands?” When the crowd responded “Fewer! Fewer!”, Wilders answered: “We’re going to organise that.”

Stating your party’s immigration policy is now considered a hate crime. Wrap your head around that concept: you cannot argue for a change in the ethnic make-up of the immigrant intake of your own country because that is racist and hateful.

By the same token, it has not done any electoral miracles for him either. And the biggest beneficiary of the recent spat between the Dutch government and Turkey’s President Erodgan has been the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who looks like continuing in the top job after today – and after most likely protracted coalition negotiations. Again, the populist Twitterverse went into the overdrive over the past few days, thinking that thousands of resident Turks protesting against not being able to rally in favour of Erdogan’s fascist-like constitutional power grab back home have won Wilders the election. Rightly or wrongly, but not so.

Because of the ideological and partisan fragmentation throughout Europe, paradoxically populism finds it easier to express itself politically than in the English speaking world, but it finds it more difficult to have a clear political impact on governing. The election of Donald Trump was such a shock to the system because hardly anyone expected the populists and the nationalists to capture the Grand Old Party. In Europe there are Trumps aplenty, but they find it more difficult to get to the top, facing as they do the rest of the political spectrum united against them. This is the real take-away of the Wilders phenomenon and the 2017 Dutch election.