Dutch voters will be the first in Europe to go to the polls this year. Will the Netherlands elect the man many refer to as ‘the Dutch Donald Trump’? Here are four things you need to know before this week’s election.
1. An anti-Islam and anti-EU politician is changing Dutch politics
The similarities between Geert Wilders and US President Donald Trump extend further than their trademark blonde hair. Wilders’ outspoken views have easily made him the most recognised and polarising political figure from the Netherlands.
The Dutch public has been wary of EU migration policies during the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and Wilders’ promises to ‘de-Islamise’ the Netherlands by banning Muslim immigration, closing mosques and outlawing the Koran has hit a chord with many.
Wilders was first elected as an MP for the ruling VDD party in 1998, but a disagreement over the party’s support of Turkey’s entry to the EU resulted in him leaving the party and establishing the anti-Islam, anti-EU, anti-immigration Party for Freedom (PVV) in 2002.
Officially, Wilders is the only member of the PVV, but since the 2006 elections the party has had a spectacular rise in popularity by feeding a public appetite against Islam and multiculturalism.
Wilders has even looked to Australian policy on asylum seekers, praising its tough stance on those who seek to reach Australia by boat.
2. Wilders is doing well in the opinion polls
Wilders’ Party for Freedom has consistently led in opinion polls, but recently this lead has narrowed with the ruling VDD party now polling ahead of the PVV.
The PVV currently has 12 seats in the House of Representatives and is projected to almost double that, possibly winning up to 23 seats. The latest polling is here.
A diplomatic dispute between the Netherlands and Turkey might prompt a last minute boost for Wilders. However, the accuracy of opinion polls in measuring populist sentiment has been in serious doubt since the US election.
If the PVV emerges as the Netherlands’ largest party after the election, it will be a remarkable triumph for the far-Right in a country previously renowned for tolerance.
3. But he probably won’t be able to form a Government
It’s extremely rare in the Netherlands for one party to win the 76 seats needed to form a majority, so forming a coalition is a necessary feature in Dutch politics.
After the election, possible coalition scenarios will be assessed and they likely won’t include the PVV. After years of disrespecting parliamentary conventions and using foul language towards other MPs, Wilders has very few friends inside the House.
The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, who leads the VDD party, has already ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders, and so have most other parties.
Regardless of the results, coalition building takes time and assuming the PVV takes over 20 seats, it could take five or more parties to form a government.
4. The result may set the tone for the other European elections.
EU pundits will be reading the tea leaves on what a populist win or loss in the Netherlands will imply for elections in France and Germany due later this year.
Since the 1990s, certain election trends in Europe have been noted, such as lower voter turnout, decline in loyalty to establishment parties and the increasing voice of smaller, populist parties. These trends match current political developments in the Netherlands.
Dutch politics are often a bellwether for Europe and if Wilders does win, it will likely give a boost to far-Right populist candidates in France and Germany.
But even before the first vote is cast, there are already winners and losers among players in European politics. Populist parties and movements, both on the Right and Left, are achieving their intention of disrupting the status quo by fragmenting the political system and increasing dissatisfaction and polarisation.
This has already been the case in Greece and Spain where parties were unable to form coalitions and effectively govern, but populist candidates are also influencing a change in positions of establishment parties, such as the VDD’s new stance on migration and the campaign tone of Prime Minister Rutte, who is now matching some of Wilders’ anti-immigration rhetoric.
Centre-Right parties have a chance to do well this year if they can peel off support from the far-right, but traditional parties to the left are sensing disaster. It is unprecedented for two Right-wing parties to lead in the polls in the Netherlands and the Labour Party is struggling to maintain party loyalty, even losing the support of voters with a migrant background, part of their traditional base. The situation in France is similar, with the Socialist Party currently trailing in fifth place.
European populism is set for its first test of 2017, but irrespective of what happens on Wednesday, politics in the Netherlands and Europe have already been transformed.
This article was co-published with the University of Melbourne’s Election Watch Europe
Banner Image: Supporters of Geert Wilders hold leaflets bearing his image and a slogan which translates as ‘Make Netherlands ours again’ as he officially launches his election campaign in Spijkenisse on February 18, 2017. Picture: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.