Geert Wilders's Moment

The far-right politician is hoping to ride the populist momentum in the Dutch elections.

Wolfgang Rattay / Reuters

Dutch voters will kick off the first of many pivotal European elections when they hold their parliamentary elections on March 15. Most polls show Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), running neck-and-neck with the ruling center-right People’s Party (VVD) for Freedom and Democracy, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The remaining parties, which include mostly center and left-wing groups, are projected to each take anywhere between zero to 18 seats.

The results of the election could have an impact far beyond the Netherlands. Like the upcoming French and German elections, the Dutch vote is seen by some as a litmus test for establishment candidates facing Wilders, whose populist messaging has been compared to France’s Marine Le Pen and President Trump.

Opinion polls project Wilders’s PVV getting anywhere between 22 and 28 seats in the 150-seat lower house of Dutch parliament—far below the 76 needed to form a government. This is due, in part, to the Netherlands’ multi-party system, which makes coalition governments almost inevitable, Dr. Andrej Zaslove, an assistant professor of political science at the Radboud University Nijmegen, told me.

“Dutch politics is about coalition forming, and traditionally the largest party is given the chance to go and have talks with other political parties and form a government,” Zaslove said, adding: “Even if he [Wilders] was in power, he’s not going to be Donald Trump where he can pass executive laws willy nilly. It’s about dealmaking.”

It’s possible that PVV could win the majority of parliamentary seats and still be excluded from entering the government coalition. In fact, it’s likely. Rutte’s VVD and all the parties to the left of it have already ruled out forming a government with Wilders.

“Zero percent Geert, ZERO percent. It. Is. Not. Going. To. Happen,” Rutte tweeted last month.

Wilders responded in kind, tweeting: “It's the voters who are in charge of this country Mark, for a HUNDRED percent. And. Nobody. In. The. Netherlands. Still. Believes. You.”

Wilders would have a hard time achieving many of his campaign promises without a coalition, which, if current polling holds, could include as many as five different parties—the most in a coalition in more than four decades. Wilders’s platform is typical of far-right populist parties: He wants a Netherlands that closes its borders to immigrants and asylum-seekers, seeks a Brexit-style referendum to leave the European Union, and spends more on defense and security. He pledges to put the Netherlands first.

Wilders has found common cause with far-right leaders, including (from left to right) Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Austria's Harald Vilimsky, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Belgium's Gerolf Annemans. (Francois Lenoir / Reuters)

But for all the similarities he shares with other far-right populists, there are also differences. Dr. Sarah de Lange, a professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, told me that unlike other far-right politicians, Wilders isn’t a political outsider.

“Wilders has been in parliament for a longtime—first for the VVD, and now for the PVV,” De Lange said. “Nevertheless voters consider him an outsider … and that is more a way he presents himself than objective fact.”

Indeed, Wilders first entered politics in 1990 at the age of 28 as a parliamentary assistant to Frits Bolkestein, at the time the leader of the center-right VVD. In 1997, he became a city councillor in the Dutch province of Utrecht, and one year later was elected a member of Parliament. Growing tensions with the VVD prompted Wilders to leave in September 2004 and start his own party, which was later renamed the PVV. Wilders, now 58, is the third-longest sitting member in the Dutch parliament’s lower house.

His three decades in politics have been anything but typical. Wilders has been under round-the-clock police surveillance since 2004 due to multiple threats on his life—a decision that was made following the high-profile killing of far-right Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002, just days ahead of the country’s general election, and the killing two years later of controversial filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Dutch Moroccan over Van Gogh’s film Submission, which is critical of Islam.

De Lange told me Wilders’s strict security detail makes him an atypical Dutch politician.

“He is very skilled at projecting himself as someone who is not part of the establishment, who is outside politics, who is not tainted by traditional politics,” De Lange said. “The fact that he’s been under police surveillance for more than a decade now helps him make that claim, because he does not participate in many of the traditional political events that take place.”

Another factor that separates Wilders from other far-right politicians is his extreme opposition to Islam. Wilders has vowed to “de-Islamize” the Netherlands by barring immigration from Islamic countries, banning the Quran (which he has likened to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf ), shuttering Dutch mosques and Islamic schools, and allowing for the “preventive detention of radical Muslims.” He is also known for his anti-Moroccan rhetoric, for which he was convicted of hate speech in December after he promised supporters during a 2014 rally to reduce the size of the country’s Moroccan community, which accounts for approximately 2 percent of the population.

Despite his views on Islam, Wilders is considerably more socially liberal than his far-right counterparts. Unlike Le Pen’s National Front in France, which has historically been characterized for its anti-Semitic and anti-gay sentiment, Wilders has long been a proponent of women’s and LGBT rights.

Almost the entire Establishment, the elite universities, the churches, the media, politicians, put our hard-earned liberties at risk,” Wilders told a gathering of the Europe of Nations and Freedom, a European Parliament nationalist group, in January. “Day after day, for years, we are experiencing the decay of our cherished values. The equality of men and women, freedom of opinion and speech, tolerance of homosexuality—all this is in retreat.”

While other far-right parties benefit from strong grassroots support and a base of members, Wilders is the PVV’s sole member.

“Most of the political parties have a very broad network in society with people with experience in large organizations or in civil society,” De Lange said. “He doesn’t.”

This lack of institutional support, however, doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of electoral support. Indeed, Wilders has accumulated a core base of supporters throughout his time in politics. These voters are typically skeptical of European integration and distrusting of establishment politicians.

“If you do a statistical analysis, you see the ideal type voter would be a lower educated, probably white man who is lower middle class or maybe working class who lives in a smaller town, perhaps a suburb, probably bordering on a larger city,” Zaslove said, adding: “You get other people that vote for different reasons. But if you’re looking for statistical mean, that's what you would find.”

It’s this core base of loyal supporters that will likely ensure Wilders’s presence in Dutch politics, Zaslove tells me, regardless of how well the PVV does at the polls.

“Populism is on the rise in Europe and North America, there’s no question,” Zaslove said. “But in Dutch politics, it’s much more normalized, and I think it has to do with the fact that we have a multi-party system with a very low entry threshold so populism and other new parties are institutionalized.”

He added: “It’s not something that’s all of the sudden appeared and it’s not something that’s going to go away.”