Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders appeared until recently to have faded into political irrelevance, thanks partly to the country’s mainstream parties’ adoption of some of his populist positions.
Rivals on the populist right, notably Thierry Baudet, started to eclipse Wilders.
But the controversial firebrand seems to be on the brink of pulling off a strong electoral showing with his party, the Party for Freedom, PVV, likely to place second in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections, according to opinion polls.
Pollsters say the PVV is on course to retain the 20 seats it won in 2017, and analysts and commentators say that if that holds true, it will amount to a comeback by Wilders, whose party has struggled to keep its political footing and stumbled in 2019 when it went from nine seats to five in elections for the national parliament’s upper house.
In the same year, his anti-immigrant and anti-EU party just scrambled to reach the electoral threshold to gain a single seat in the European Parliament. Wilders was dismissed as a has-been. Baudet was seen as the new face of alt-right in the Netherlands.
Wilders also stood out less with other parties embracing, to varying degrees, euro-skepticism.
A record number of 37 parties are competing for seats in the 150-strong lower house. All the eve-of-election polls are giving the right-wing liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD, of incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte a clear lead in the elections. His party is projected to get at least 30 seats in the lower house.
EU negotiations last year over a coronavirus recovery fund for member states ran into an impasse partly thanks to Rutte, who took on the leadership role of the so-called “frugal four” north European countries opposed to an $857 billion EU stimulus package. Rutte was nicknamed “Mr. No No No!” for his opposition to the package and he’s seen as the leader of what Eurocrats dub “the awkward squad.”
Third place in the elections is likely to go to the Christian Democratic Appeal party, CDA, which has moved further to the right under the leadership of Wopke Hoekstra, the country’s finance minister, who was also an outspoken critic of the EU’s post-pandemic financial stimulus plan, which will see richer European countries help out poorer ones.
Wilders said this week that the three largest parties after the election should immediately enter into coalition discussions, but Rutte has ruled that out, saying he won’t include the PVV in talks about forming a new government. The same happened in 2017 when the PVV was shut out of government.
That, according to Wilders, is “undemocratic.” “Voters are in charge, not Mark Rutte,’ Wilders told NPO Radio 1 Monday. But he still harbors hopes, saying Rutte is a “full-blooded power broker” who will cut whatever deal he needs to stay in office.
Some analysts question whether Wilders has any interest in actually joining a government. If he had, they say, he would have been more circumspect in his rhetoric in the lead-up to the polls.
Wilders says that he wants the Netherlands to return to “a country without headscarves, but with traditional Dutch coziness,” and backs the contentious tradition of Black Pete, when children and adults dress as “blackface” during the December holiday of Sinterklaas.
“We express that our own culture is best. And we're proud of that! Unfortunately, the attack on the Netherlands' culture went into high speed last year because of the glorification of dangerous activist groups like Black Lives Matter and Kick Out Black Pete,” Wilders says in the PVV manifesto.
The folklore character of Black Pete is a helper of the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas and has been the focus of fierce debate for years in the Netherlands.
Racial inequality has been debated in the election campaigning, mainly pushed by minor parties. Sylvana Simons, a former TV presenter who leads a small party called ‘Together,’ says she hopes those who gathered last year to support Black Lives Matter, which head to the polls.
Simons, who was born in Suriname and at 18 months moved with her parents to the Netherlands, told Associated Press: “It was good to see that so many people said, ‘enough is enough’ and they came out and spoke out. And I do also hope that they will use that same voice when we have our general elections.”
But pollsters say Simons’ party will struggle to gain even one seat.
Housing shortages, the environment, health care and education have all figured in election campaigning. Rutte’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has also been an issue. The 54-year-old’s favorability ratings had held up well for most of last year, but a prolonged lockdown has begun to dent his popularity in recent weeks.
And Wilders has sought to profit from the Dutch impatience. “What are you doing Premier Rutte? You are holding an entire country hostage in fear and captivity,” Wilders has charged.