Geert Wilders trial throws Netherlands' divisions in sharp relief

Court to decide whether leader of the far-right Freedom party and frontrunner for prime minister incited hatred of Moroccan immigrants at rally in March 2014

Far-right leader Geert Wilders has gone on trial in the Netherlands on charges of inciting discrimination and hatred of Moroccans.

The case comes as Dutch, French and German voters gear up for a series of elections next year in which populist rightwing groups, such as Wilders’s Freedom party (PVV), will seek to make immigration a central issue.

On Friday, Wilders announced that he would be boycotting the trial, which he called a travesty and “against freedom of expression”. In a column for the AD newspaper, he claimed that he spoke for “millions of Dutch people, fed up with the disruption and terror caused by so many Moroccans … If talking about that is an offence, the Netherlands is no longer a free country, but a dictatorship”.

In a statement read out by one of his lawyers on Monday, Wilders said he had done nothing wrong. “It is my right and my duty as a politician to speak about the problems in our country. Because the Netherlands has a mega Moroccan problem,” the statement said.

The charges relate to an evening in March 2014 when Wilders’s party narrowly failed to become the largest group on the city council in The Hague. Wilders asked a room packed with supporters and activists if they wanted to have “more or fewer Moroccans” in the country. To the response of “fewer”, Wilders replied: “Well, we’ll take care of that.”

More than 6,000 people filed official complaints to the police about Wilders’ comments and, nine months later, he was formally charged with racial discrimination and inciting hatred. The maximum sentence is two years in prison, although fines and community service orders are more common.

Wilders has been the frontrunner for the parliamentary elections next March for about a year, but the latest opinion polls show him running either neck and neck or just behind the Liberals (VVD) of prime minister Mark Rutte, with about 18% of the vote in the highly fragmented Dutch landscape.

His shrinking lead has coincided with a steep drop in the number of refugees arriving in the Netherlands since last year when plans to build new centres for asylum seekers led to riots outside town halls.

Nevertheless, Wilders has hardened his anti-Islam, anti-EU stance for the election campaign. His party’s draft manifesto includes pledges to shut every mosque – previously Wilders merely opposed building new ones. It also calls for a ban on the Koran and headscarves from government buildings, the tearing up of the Schengen open borders agreement and a “Nexit” referendum to follow the UK out of the European Union.

Wilders has dismissed repeated calls to withdraw or apologise for his remarks, which have made his party a pariah in Dutch politics. Rutte has ruled out any collaboration between his Liberal group and the PVV until Wilders issues a retraction.

But the prime minister has not shirked from strong language on migration either; in a recent TV interview, he said Dutch Turks who held pro-Erdogan demonstrations in Rotterdam in July should “get lost”.

Wilders retorted that he would not govern with the Liberals while Rutte remained leader. There is a history of antagonism between the two men: Rutte’s first government, in 2010, was a minority administration propped up by a post-election pact with the PVV, but collapsed after 18 months when Wilders refused to back a €14bn austerity package.

Under the Dutch proportional representation system, the leader of the largest party is conventionally given the first shot at forming a government. But these are unconventional times; most other parties have ruled out a coalition with Wilders and, if the district court in The Hague finds him guilty, voters will have to decide whether to endorse a convicted criminal as their prime minister.

It is not the first time that Wilders’ public statements have landed him in court. In 2011, he was acquitted of discriminating against, and inciting hatred towards, Muslims in interviews in which he denounced Islam as a “fascist” religion. But the case is stronger this time because his comments were directed against a racial group, according to Henny Sackers, professor of administrative criminal law at Radboud University in Nijmegen.

“The European court says you can criticise religion in public even if it shocks, hurts or disturbs,” he said. “In the case of discrimination on grounds of nationality, you can be guilty of an offence in Dutch law if you provoke social unrest. So I see the chances of a conviction for Wilders as being considerably higher than three years ago.

“Those who know our constitutional law say this trial has come at a very unfortunate time for democracy. Whether Wilders is acquitted or convicted, he will present himself as the Dutch Donald Trump, a crusader for the free word. It will always give him a potential electoral advantage.”

Gordon Darroch in The Hague

The GuardianTramp

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