Can Geert Wilders be more than the Netherlands' agitator-in-chief?

Despite the rise of anti-Muslim feeling, many suspect far-right politician sees more value in leading a party of protest than of government

Geert Wilders founded his Party for Freedom (PVV) in 2006 with a declaration of independence from the “elite in The Hague”, and from the outset has espoused anti-Muslim rhetoric, promising to enshrine the “dominance of the Judeo-Christian tradition” in the Dutch constitution.

As the country prepares to vote in national elections on 15 March, opinion polls have at times suggested that Wilders’ party could emerge as the country’s largest, despite recent slips. The strength of the anti-Islam, anti-EU populist PVV is reverberating around the country.

He is thought unlikely to enter government but in his decade agitating in Dutch politics, Wilders’s influence has changed the tone of debate in the country. He draws predictable comparisons with Donald Trump, but the similarities are mainly in style: a taste for sharp suits, incandescent hair dye and inflammatory tweets.

While Trump rode into Washington as an outsider, Wilders has spent 19 years in parliament and is fighting his fourth election as party leader.

Wilders was born and raised in Venlo, an industrial town in the Catholic province of Limburg. Despite a long career in The Hague he still speaks with the distinctive accent of the south and maintains a close circle of friends from his home city.

His father worked for the photocopying manufacturer Océ and went into hiding during the wartime Nazi occupation; his mother was born into a colonial family in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). According to news reports, the politician has a delicate relationship with family members: his older brother, Paul, recently told Der Spiegel the teenage Geert was “a horrible pest, egocentric and aggressive”. The two brothers have reportedly not spoken since Wilders posted a photomontage after the terror attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last year, showing the German chancellor Angela Merkel with blood on her hands.

Wilders’ first recorded interest in politics was as a 10-year-old during the oil crisis of the 1970s. He published a manifesto in his school newspaper urging people to “close their doors” and limit their use of cars and scooters. On leaving school and completing his military service he spent two years working in Israel, including a stint on a kibbutz. Photos from the time show a young Wilders with a mop of brown curls. He later said he felt an instant affinity for Israel – “It felt like I had been there before” – and has been a staunch supporter of the country ever since.

Wilders arrives for a demonstration in front of the Turkish embassy at The Hague on 8 March.
Wilders arrives for a demonstration in front of the Turkish embassy at The Hague on 8 March. Photograph: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images

On his return to the Netherlands, Wilders joined the Liberal VVD party and he was taken under the wing of the party leader Frits Bolkestein, a rightwing eurosceptic. In 1998, he was elected to parliament for the first time and made his name with a plan to cut benefits for people on long-term sick leave with psychiatric issues.

When in 2002, the anti-Muslim politician Pim Fortuyn was shot and killed by a environmental activist, Wilders’s new party quickly became a major force as it occupied the political territory vacated by Fortuyn.

In 2010 the PVV won 24 seats in parliament, but Wilders declined to form a government with his former party, led by Mark Rutte. Instead he agreed to support Rutte’s minority coalition from opposition in return for a slate of guarantees on his main policy areas of immigration and asylum.

Much of the task of keeping Wilders onside fell to the experienced Christian Democrat Gerd Leers, a fellow Limburger, in the newly created post of minister for immigration. “My portfolio was basically the trade-off we made for keeping Wilders quiet,” Leers said.

“It was meant to compensate him for his participation, but the compensation was never enough because there were limits to how much room Europe or I could give him.” The government fell after less than two years when Wilders refused to support an emergency budget-cuts package.

Over the years Wilders has ratcheted up his anti-Muslim rhetoric, denouncing Islam as a “totalitarian ideology”. In previous elections, Wilders has campaigned on a range of issues including Europe, healthcare spending, and pensions. The PVV manifesto for the Dutch election on 15 March runs to just a single page of A4, a third of which is taken up by “de-Islamisation” measures such as closing all mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Qur’an, and stopping immigration from Muslim countries.

“He’s broken away from the style of politics and political debate that most political parties engage in,” says Philip van Praag, professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. “All the parties have moved to some extent towards his position when it comes to admitting refugees, immigration policy and learning Dutch.”

A few weeks ago Rutte took out a campaign ad instructing new migrants to “act normal or go away”. Even the mild-mannered Christian Democrats have caught the mood of suspicion; its leader, Sybrand van Haersma Buma, claimed in a TV debate last week that “the Netherlands is angrier, more scared and more insecure than ever”.

Despite his electoral success his party has no formal structure – Wilders is its only member – and barely features in local elections. The pool of political talent at his disposal is shallow: many of his parliamentary candidates also represent the PVV in the European parliament, the Dutch senate or provincial assemblies. Only a few dozen supporters turned out for his first pre-election walkabout in Spijkenisse, near Rotterdam. For all his populist appeal, Wilders has been unable to build a Trump-like popular movement.

The suspicion for many is that Wilders avoids going into government because he sees more value in being a party of perpetual protest. “In Europe and in the Netherlands, and in the wider world, you try to find compromises and come to an agreement,” says Leers. “Wilders doesn’t want that. He can’t make compromises because then his credibility is gone.”

Leers says voters identify with Wilders because he speaks to their frustration with the perpetual motion of concession and compromise in Dutch politics. Wilders urges them to kom in verzet, or rise in resistance against the political classes who talk endlessly among themselves without listening to the people. “People like Trump and Wilders distance themselves from all that by asserting that it’s a fake system and a fake situation,” says Leers. “They’re trying to disrupt the political system so that they can create space for their own agenda.”

Constitutional experts warn that if Wilders were to become prime minister, most of his plans would swiftly run aground. “A lot of the plans on his sheet of A4 are discriminatory and infringe on fundamental rights, particularly for Muslims,” says Wouter Veraart, an academic who headed a committee to analyse the parties’ election manifestos. Although Dutch courts are banned from testing the constitutionality of new laws, Veraart believes a Wilders administration would be deadlocked with the Senate and the council of state, and face challenges in the courts under the European convention on human rights.

But despite these restrictions, and in the context of the election of Trump and the Brexit vote, conditions have never been more favourable for Wilders. Two months ago he surged ahead in the opinion polls after his conviction for discrimination, which many Dutch voters saw as an infringement of his right to free speech.

Now that advantage has been seemingly wiped out: latest polls indicate he may not even finish in the top two. If the downward momentum continues, next week’s poll could signal the beginning of the end of his reign as undisputed agitator-in-chief.

Gordon Darroch in The Hague

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Gordon Darroch in The Hague

31, Oct, 2016 @10:55 AM

Article image
Geert Wilders found guilty of inciting discrimination
Court declines to sentence Dutch far-right leader over comments that were ‘demeaning towards Moroccan population’

Gordon Darroch in The Hague

09, Dec, 2016 @11:59 AM

Article image
Geert Wilders suspends election campaign over alleged security leak
Dutch far-right leader stops campaigning in public for March polls after a member of his security team is arrested

Jon Henley European affairs correspondent

23, Feb, 2017 @5:16 PM

Article image
Geert Wilders calls for expulsion of Turkey's ambassador in TV debate
Demand made by Freedom party leader in TV election debate as Dutch prime minister seeks to defuse row with Erdoğan

Gordon Darroch in The Hague

14, Mar, 2017 @12:22 AM

Article image
Geert Wilders hate speech trial collapses in Netherlands
Retrial ordered after it emerged that one of the judges in the case had tried to sway a potential witness

Ian Traynor, Europe editor

22, Oct, 2010 @5:04 PM

Article image
Geert Wilders was beaten, but at the cost of fuelling racism in the Netherlands | Randeep Ramesh
When centre-right politicians adopt the far-right’s language and policies, the only victory is for the hardliners. We must fight racists, not imitate them

Randeep Ramesh

17, Mar, 2017 @10:34 AM

Article image
In the Netherlands, we’ll halt the march of Geert Wilders’ populists | Joris Luyendijk
However well his anti-EU, anti-Islam and anti-immigration platform does in the general election, Wilders will not get to lead a government – or a Nexit

Joris Luyendijk

13, Mar, 2017 @5:40 PM

Article image
Dutch election: Geert Wilders warns 'genie will not go back in the bottle'
Voting under way in the Netherlands as the prime minister, Mark Rutte, seeks to halt domino effect of ‘wrong sort of populism’

Jon Henley and Gordon Darroch in The Hague

15, Mar, 2017 @3:35 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Geert Wilders’ defeat: good news, to be treated with caution | Editorial
Editorial: Dutch voters have shown that xenophobic populism need not advance unchecked. But the Freedom party’s gains and the prime minister’s embrace of some of its themes are alarming


16, Mar, 2017 @7:19 PM

Article image
Geert Wilders out in the cold in Dutch election scrum
As voters turn to the right, the Greens are hoping to profit from the woes of a discredited Labour party

Gordon Darroch in Gouda

12, Mar, 2017 @12:03 AM