ROTTERDAM, Netherlands — A sudden surge in support for far-right firebrand Geert Wilders has electrified the Dutch election as the campaign enters its final hours.
Wilders’ anti-Islam, anti-EU Freedom Party (PVV) was buoyed by last-minute gains, with one poll even putting the PVV tied for first place with the prime minister’s conservative-liberal VVD party outgoing Mark Rutte.
The late change in polls has thrown the Dutch electoral race into dramatic upheaval. Voters voted on Wednesday to elect the 150 members of Parliament, with results expected later that night.
Until recent days, the contest had been a three-way affair since it began in July, with Rutte’s VVD battling with a Labor-Green alliance led by European heavyweight Frans Timmermans, and with the newly formed center-right party shape. from abroad Pieter Omtzigt.
The new leader of Rutte’s party, Dilan Yeşilgöz, declared at the start of the campaign that she would not, unlike Rutte, exclude the PVV from coalition negotiations. Since then, Wilders has adopted a more moderate tone, saying he is “available” for coalition negotiations.
His anti-Islam rhetoric, however, remains largely anchored in the PVV’s electoral program. The party wants to ban mosques and the Koran, as well as the wearing of Islamic headscarves in government buildings. Wilders is also a die-hard Eurosceptic, calling for a referendum on leaving the EU.
If Wilders’ party wins the largest number of seats in proportional representation, it would shake the Netherlands.
The leader of the PVV has been attacking Islam for more than 15 years, since the creation of his party in 2006. He is one of the main figures of the European far right, a political friend of the Hungarian Viktor Orbán and of Marine Le Pen in France. Several years ago, he was found guilty in court of insulting a group of people because of their origins, after calling for “fewer Moroccans” in a 2014 speech.
In 2017, international media descended on the Netherlands amid speculation that the country could become the third domino to fall into nationalist populism following the UK’s Brexit vote and election of Donald Trump in the United States. A “Wilders effect” has even been invoked to explain how his political language and beliefs have shifted the dominant discourse to the right.
A Hague veteran, Wilders is a strong and fast debater. During a debate on Monday, he was asked what he would say to international students in the audience whose presence in the Netherlands he wants to limit. He turned to the audience and asked in a strict tone, “Where are they?”
His extreme views also mean he has needed 24-hour police protection for more than a decade after his name was found on a list of Islamist terrorists linked to the 2004 assassination of director Theo van Gogh. Wilders and his wife have been living in shelters ever since.
ELECTION POLL IN THE NETHERLANDS NATIONAL PARLIAMENT
For more polling data from across Europe, visit POLICY Poll of polls.
Wilders’ incendiary policies have not only divided the Netherlands, but also his own family. His brother urged people not to vote for him and revealed they had severed ties. Abroad, Wilders is also a troublemaker: he was banned from entering the UK in 2009 after the British government declared him an “undesirable person”.
In Dutch politics, Wilders has more recently been challenged – briefly – by younger far-right figures, including Thierry Baudet, whose Forum for Democracy topped polls in the 2019 provincial elections.
Earlier this year, Caroline van der Plas and her right-wing populist BBB Farmer-Citizen Movement party won the provincial election, becoming the largest party in the upper house of the Dutch parliament. This momentum has faded, however, and the party currently occupies sixth place in the polls.
The unexpected increase in public support for Wilders’ party was first reported by the Maurice de Hond survey institute, which overestimated Wilders’ share by five seats in the previous election. In a November 17 survey of nearly 7,000 people, it found that the PVV and VVD were neck and neck in 26 of the 150 seats up for grabs thanks to a five-seat increase from Wilders.
The POLITICO poll shows Yeşilgöz in the lead with 18 percent, followed closely by Wilders and Timmermans with 16 percent each and Omtzigt’s party with 15 percent.
Because the differences between the rivals are so small, experts warn it is impossible to predict which of the four parties will prevail.