As the first exit polls from the Dutch elections were published on Wednesday evening (22 November), many of the country’s political elite had gathered their supporters in grand surroundings: conference centres, fancy restaurants and wedding venues, where they could toast their success among friends. The Green/Labour alliance held their affair in a former gas factory which fit a thousand guests, while the populist JA21 party held theirs in a former church. Geert Wilders settled for more modest surroundings: a cafeetje (small cafe) in The Hague, where a tiny podium was set up for him next to a dartboard.
At the time, the modest venue seemed fitting: in the run-up to the election, polls had predicted that the veteran anti-Islam campaigner’s Party for Freedom (PVV) would come third or fourth, picking up perhaps 29 parliamentary seats at best. Wilders’ party defied expectations, winning 37 – more than twice as many as at the last election, and enough to make PVV the biggest party in parliament. “A total earthquake is happening,” a jubilant Wilders lieutenant told journalists.
How did this happen? Mainstream parties, including current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party (VVD), have long pandered to extremists, competing to talk toughest on immigration, fighting on fronts where Wilders reigns supreme. By repeatedly implying they’d be happy to go into coalition with Wilders, big parties also made him seem more acceptable.
Wilders and his acolytes are known for their incendiary rhetoric, but in the final days of the campaign he softened his tone. Opposition to “Islam will never leave our [party’s] DNA,” he said a week before the election, “but the priority now clearly lies with other matters.” Once the results came in Wilders sought to pacify opponents, seeking to speak for the country as a whole. “Together we will ensure that the Netherlands improves and changes,” he said.
But the manifesto that Wilders ran on – which few voters have probably read – reveals his aims. The document, entitled “Dutch people first again”, could well be the most right-wing platform ever to win a European election.
Some of the policies it includes are predictably right-wing: under a Prime Minister Wilders, there will (we’re told) be lower taxes, 10,000 new police officers, and a “Nexit” referendum on EU membership. Environmental regulations will be scrapped and international agreements on climate change discarded, while drilling for oil and gas will increase. Some pledges are unintentionally comic: for reasons unknown, one priority of a party not usually known for its compassion is the creation of a national animal ambulance service.
Others, meanwhile, are darker: under Wilders there will be “zero tolerance for street scum” and 14-year-olds will be treated as adults in criminal courts. There will be a complete end to foreign aid and the government’s previous apologies for slavery will be withdrawn. Other pledges are darker still. All asylum claims will be rejected, and the Netherlands will host no more refugees.
Criminals with dual nationality will have their citizenship removed and be deported. All military support for Ukraine will end, and a campaign to remove Turkey from Nato will begin. Perhaps most starkly, Wilders wants all Islamic schools in the Netherlands to be closed, along with all the country’s mosques. Possessing a Koran will be against the law – “just like Mein Kampf is forbidden”, as Wilders wrote in 2007. The manifesto makes Boris Johnson look like Tony Benn.
Thankfully, under the Dutch system it is impossible to govern without forming a coalition, and it is doubtful that Wilders will in fact be able to cobble together enough support to become prime minister. In government he would also be forced to scrap much of his platform. A centre-left coalition lead by Frans Timmermans could yet keep the hard right from power – the VVD has ruled out joining Wilders in office. The Dutch have voted for one of the most extreme policy platforms in Europe, but they may not get it.