Europe, it’s safe to say, was focused on a lot of threats in the last month — a polarized British electorate that voted to leave the European Union, ongoing worries about the Italian banking sector, yet another terrorist attack in France, a failed military coup in Turkey.
No one has spent much time considering the possibility that political instability could come to the Netherlands, a northern European country that was one of the six founding members of what is today the European Union.
As Americans and non-Americans alike turn to Cleveland to watch the unorthodox spectacle of Donald Trump’s formal coronation as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, one of the Europeans in attendance hopes to become the next prime minister of The Netherlands. And he has reason for optimism. According to polls, Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) could win the next Dutch election, which must take place before March 15.
If those polls hold, Wilders, who has been a fixture in Dutch politics for more than a decade, would win the election by a robust margin, dwarfing the more traditional center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) of prime minister Mark Rutte.
Wilders has enthusiastically embraced Trump at a time when nationalist populism is on the rise throughout the United States as well as Europe, tweeting out ‘Make The Netherlands Great Again’ to supporters earlier this spring. He’s arrived with a splash at the Republican National Convention, invited by the Tennessee delegation. As an outspoken critic of immigration, Islam and the European Union, Wilders hopes that he can finally break through to an election victory in March and perhaps, at long last, fulfill his dream of becoming prime minister.
Wilders inherited much of the support that Pim Fortuyn once commanded before the latter’s assassination in 2002. Wilders is known mostly for his outright rejection of Islam and his quest to terminate all immigration from Muslim-majority countries into the Netherlands. Though Wilders often denies links to other European far-right parties by pointing to his more liberal record on economic policy, he is clearly the Dutch analog to figures like Britain’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marine Le Pen. Wilders is currently on trial in the Netherlands for inciting hatred as a result of disparaging comments he made about the Dutch Moroccan minority, though he wears the legal dispute as a badge of honor — a politician willing to speak the truth about Muslims. For more than a decade, following the assassinations of Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh (the latter killed by a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent in 2004), Wilders lives under strict protection from potential threats.
More recently, however, Wilders has embraced the spirit that led to Brexit in the United Kingdom by campaigning against the European Union as a drag on Dutch sovereignty. In the aftermath of the British referendum on EU membership, Wilders promptly promised that a PVV victory in the Netherlands would clear the way for a similar Dutch referendum on ‘Nexit.’ This week, Wilders said that the Netherlands needs a ‘leader like Trump,’ and it was entirely clear who Wilders had in mind.
Wilders and the PVV have been close to power before.
After the 2010 elections, the PVV won 15.4% of the vote and 24 seats in the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch House of Representatives. That was enough to guarantee Wilders a role as an informal partner propping up Rutte’s first administration from outside the formal coalition between the VVD and the more socially conservative Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal). When Wilders pulled the plug on Rutte’s government in the summer of 2012 over Rutte’s plans to cut the Dutch budget, it backfired on the platinum-haired populist. The PVV lost nine seats.
But the current polling shows that the PVV could win between 28 and 37 seats or more. That’s far from a majority, of course. But if the PVV clearly emerges as the leading party in the House of Representatives after elections, Wilders might easily have a shot at becoming prime minister. There’s a relatively formal process for cabinet formation in the Netherlands, and the first step typically involves the Dutch monarch appointing an ‘informateur,’ typically a well-respected statesman, to explore the potential coalition options. If the informateur cannot find a clear path to a governing majority, the Dutch monarch will then keep appointing an ‘informateur,’ until a coalition emerges and a ‘formateur,‘ typically the leader of the largest party, who will then conduct much more intense negotiations in hopes of forming a government.
It would be nearly impossible, at that point, to deny Wilders his shot at forming a government. Under the right conditions, it’s not impossible to imagine that the CDA, which polls show could increase its representation in the House to between 15 and 22 seats, might join a Wilders-led government. So could a handful of smaller right-wing parties, like the socially conservative ChristenUnie (Christian Union), the Calvinist, right-wing Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij (SGP, Reformed Political Party) or the populist and relatively new pensioners’ interests party, 50PLUS.
Though the Dutch monarchy’s discretion was limited in recent years, Willem-Alexander, the Dutch king, whose reign began only in April 2013, certainly would not relish the prospect that Wilders would emerge as prime minister after presiding over what would be Willem-Alexander’s first cabinet formation process.
How did Dutch politics end up veering so far to the extreme right?
Initially, in the leadup to the September 2012 elections, polls showed that Dutch voters were seriously considering the far-left Socialistische Partij (SP, the Socialist Party). As summer flirtation melted into the more solemn autumn campaign, however, those same voters pulled away from the Socialists and their leader, Emile Roemer, turning instead to the more center-left Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA, Labour Party).
As support for the Socialists withered, support for Labour, under the stewardship of a progressive new leader, Diederik Samsom, skyrocketed — so much so that Labour nearly upended Rutte’s liberals in the election. The end result, not surprisingly, was a grand coalition, a ‘purple’ government between the VVD and Labour. Rutte continued as prime minister on the same path of budget discipline, while Samsom brought Labour into government with a few key concessions on same-sex marriage, education policy and other matters.
Labour voters, however, almost immediately turned on the party, believing (not without reason) that Samsom, after running on a center-left campaign, almost immediately entered government on the basis of a much more center-right agenda. The Labour Party’s Jeroen Dijsselbloem, finance minister in Rutte’s current government, quickly became the consensus choice to lead the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, but that only reinforced the fact that Labour was implementing the kind of austerity (in Europe as well as in the Netherlands) that it once campaigned against. Polls show that Labour could fall from 38 seats to well below 10 in the next election. In hindsight, the grand coalition between two of the historically strongest parties of the Dutch right and the Dutch left, clearly gave Wilders a perfect opening to position himself as the real contrast in opposition — on fiscal policy and economic disillusionment no less than on immigration and Muslim integration.
But it was never a certain matter that disillusioned Labour voters would turn to Wilders. Even as recently as the 2015 provincial elections, the PVV didn’t seem particularly well-placed to succeed, and it was the relatively centrist, liberal Democraten 66 (Democrats 66) that initially drew votes from Labour — winning control of city councils in Amsterdam and Utrecht in the 2014 municipal elections. In 2012, of course, Dutch voters switched from the far-left Socialists toward the more centrist Labour. In 2015, the voters who today say they will vote for Wilders could turn not only to the Democrats 66, but to the CDA (or, conceivably, even the Socialists).
In the last year, however, as Le Pen and Farage have raged against Brussels, and as Trump in the United States rose to the Republican nomination on a platform of deporting undocumented Mexican immigrants, building a giant wall on the border between the United States and Mexico and refusing to admit Muslim immigrants, that Wilders, too, has watched support for his far-right, anti-immigration, anti-EU agenda swell.
That explains, in part, why Wilders is in Cleveland this week. A Trump victory would usher in a new anti-globalist and anti-immigration era and, even more than the Brexit vote, the once-unthinkable prospect of a Trump presidency could boost Wilders’s hopes back home.
Dutch voters, increasingly, seem to be in a sour mood. A 61% majority rejected in an April referendum an association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, though Rutte’s government seems set to ignore the non-binding referendum and approve the agreement anyway. Critics warned at the time that the result was less about Ukraine and more about dissatisfaction with the VVD, Labour and the Dutch and EU political establishments.
Editor’s note: The piece originally described the cabinet formation process incorrectly by suggesting that a formateur’s appointment will follow the failure of an informateur to find a path to a coalition. Instead, the Dutch monarch will, in such case, appoint a new informateur.
The piece also suggested that Rutte’s government had already approved the Ukraine-EU association agreement; in fact, the Rutte government only appears likely to approve the agreement.