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Geert Wilders: maverick who could ride anti-Islam wave to the top of Dutch politics

EPA/Bart Maat

Geert Wilders: maverick who could ride anti-Islam wave to the top of Dutch politics

He’s been called a “demagoue” and a “cheat” by the UN human rights chief and his party’s electoral platform, which calls for all mosques and Islamic schools to be closed, radicalised Muslims to be arrested as a precaution and a complete stop to asylum in the Netherlands has been called a “societal threat” by the prime minister. But none of that is likely to bother Geert Wilders.

Despite what many would view as his extreme views on Islam and immigration, his party is riding high in the polls and looks set to be the largest in the Dutch parliament after the next election in March 2017.

Wilders is one of the best-known politicians in Europe. Arguably, he is more familiar to the European public than any other living Dutch politician. How many, for example, can without going online name the current Dutch prime minister?

A possible competitor is the late Pim Fortuyn, who after a brief political career was assassinated in 2002. In many ways Wilders is a continuation of Fortuyn’s legacy. If the assassin thought his actions would put a stop to Fortuyn’s political agenda, he was badly mistaken. We will of course never know what would have happened if Fortuyn had lived, but it is doubtful whether he had the strategic ability to build on his initial successes. Wilders, however, has proved to be a shrewd and durable political operator.

Before Fortuyn the Netherlands had been a blank spot on the far-right map. The various parties that did exist, such as Hans Janmaat’s Centre Democrats, were very small and mostly subject to ridicule, to the extent that they got any attention at all. Fortuyn changed all this – and Wilders has made sure that the intervention by Fortuyn was a catalyst rather than a brief interlude.

Fortuyn and Wilders apparently never met in person – but they have important things in common. They share a disdain of what they see as a left-libertarian establishment in politics and the media. Above all they share a fear, verging of hatred, of Islam. Wilders started his political career in the liberal party VVD, and was first elected to parliament in 1998. Relatively soon, however, he developed into a kind of enfant terrible in the party. His increasingly vitriolic criticism of Islam and other disagreements with the party, for example about Turkish accession to the EU, led to growing tension and in 2004 he defected.

At first he was his own one-member parliamentary party, but in February 2006 he formed the Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), which won nine seats in the 2010 election to the 150-member Dutch second chamber. At the moment the party commands 15 seats, but opinion polls suggest a drastic increase in the 2017 general election.

Politically, Wilders is full of contradictions. He began as a hard-hitting neo-liberal, advocating tax reductions and reduced welfare benefits, but in 2012 he withdrew his party’s support for a centre-right government because he disagreed with proposed welfare cuts. He is often referred to as a populist, but does not share the populist disrespect for the political process. He is very well versed in parliamentary procedure and has deputised with aplomb as parliamentary speaker. In 2015 he joined the newly formed party group Europe of Nations and Freedom in the European Parliament, led by the French Front National, which he had earlier denounced.

The constant is his anti-Islam rhetoric, although it has become increasingly drastic over the years. Even though he insists that his criticism is against Islam as an ideology rather than Muslims as people, he has made rather sweeping statements in public.

He was charged with incitement of hatred and discrimination for his statements about Moroccans and a trial is set to begin at the end of October. He has previously been on trial for similar charges, but was acquitted in 2011 after a lengthy process. He has also become more open to conspiracy theories, such as the Eurabia discourse, which among other things holds that Muslim immigration into Europe is driven by a secret agreement between the EU and a number of Arab nations.

Question of racism

The criticism of Islam has broadened to a more general anti-immigration position, for example by criticising the influx of workers from east European EU countries. Whether Wilders can be classified as a racist, however, is a moot point. Some claim that he is, but Wilders is of Indonesian descent on his mother’s side, and has spoken appreciatively of integrated immigrants from former Dutch colonies.

Rivals for the top job: Dutch PM, Mark Rutte, and Geert Wilders. EPA/Bart Maat

On the other hand, a long series of derogatory statements about immigrants, such as the ones for which he now faces trial, and the launch of a website where it is possible to register complaints about east European EU migrants, suggests that the label of xenophobia is not an exaggeration.

Together with his distinctive blond hair, the reason why Wilders is so well known outside his own country is that he is not afraid of controversy. If anything, he seeks it. But that is only part of the political phenomenon that he is. He may be something of a maverick, but he is also an effective communicator and a shrewd tactician. He has been able to build his PVV party into an effective and, on the whole cohesive, organisation.

Unless something extremely unlikely happens, PVV is set to drastically increase its bargaining power in the next election. Wilders will not hesitate to use this strengthened position to push through his anti-EU and anti-Islam agenda. It cannot even be ruled out that he will succeed Mark Rutte as prime minister – he certainly thinks so.