Guilty verdict, but an excellent day for Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders nonetheless

Geert Wilders in court during the trial. Remoko De Wall/EPA

The populist radical right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders was found guilty on December 9 of insulting a group of people (Moroccans) and “inciting discrimination”. Wilders, founder and leader of the Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid or PVV), has been the most prominent critic of Islam, immigration and multiculturalism in Dutch politics in the past decade. The PVV is currently the third largest party in parliament, and had previously provided parliamentary support to a minority coalition between 2010 and 2012. And the party is in the lead in some opinion polls ahead of a national election in March 2017.

In a previous process five years ago, a Dutch court cleared Wilders of hate charges. The politician’s claims about the violent nature of Islam, and calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and the Qur'an, were considered offensive, but still within the bounds of a legitimate political debate.

This time the judge ruled differently in a legal process which had been triggered by events in The Hague on the evening of local elections on March 19 2014. In a speech in front of supporters, Wilders asked the crowd whether they desired fewer or more Moroccans in their city and in the Netherlands, which triggered the chant: “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” Wilders, in turn, assured his supporters that his party would “take care of that”.

The incident provoked considerable public condemnation and thousands of legal complaints. It initially appeared to backfire when a number of PVV politicians distanced themselves from Wilders’s remarks or even left the party.

While Wilders has been found guilty, he will not have to pay the fine of €5,000 proposed by the public prosecutor. The court also cleared the politician of the charge of “inciting hatred”. Nevertheless, the judge found that Wilders had crossed the boundaries of freedom of speech, used the word “Moroccan” to insult a specific ethnic group, and that he had contributed to the polarisation of society.

Turning the verdict to his advantage

Wilders and his lawyer were not present in court during the ruling, but declared their intent to appeal against the verdict. The PVV leader quickly reacted through Twitter – a key means of his political communication.

This reaction was typical for Wilders who had previously denounced the trial as a “political process”, and refused to let it stop him from speaking the truth about what he calls the “Moroccan problem”.

His rhetoric perfectly fits into the PVV’s broader populist radical right appeal. The party considers mainstream politicians and other elites out of touch with ordinary people, and warns against the threats to society posed by non-native outsiders, not least Muslim immigrants. Wilders has called for the EU to ban Muslim immigration.

Wilders can use the verdict to lend credence to his claim that elitist judges defy the “will of the people”, the majority of whom – as he at least would like us to believe – support his views. Recent elections across the Western world, as well as the Brexit referendum, have shown how potent this rhetoric currently is.

Wilders can be pleased with the verdict. The process has already given him and his party considerable media attention in the run-up to the national election, which will now be prolonged due to Wilders’ plan to appeal. During the 2011 trial against its leader, the PVV’s popularity soared and the same effect has been seen in polls during this recent process. Whether the PVV indeed comes out as the largest party after the election remains to be seen, but the process and its outcome have given Wilders an excellent opportunity to mobilise potential voters.