After the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the Brexit referendum in Great Britain, eyes now turn to a slew of elections taking place in Europe. The Dutch vote first, on March 15. The Netherlands is often seen as a bellwether for broader European political sentiment. This is the second installment in a series on the Dutch election. The standard bearer of Dutch populism is Geert Wilders. Will he win this year’s election -- or will he disappoint again as he has in the past?
Geert Wilders of the right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) is riding high in the polls. He’s locked in a campaign battle with Mark Rutte of the ruling party, the free-market conservative VVD, to become prime minister. But Wilders has a track record. So far, every time he has soared in the polls during an electoral campaign, voters have let him down on election day.
Much like the United States, the Netherlands is a divided country. Centrist parties typically dominate in most of the bigger cities, which tend to lean more to the left politically, while the more conservative and populist parties fare well in exurban areas and smaller communities in the countryside. (Click here for a map that shows the voting percentages for Wilders’ PVV.)
These last areas are where Wilders finds most of his support. He is not the first populist to prosper there electorally.
Limburg, bulwark of Wilders' support
Limburg, a province in the southeast of the country, is the Dutch version of America’s Rust Belt. Limburg is a once-prosperous former coal mining region that went into socioeconomic decay when the mines were closed in the 1970s. The province is a hotbed of Wilders support, and not just because he himself hails from Venlo in the province’s north.
Unemployment is structurally high and young people are moving out to the rest of the country in search of jobs, leaving behind an ageing population. Parts of Limburg have been dubbed krimpgebieden, which literally translates to “shrinking areas,” as the population dwindles.
Wilders is building on the foundations laid by Pim Fortuyn, the nation’s first true modern populist, who rose to political fame in 2001 and 2002.
As it was in 2002, when cultural identity issues like immigration and integration dominated the national public debate, most Dutch voters in 2017 are increasingly concerned about the direction of the country. In-depth research consistently shows that voters fear the division of Dutch society. Fifty-three percent of the population believes the country is headed “in the wrong direction” according to research by the government’s leading sociological studies agency. Many voters believe that a massive wave of Muslim immigrants threatens to overthrow the existing order.
The continuing political debate about religious holidays in the United States has also landed in the Netherlands. One national tradition has become a yearly source of controversy: Zwarte Piet, a blackface character clad in colorful clothing who is a helper to Sinterklaas, a Dutch variation on Santa Claus. The tradition is seen by a majority of voters as being under attack by multiculturalists and progressives in the more liberal cities who want the blackface figure to change since they regard it as racist. (This is according to an opinion poll conducted by Dutch TV news program EenVandaag, which has 27,000 voters in its panel.)
Many voters see the possible disappearance of their beloved Zwarte Piet character as just the start of a takeover by immigrant cultures. “It starts with Zwarte Piet and next they’ll kill Christmas” is a fear often cited by voters in polls and questionnaires.
Protest vote similarities
Many PVV-supporting voters structurally believe that around 20 percent of the Dutch population is now Muslim. Wilders has for years been warning against a “tsunami of Islam” hitting the Netherlands.
In reality, the percentage of the Dutch population that identifies itself as Muslim is around 6 percent of the total. PVV voters shrug off the numbers; they aren’t so much worried about the current situation as they are about the future.
Why Wilders disappoints
Yet for all his popular support and bluster over the past 12 years, Geert Wilders has consistently underperformed his strong numbers in the polls. In each election he has risen to record highs, only to disappoint when the results come in.
The reason for this is twofold, and Wilders personally carries some of the blame.
Wilders the bully
First, although many PVV voters want Wilders to be the voice of their protest, not all are keen on him becoming prime minister.
Much like President Trump in the United States, Wilders has a penchant for lashing out at his critics. This includes political competitors, but also media companies and the royal family, which is non-political and has a ceremonial function.
During one of her annual televised Christmas speeches, the former queen once mildly criticized forces that seek to divide the nation. Pundits in national media immediately interpreted her words as criticizing Wilders. He took to Twitter and lashed out at her, earning himself widespread criticism. The royal family is beloved by most Netherlanders, including PVV voters.
These routine tirades make voters wary about his ability to unite the country. When in 2014 Wilders said he would arrange for the Netherlands to have fewer citizens of Moroccan descent, 26 percent of his own voters thought he had gone too far, according to a poll conducted by EenVandaag.
Voters want viable coalition parties
Second, the Dutch are calculating voters. Although the majority of Wilders’ voters support him on election day in a protest vote, a sizeable group first consider the possible coalition government formations. They then select a number of parties within their ideological frame to consider as options. PVV may be their first choice, but the VVD of incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte is a close second.
Rutte said that he will not under any circumstances form a government with the party of Geert Wilders. That statement had an almost immediate result: some of those calculating voters turned away, seeking viable alternatives to the PVV for a right-wing governing coalition, or indicating they will not vote at all.
Some have crossed over to the VVD. As a result, both parties are now tied in most polls, as aggregator Peilingwijzer shows.
In addition to all this, most other political parties have come out against forming a government with Wilders, stating that his positions on immigration and integration are too extreme. Wilders has said that he will not compromise on any of his positions, virtually guaranteeing that he will always be a candidate for the protest vote -- but not much else.