The man who would be Prime-Minister. Photo: AFP

How big can Geert Wilders get?

Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party has made a major breakthrough in the 3 March local elections. The polls provided what may be a foretaste of the upcoming general elections on 9 June, in which the Muslim-baiting demagogue aims to cash in on his current momentum. It remains to be seen how the Dutch consensus-based system will absorb the shock.

Published on 4 March 2010 at 16:11
The man who would be Prime-Minister. Photo: AFP

The latest municipal elections have ushered in a political sea change for Almere and The Hague, the only two cities in which Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) ran for a seat in local government. This was the very first time the PVV has ever ventured into the local fray, and the far-right party emerged overnight as a new player that cannot be ignored or wished away any more: it came in first in Almere, and second in The Hague. Though more or less in line with the forecasts, this outcome now turns the tide in the Dutch political scene.

In the past, the PVV presented itself as a party that was always good for blaring invective, but showed little interest in assuming administrative responsibilities. A fair number of its proposals, such as a ban or tax on the wearing of the veil, are plainly unrealisable in the Netherlands. But now that it is poised to enter local government in these two cities, the big question is whether the Freedom Party is going to remain on the outside or venture inside the current political system – which would mean grappling with the daunting task of implementing its platform policies and making some pragmatic choices. In a word, the bigger a party gets, the more its credibility is at stake.

Far from courageous strategy

It is often said that the Freedom Party concocts a strawman reality just to knock it down for effect, but the (albeit non-existent) reality it rails against is clearly dreaded by its supporters. Almere doesn’t have many Muslim inhabitants, but that didn’t keep plenty of the townsfolk from backing an overtly Islamophobic party. They apparently imagine an ominous future or one approaching what they experienced before settling in this new city.

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Wilders has often been criticised for strategically opting to enter the local elections in only two cities, a choice that is not courageous, but which his supporters accept. Most of the other parties don’t run in every city either, by the way. For Rotterdam, Wilders has urged supporters to vote for the populist party Leefbaar Rotterdam, which has made some headway and shown in the past that it does not shy away from administrative responsibilities.

A fairly low turn-out

After its success in last June’s elections to the European Parliament and the 3 March local elections, the question looming over the run-up to the 9 June general elections is: how big is the PVV really going to get? Voters often behave differently in local and national elections. The turnout was, in fact, fairly low (56%) and this chorus of protest might not be heard in full till the ballots are counted on 9 June.

Over and above the question of the PVV’s growth potential, the elasticity of the Dutch political system is at issue: with its tradition of coalition governments, how can this country handle a PVV that constitutes the third, or even the first, political party? The only possible answer is we’ll simply have to cope, seeing as we have no better system to turn to.

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