The Geert Wilders enigma

The high-profile Dutch politician Geert Wilders is closer to mainstream centre-right politics in the Netherlands than his hardline rhetoric about Islam might suggest, says Cas Mudde.

A striking fact about the general election in the Netherlands on 9 June 2010 is the difference of focus between the country itself and the rest of the world. As the Dutch themselves were still following the close race for first place between the social-democratic PvdA (Labour Party) and the conservative-liberal VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) until deep into election-night, the interest of the media in Britain and the United States was defined by the victory of the PVV (Party for Freedom) of Geert Wilders.  

Even as CNN’s headline (“Far-right party comes third in Netherlands”) and Britain’s Guardian (“Geert Wilders on course for Dutch cabinet seat”),  were focused on delivering a familiar story, the Dutch public were riveted by other factors: the collapse of the Christian Democrats (CDA) from forty-one to twenty-one seats and the quick resignation of its leader (and four-time prime minister, 2002-10) Jan-Peter Balkenende, and the rise of the VVD to the best result in its modern history. 

The PVV's performance

The fact that the huge victory of the PVV, from 5.9% (nine seats) in the previous election to 15.5% (twenty-four seats), shocked the rest of the world more than the Dutch themselves is only partly explained by Dutch society’s recent move to the right. Although the PVV was founded only in 2005, its leader has dominated the Dutch political scene for much of these five years. Moreover, for at least a year the PVV had performed very strongly in the opinion-polls; for example, in March 2009 the PVV’s polling figure of 18% (and twenty-eight seats) rated the party as the largest in the country. The actual result of the European elections in June 2009 almost exactly matched this, with the PVV winning 17% (i.e. 1.5% higher than in the June 2010 parliamentary election); while in the local elections of March 2010 it came first in Almere and second in The Hague (the only two cities the PVV contested).  

However, the PVV had been losing support in the polls in the few months before the elections. Two distinct factors contributed to this. First, after the local elections the party’s behaviour in coalition negotiations in the two cities was fairly clumsy (notably in Almere). Second, the political debate began to focus increasingly on the economy, overshadowing Wilders’ favourite topic of Islam/immigration. This surprised not just Wilders, but also the PvdA, who had chosen their new leader clearly with the immigration issue in mind. The party had hoped that the former mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, a national symbol of the old pro-multicultural politics of the Netherlands, would become the major challenger of Wilders on the topic.

So, insofar as the result on 9 June shocked or surprised the Dutch, it was not so much because they didn’t believe Wilders could win over so many voters - for he had done that before. Rather, it was because the 15.5% was substantially higher than polls in the preceding months had suggested. For example, just one day before the election, the leading Dutch market-research agency Synovate had the PVV at only 11.2% and seventeen seats; 4.3% and seven seats lower than the actual outcome.

The parliamentary elections, whether or not they were optimal for the PVV, did make it the third biggest party in the country and a courted partner of the prime-minister designate, VVD leader Mark Rutte. There are still many significant hurdles ahead in forming a coalition, especially after Rutte and Wilders’ apparent preference for a rightwing VVD-PVV-CDA government (which would have had a narrow majority of seventy-six out of 150 seats) was scuppered by the CDA’s reluctance to join with the PVV in government. The shattered Christian Democrats, now seeking a new direction following its defeat, had kept its distance from the coalition informateur (negotiator) Uri Rosenthal and waited for the VVD and PVV to attempt to reach a deal before declaring its intentions.   

The Wilders phenomenon

But if Geert Wilders’s party performed relatively well, who exactly are these almost 1.5 million Dutch people who vote for this “ultra-right firebrand”. The few studies that exist do not confirm the stereotypical image of the “radical-right” voter. The typical PVV voter is male and afraid of “Islamisation”, which he believes threatens freedom of speech in the Netherlands; but he is approximately as educated and affluent as the average voter.

In geographical terms, Wilders’ voters are disproportionately found in his own southern province of Limburg, which has a strong Catholic identity and is the traditional stronghold of the CDA. Hence, it is not surprising that the PVV got most of its new voters in 2010 from the CDA (and not, as some commentators suggested, from the leftist Socialist Party, which lost badly; its vote was 6.7% down). In addition, the PVV mobilised many new voters, both first-time voters and formerly disillusioned voters.

The pattern of support for the PVV may sound much the same as that for the previous rightwing populist who shocked the Netherlands and the world, the late Pim Fortuyn (assassinated in 2002). But there are four important differences. First, Wilders comes from within the mainstream; before founding the PVV in 2005, he was the foreign-affairs spokesman of the VVD parliamentary faction. Second, he is a clear rightwing politician, despite recent economic populist promises (e.g. protecting the current retirement age), attracting a predominantly rightwing electorate; Fortuyn drew a much broader electorate, delving deep into the traditional support of the PvdA.

Third, Wilders builds his small party with patience and strict control, not least in reaction to the dismal performance of the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), which self-destructed after the murder of its leader. But this is also the weakness of the PVV; Wilders’s uncommonly modest growth strategy, in which he forfeits sub-national elections in which he would undoubtedly win many seats to ensure internal homogeneity, is fine for a role in the opposition, in which one dominant party leader suffices; but it is not enough to become a coalition partner. While most other politicians will trust Wilders to be a reliable politician, few can vouch for any of the other PVV parliamentarians, all of whom are new and lacking in any substantial political experience.

Fourth, Wilders’ PVV doesn’t really fit either the existing Dutch tradition of rightwing populism (i.e. whether the singular “flash” party the LPF or the more traditional if unsuccessful radical-right Centrumdemocraten [Centre Democrats / CD] or the European populist radical right). For example, the staunchly pro-Israel Wilders would never cooperate with anti-semitic parties like the British National Party (BNP) or Hungary’s Jobbik. Rather, Wilders seeks the company of neo-conservative Americans and Israelis, with whom he shares a deep appreciation of Israel and a virulent Islamophobia.

For despite his strident Islamophobia and growing national chauvinism, Wilders is not a traditional ethnic nationalist. He has nothing against non-Muslim foreigners in the Netherlands, such as the black Surinamese, and still voices a predominantly liberal-democratic/anti-religious discourse rather than an ethnic-nationalist one.

The political exception

In conclusion, while the success of the PVV might be based on quite similar factors as that of more classic radical-right parties such as the National Front (FN) in France or the Flemish Interest (VB) in Belgium - namely, political dissatisfaction primarily relating to the issues of crime, immigration and corruption - the party and particularly its leader are fairly idiosyncratic. Wilders is, primarily, a mainstream politician, almost exclusively interested in parliamentary power and very willing to enter coalition politics. Moreover, on most points the PVV is fairly close to the VVD, from which Wilders broke in 2005.

The only point on which Geert Wilders truly stands out from the other Dutch parties is his Islamophobia. However, here it is not so much the issue itself, which is widely shared by the Dutch elite and masses (particularly on the right) but its intensity. Wilders, who has lived under twenty-four-hour security protection for several years, has developed tunnel-vision in which everything links to Islam and jihadists are able to do everything they want. After all, he will argue, they are able to keep him, one of the most popular Dutch politicians, from living a normal life. In the end, this obsessive Islamphobia might be too high a hurdle for others to enter a coalition with him.

About the author

Cas Mudde is assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA). He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (2007) and co-editor of Populism in Europe and Latin America: Corrective or Threat for Democracy? (2012). He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network and can be followed on Twitter at @casmudde.

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Cas Mudde is Nancy Schaenen scholar at The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics and visiting associate professor at the department of political science of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. Among his books is Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007) 

Also by Cas Mudde in openDemocracy:

"Neo-conservatism: Irving Kristol's living legacy" (23 September 2009)