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Europe reels as far-right Wilders tops Dutch election poll

November 23, 2023

The surprise victory of the Dutch far-right PVV party, which was trailing at fourth in the polls last week, is sending shockwaves around Europe. But what does it mean for the future?

 PVV leader Geert Wilders on stage responds to the results of Dutch elections
If he becomes prime minister, Geert Wilders would be among Europe's most far-right leadersImage: Remko de Waal/ANP/IMAGO

Geert Wilders is already known to many Europeans beyond Dutch borders for his radical anti-immigration and Islamophobic politics, his staunch Euroskepticism and of course his unmistakable blonde bouffant hairstyle.

But after Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV) emerged victorious from national elections on Wednesday off the back of a shock last-minute surge in opinion polls, Europeans will be hearing a lot more from him in the months to come as a new Dutch government is built.

PVV won by far the most seats in parliament with a projected 37 out of 150, though Wilders is not certain to end up in government. The Netherlands is always governed by multi-party coalitions. A center-left alliance came second with 25 seats, followed by the center-right VVD party of outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte with 24, and then the newcomer centrist New Social Contract (NSC) party with 20.

Posters for political parties are displayed outdoors near the Dutch parliament
Disagreements over immigration policy toppled the previous VVD-led coalitionImage: Carl Court/Getty Images

The way ahead is not self-evident, but a right-wing coalition of PVV, VVD and NSC would be possible if the more centrist parties are willing to stomach it. On Thursday morning, after the shock poll result, 60-year-old Wilders said he wanted to be the prime minister of the Netherlands, news agency Reuters reported.

Wilders' wish list: 'Nexit' vote, ban on Mosques, no more asylum

In the EU capital Brussels, Wilders' platform will undoubtedly cause concern. Some of it goes against not only Dutch but EU law. Ben Coates, an author of a book on the Netherlands, summed up the more extreme points of PVV's manifesto on X, formerly Twitter, on Thursday. 

A "Nexit” referendum on the Netherlands' EU membership, a complete end to asylum for refugees, an end to blanket freedom of movement for EU workers, a ban on Islamic schools, Qurans and mosques, and on headscarves in government buildings, an end to military support for Ukraine and kicking Turkey out of NATO – just some of the policies Coates listed.

From calling Moroccans "scum,"to holding competitions for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, Wilders has built a career from his self-appointed mission to stop an "Islamic invasion" of the West.

The view from Brussels

Mindful of the compromises likely required to get into government, Wilders had toned down his rhetoric – particularly on Islam – in the past few weeks, explained Stijn van Kessel from the Queen Mary University of London.

In return, the center-right VVD, now led by Dilan Yesilgoz, showed more willingness to work with the far-right PVV than her predecessors. 

"Wilders is happy to let these issues go or to not make that big a point of them in coalition negotiations, because, he said, there are bigger priorities now, mainly cost-of-living problems," van Kessel told DW. "But immigration has always remained a very high priority for him."

Far-right populist Geert Wilders wins big in Dutch elections

Right-wing populists, like, for example, Giorgia Meloni of Italy, often tone down their anti-EU rhetoric once in office, according to van Kessel, an expert on populism in Europe. "They don't tend to prioritize the issue of European integration that much." 

Even Wilders had watered things down since 2012, when he had called for a full departure from the EU, van Kessel noted. Now he was only calling for a referendum. Whether one would ever be held under a new coalition remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, if he were to become prime minister, Wilders could significantly disrupt EU policymaking on issues like climate policy, military support for Ukraine and migration, not to mention negotiations over the shared EU budget.

How did the PVV do it?

For van Kessel, a big part of Wilders' success story lies with the center-right VVD. By putting immigration – undoubtedly a top concern among voters along with housing and the cost of living – at the heart of its campaign,  Yesilgoz may have shot herself in the foot.

"Research has indicated now that ultimately, on average, it's the mainstream right that loses out if they focus more on immigration. They only legitimize the far-right message," van Kessel said. "Ultimately it is to the benefit of the populist radical right. You shift the terms of the public debate very much towards these issues," he said.

Leader of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy party (VVD) Dilan Yesilgoz speaks to the press after Dutch elections
Some observers have pointed the finger at VVD leader Dilan Yesilgoz for cozying up to Wilders' partyImage: Remko de Waal/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

The surprise victory also likely has a lot to do with last-minute competition between parties, according to van Kessel. Only last week, Wilders' PVV was polling fourth at around 13%, but went on to score a projected 23% in Wednesday's final poll.

Initially, the rise of the NSC was tipped to be the big story for the election, but leader Pieter Omtzigt's vagueness on certain issues – including whether he wanted to be prime minister – may have turned the tide in PVV's favor. A surprising number of voters were still undecided last week, van Kessel noted.

Bellwether for European elections

For the political scientist, these elections may serve as "a bit of a bellwether for the sentiments in Western Europe in general" ahead of next June's EU-wide poll to elect the European Parliament, as well as Belgian national elections.

The far right has grown throughout much of Europe in the past decade. Giorgia Meloni of Brothers of Italy rode to power last year, the National Rally led by Marine Le Pen came second in the 2022 French presidential election polls, and the Alternative for Germany party is currently polling second.

Far-right leaders including Hungary's Viktor Orban clearly felt vindicated on Thursday. "The winds of change are here," Orban wrote on X. His political advisor Balazs Orban, who is not a relative of the Hungarian prime minister but shares his surname, went further: "Europe is waking up! The Dutch right-wing victory put another conservative flag on the map."

In Belgium, the leader of the secessionist party for the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders welcomed the news. "While the elites are worrying about the end of the world, ordinary people are worried about the end of the month," Vlaams Belang leader Tom van Grieken told local broadcaster VRT. "Those who want change must opt to make anti-system parties like PVV or Vlaams Belang big."

For van Kessel at least, it is now up to mainstream parties, particularly those on the center-right, to stand up for liberal democracy in the face of politicians like Wilders who openly seek to exclude certain types of people. "There's no room for politicians who can claim that they alone speak in the name of the people. That is illiberal, and ultimately dangerous to democracy."

Far-right parties on the rise across Europe

Edited by: J. Wingard