A right-wing, anti-Islam party is running a close second in opinion polls in the Netherlands ahead of a parliamentary election next week that is being closely watched by those alarmed by a rightward turn in politics across the West.
A strong showing – if not win – by Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) would confirm a trend that includes the pro-Brexit vote last June, Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency in November, and Marine Le Pen leading polls in the upcoming French presidential election.
In a poll conducted on Monday, 14.6 per cent of respondents said they would vote for Mr Wilders, putting him less than two percentage points behind the conservative prime minister Mark Rutte, who polled 16.4 per cent.
A flamboyant politician with a shock of white hair, Mr Wilders has for years campaigned against the influx of Muslims into the Netherlands and has called for the Quran to be banned in the country, saying it extols violence and comparing it to Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.
“Wilders began with a scepticism about Islam which has blown up into full-fledged Islamophobia,” said Gauri Khandekar, deputy director of Global Relations Forum, a Brussels-based think tank. “A decade ago he spoke about poor integration of people from Muslim communities into Dutch society, but now he claims that Islam is fully incompatible with Dutch society and civilisation.”
Mosques in the Netherlands must be closed, Mr Wilders has said. He also believes the country’s borders must close to Muslim refugees and immigrants, and that the Netherlands must exit the EU as the UK has chosen to do.
“Instead of financing the entire world and people we don’t want here, we’ll spend the money on ordinary Dutch citizens,” the PVV’s one-page manifesto says.
Mr Wilders’ populist rhetoric has already pushed Mr Rutte’s government to tighten its policies towards migrants already living in the country, while the Netherlands’ controls on immigration have become among the toughest in the EU.
State funding for BBB facilities – which provide asylum seekers the basics of “bed-bath-bread” – has been stopped. Muslim women will be affected by a law banning face coverings in public, including ski masks and motorcycle helmets, that has already been passed by the lower house of parliament and is now awaiting approval from the upper house. The law is expected to pass.
Last year, the Netherlands, once known for its cosmopolitan culture and its acceptance of foreigners, received only 30,000 asylum seekers – half the figure from the previous year.
During his campaign, Mr Wilders has shunned press interviews and political debates, preferring the rhetoric of campaign slogans and speeches. Over the past few months, he has called Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a dictator, referred to Moroccan migrants as “scum”, and has warned of a “backlash” if other political parties refuse to work with him in a coalition.
The Dutch political landscape is a fractured one and no single party ever wins 50 per cent of the 150 seats in the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of parliament, which is needed to form a government. As a result, multi-party coalitions are the norm.
With 28 parties taking part in this election, the PVV could end up winning the largest vote share and the largest number of seats with just 15 to 20 per cent of votes.
In the 2012 general election, Mr Wilders’ PVV won just over 10 per cent of the vote and 15 parliamentary seats, down from its peak of 24 seats in the 2010 election.
So far during this campaign, every other party contesting the election has said it will refuse to form a coalition with Mr Wilders’ PVV.
“The bottom line is that Dutch politics relies on coalitions and a lack of Trump-style executive orders,” Ms Khandekar said. “I personally believe that his aim to take the Netherlands out of the EU will be the death of his party in this election. He underestimates how European the Dutch people really are.”
But the fact that Mr Wilders has even been a strong competitor shows the growing support for right-wing populism across Europe, she said.
Ms Khandekar pointed to the rapid shifts in world currents, including the EU in existential crisis, the influx of refugees from Syria and other parts of the Muslim world, and the troubled state of western economies during and after the financial crisis of 2008. Given these shifts, many western voters are struggling to define themselves and their place in the world, she said.
“A major shift in the global order is taking place, and it is drastically tilting the power – political, economic and so on – away from the West. The movements we see across the US and Europe are symptomatic of this re-ordering.”