This week, all European eyes will be on the Netherlands, as Dutch voters go to the polls on Wednesday 15th March and right-wing populism has another chance to cause a massive political upset.
Geert Wilders, the leader of the Freedom Party, which he established in 2004, has run his campaign on an increasingly familiar platform that is based on anti-Islam, anti-immigration, and anti-EU policies.
For long stages of the campaign, he has been ahead in the polls, which is an ominous signs that his party will build upon the 24 seats that was won in the Dutch Parliament in 2010, after securing 15 percent of the vote.
Naturally, this has drawn comparisons with US President Donald Trump. However, Mr. Wilders is not a political outsider. He has spent the last 20 years in the Dutch Parliament (as a backbencher of the centre-right VVD party until 2004), and prior to that, he was a local councillor and parliamentary staffer.
Moreover, Wilders is calling for even more extreme measures than Trump. He is promising to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands by shutting the doors of mosques and Islamic schools, banning the Koran, and accepting “zero asylum seekers and no immigrants anymore [sic] from Islamic countries.” In his one-page election manifesto, Wilders states the following: “Millions of Dutch citizens have simply had enough of the Islamisation of our country. Enough of mass immigration and asylum, terror, violence, and insecurity.”
Muslims represent about 6 percent of the Dutch population, predominantly from Turkish and Moroccan backgrounds. On the campaign trail in February, Wilders said, “there is a lot of Moroccan scum in Holland who make the streets unsafe, mostly young people — and that should change.” Analogies can readily be drawn with the campaign rhetoric of Trump and his accusations about criminal behaviour by Mexicans in the US.
Inspired by the historic Brexit vote in the United Kingdom last year, Wilders suggests that in the long-term, the Netherlands, a founding member of the EU, should follow suit with their own ‘Nexit.’ His campaign slogan just about sums it up: “The Netherlands ours again!”
Whilst Wilders could win the popular vote, it is less likely that he could be the country’s next prime minister. The Dutch system has around a dozen political parties and rarely does one party win an outright majority of 76 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives (the last time was in 1891). Consequently, the next prime minister will probably have to form a coalition.
All major party contenders have ruled out striking a power-sharing agreement with the Freedom Party, even if Wilders wins the popular vote. Current Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is seeking re-election, said last month that there was a “zero percent” chance that his VVD party would collaborate with their extreme former member.
Notwithstanding, a high vote for Wilders would not be meaningless. Such a result would add legitimacy to the forces of anti-establishment and anti-Islam in Dutch society, and it would put pressure on whoever does win the election on Wednesday to move closer towards this agenda. Further, if large amounts of Dutch votes swing towards Wilders and the Freedom Party, ignoring the disgruntled voices of this constituency would be at the government of the day’s own peril.
Many have asked why this type of movement is gaining traction in the Netherlands, where the economy grew by 2.1 percent in 2016, unemployment is down, and crime has been steadily declining for years, to the point that the country has even rented out prison cells to Belgium and Norway, and even housed asylum seekers in unoccupied jails.
Professor Gerrit Voerman of the University of Groningen said, “It’s about identity….He is trying to make use of fears within society.”
This is the first of three elections in 2017 which will fundamentally test the European Union, with the French Presidential election in April-May, and Federal German elections, where Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek her fourth term, scheduled for September.
All three elections are critical for the future direction – indeed, continued existence – of the EU, with the rise of right-wing populism and nationalism continuing to challenge the key bedrocks of, and assumptions under, the European project.
Functionally, there is much to criticize about the EU and similar post-WWII institutions, such as bureaucracy, lack of transparency, austerity measures, and more. Nevertheless, and fundamentally, the EU emerged after the sheer devastation of the beginning of the 20th century to ensure peace and security through political and economic integration, based on mutual respect for basic human rights and dignity.
The EU is an imperfect and continuing project, and anti-EU sentiment is perhaps currently the easy (or politically expedient) option when fronted with difficult and changing global circumstances. However, the question remains: why would Europe abandon the system that has guaranteed generations of relative peace?
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