Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 24 November 2023


The Wilders Message From the Netherlands

PVV leader Geert Wilders on Thursday. Photo: Sem Van Der Wal/Zuma Press

Dutch elections rarely stir much excitement abroad, but the voting in the Netherlands Wednesday marks an exception. The big winner was Geert Wilders, a veteran right-wing campaigner, and the freakout his victory has triggered across Europe is something to behold.

Mr. Wilders’s Freedom Party (PVV) won a plurality of 37 seats in the 150-seat legislature. His next nearest competitor, a Labor-Green coalition led by Frans Timmermans, won 25 seats. Politicians will now negotiate to form a governing coalition, a process that often takes months in the Netherlands’ highly fragmented electoral system, and Mr. Wilders may not emerge as prime minister. But voters have sent a clear message.



To wit: Voters are fed up with a stale consensus on issues such as immigration and climate policy. The PVV’s biggest campaign issue for two decades has been immigration. Some 400,000 immigrants arrived last year in a country with a total population of nearly 18 million. While last year’s number may have been skewed by refugees from Ukraine, immigration has exceeded 200,000 every year since 2016.

This creates a substantial fiscal burden under the generous Dutch welfare state and strains the housing market. It’s also becoming a culture-war issue as voters worry the country isn’t properly assimilating Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Mr. Wilders can present himself as a tribune of these fears, having lived under police protection since an Islamist murdered film director Theo van Gogh in 2004.

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Centrist politicians heap scorn on Mr. Wilders’s proposed solution, which is to ban the Quran, new mosques and Islamic schools. This is extreme, and Mr. Wilders had to walk back those proposals to achieve the vote totals he did Wednesday. But if any other Dutch politician has better ideas for achieving assimilation, voters would be all ears.

Another signature Wilders pledge is to withdraw from various global climate agreements. Environmental policy has roiled Dutch politics for years, with farmers protesting draconian plans to curb nitrogen emissions. That uproar offered a taste of what’s to come once the anticarbon left turns its sights on agriculture, which is a major industry in the Netherlands. Mainstream Dutch parties have been slow to respond, so farmers formed their own protest party which is now the largest bloc in the upper house of the parliament.

The lesson is that if voters conclude they have only one alternative, they’ll grasp it for good or ill. In Mr. Wilders’s case there is some ill. He opposes aid to Ukraine, although giving Russia a free hand in its invasion would be against Dutch interests. Centrist politicians also fret about Mr. Wilders’s desire to hold a referendum on Dutch membership in the European Union. But if they have ways to use EU institutions to solve the problems that bother voters, they have yet to tell anyone.

Instead, Europe is set to descend into another round of name-calling, and expect to hear the word “fascist” a lot. The fear is that formerly fringe parties such as the euroskeptic, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany or the National Rally in France are gaining popularity. In places like Italy or, now, the Netherlands they’re winning elections outright.

But voters clearly are growing less anxious about the “fascism” label the more they see it used against politicians they think speak to their concerns. Now that centrist politicians are discovering they can’t beat the political fringe, the only option is to join Mr. Wilders in competing to offer solutions to the problems that matter to voters.

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