Elections: Right-wing populist number 1 - What's going on in the Netherlands?

Geert Wilders, the only member of his "Partij voor de Vrijheid", cannot believe his triumph.

Elections: Right-wing populist number 1 - What's going on in the Netherlands?

Geert Wilders, the only member of his "Partij voor de Vrijheid", cannot believe his triumph. When the first forecast on Dutch television announced his sensational election victory on Wednesday evening, he covered his face with his hands. “35!” he shouts. 35 seats in parliament - in the end there should even be 37 for the Party for Freedom.

The result was “historic,” the media unanimously said on Thursday. There is great shock in parts of Dutch society. "I'm deeply ashamed - even a little bit - of being Dutch," says a citizen from Enschede on television. Muhsin Köktas, chairman of a Muslim association, says Muslims are now afraid that they will no longer be able to practice their religion freely. After all, Wilders has been insisting on a ban on the Koran and the closure of all mosques for 20 years.

Even abroad can't believe their eyes. Holland - didn't that stand for flower power and the "tender feeling" sung about by chansonnier Herman van Veen? Wasn't that the country where Germans in particular had the feeling that they could breathe more freely? Because everything is a little more relaxed and tolerant?

Right-wing populists have been around for 20 years

This picture only ever applied to the capital Amsterdam. There was a strong shift to the right for the first time over 20 years ago, when sociology professor Pim Fortuyn became the first populist to take off. Shortly before his predicted landslide victory in the 2002 general election, he was shot dead in a parking lot by a militant animal rights activist. His party then disintegrated and disappeared into obscurity.

Fortuyn's legacy was taken over by another right-wing populist, a man with a platinum blonde quiff and the dialect of his hometown Venlo: Geert Wilders. To prevent chaos like that in Fortuyn's party, he used a simple trick: to this day he is the only member of his party, the PVV. Followers can only register as sympathizers or supporters.

Since its first participation in an election in 2006, the PVV has always been a fixture in the party landscape and a strong force in parliament in The Hague. But why has she suddenly become so big now?

Migration as the number 1 election campaign issue

There was one issue that dominated the election campaign: migration. All parties on the right outdid each other with promises to reduce the number of asylum seekers. “Our country is full,” it said. The impression was often given that newcomers were the main cause of the existing housing shortage. The fact is: the country with around 18 million inhabitants is one of the most densely populated in the world. Last year, 224,000 migrants arrived, but only a minority of them, around 46,000, were asylum seekers and their relatives. The rest consisted of migrant workers and foreign students.

Rutte's successor makes Wilders socially acceptable

Another reason for Wilders' election victory may have been the advances made by the largest party to date, the right-wing liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte had always ruled out working with Wilders. Also from my own bad experience. Rutte's first cabinet, a minority government, was tolerated by Wilders, but then failed prematurely due to his lack of compromise. Since then, Rutte had lost all trust in him.

However, his successor as VVD leader, Dilan Yesilgöz, wanted to position herself much more right-wing than Rutte and therefore changed course. She declared right at the start of the election campaign that she did not want to rule out Wilders as a coalition partner. This was the message: Wilders now has a real chance of participating in government for the first time. This is how Yesilgöz made Wilders “socially acceptable,” said a television commentator, using the German term. Suddenly there were no longer any inhibitions about coming out publicly as a Wilders fan.

After 13 years under the right-wing liberal Rutte, Wilders is “new politics” for many voters. Because Rutte's long-term government is also held responsible for the misery in the health system, for increasing poverty and for several affairs and scandals in recent years. Wilders, on the other hand, uses one-liners like: "The Dutch have to be number 1 again."

Timmermans' emotional speech comes too late

But other top candidates also have to ask themselves whether they did everything right. Former EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans gave an emotional speech to his supporters of the Greens and Social Democrats on election night, calling for the Dutch to now “defend democracy.” However, he immediately had to ask himself critically why he hadn't done this earlier.

The threat posed by Wilders to democracy and the rule of law was hardly ever discussed during the election campaign - and not even by the media, which has long treated the right-wing extremist like a normal politician. Everything else is elitist and undemocratic, they say. The fact that we want to “get everyone on board” is a political maxim in the Netherlands.

What will happen to the EU relationship and aid to Ukraine?

The big challenge for Wilders now is to bind other parties as coalition partners. This seems difficult, but by no means impossible. Both Yesilgöz and the second winner of the election evening, the former Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt, are open to talks. All parties now have to “jump over their shadows,” said Omtzigt, who founded his own “New Social Contract” party just two months ago. This meant he won 20 of the 150 parliamentary seats in one fell swoop. And the BBB protest party, the Farmers' Citizens' Movement, would also like to govern with the far right.

The times when the Netherlands was one of the federal government's closest partners within the European Union could soon be over. The “Nexit” that Wilders is aiming for - an exit from the EU based on the British model - cannot be achieved with the other parties. But in many areas the Netherlands would take a different course in the future with Wilders as head of government. For example, he rejects climate protection and also wants to drastically reduce aid to Ukraine.

All of this will probably be registered carefully in Germany and will probably set alarm bells ringing. The oft-heard reassurance that good poll numbers for extreme parties does not mean that people would actually vote that way has turned out to be wishful thinking, at least for the Netherlands.