The controversial far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders has achieved a historic victory as his Freedom Party (PVV) won the most parliamentary seats in The Netherlands’ general elections held on November 23rd, 2023.1. This dramatic result demonstrates rising anti-immigration and Eurosceptic populism that could install Wilders as the nation’s first far-right Prime Minister
Wilders Party for Freedom won 37 seats in the 150-seat lower house parliament, 17 more than the 20 he won at the last election in 2017.2He was followed by the Green-labour coalition led by Frans Timmermans that won 25 seats and the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte with 24 seats3 The election was called after the fourth and final coalition of Mark Rutte, who resigned in July, disagreed on measures to rein in migration. Rutt was in office for 13 years, making him the Netherlands’ longest-serving leader. On 14th August 2023, Rutte was replaced as the head of VVD by Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, a former refugee from Türkiye who could have become the country’s first female prime minister had her party won the most votes. She said that the PVV and Omtzigt’s party should now take the initiative in talks to form the next coalition.4.
The result is the latest in a series of elections that is altering the European political landscape. From Slovakia and Spain to Germany and Poland, populist and hard-right parties triumphed in some EU member nations and faltered in others. This was the first time since World War II that the largest party in the Netherlands didn’t come from a liberal centre-right or centre-left European party family. The Netherlands is historically seen as a bellwether to Europe, and far-right figures across the continent celebrated Wilders’ victory.5
Far-right figures across Europe including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, France’s Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Germany’s AfD rushed to congratulate the PVV leader.6
Domestically, the closest party to Wilders in the election was an alliance of the centre-left Labor Party and Green Left. But its leader, Frans Timmermans from Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), made clear that Wilders should not count on a coalition with him: “We will never form a coalition with parties that pretend that asylum seekers are the source of all misery.”7
Omtzigt, a former centrist Christian Democrat who created the New Social Contract Party in just three months in August 2023, has won 20 seats and has said he would always be open to talks. Wilders would reach 57 seats in parliament with Omtzigt’s support, but would still need smaller parties to back him for a majority.8 Conversely, the heads of the three other biggest Dutch parties have all said they would not serve in a PVV-led cabinet9.
On 13th December 2023, during a parliamentary debate, Geert Wilders confronted concerns over his inflammatory anti-Islamic agenda and plans including banning mosques, Islamic schools and the Quran. He said he wants to be prime minister for “all Netherlanders” and pledged to ensure his policies adhere to the country’s constitution. The new coalition government for the Netherlands is far off as parties have yet to agree to common ground over the rule of law with far-right leader Geert Wilders let alone open negotiations.10
Who is Geert Wilders?
Geert Wilders, 60, is a career politician who has been in the Dutch parliament since 1998. Born in 1963 in southern Venlo, close to the German border, Wilders grew up in a Catholic family with his brother and two sisters.11 From 1990 to 1998, he was a parliamentary assistant to Frits Bolkestein who was the Leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the House of Representatives. He started his career as a member of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal-conservative group, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD. But he broke away to serve as an independent lawmaker before setting up in 2004 the anti-migrant Freedom Party, known as the PVV12.He has faced death threats because of his anti-Islam views and has been under police protection since 2004. Wilders said his disdain for Islam was fuelled by the assassination of the radical anti-Islam filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004 and his time spent in Israel on a kibbutz.13
Wilders’s History Anti-Islam Provocation
Wilders has been a well-known populist politician for more than 20 years for his attacks against the Prophet Muhammed and the holy Quran.
In 2009, the British government refused to let him visit the country, on the ground that he posed a threat to “community harmony and therefore public security.”14 Wilders was invited by a member of the House of Lords, to show his 15-minute film “Fitna,” (2018) which depicts the Quran as a “fascist book.” The film sparked violent protests around the Muslim world for linking Quranic verses with footage of terrorist attacks. In 2011, he was acquitted by a Dutch court in a hate speech trial for insulting Islam and calling for the ban on the Quran.15
In the municipal election of 2014, Wilders asked his supporters whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands. That sparked the chant: “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” — to which he replied, “We’ll take care of it.16 In 2017, he again sparked outrage during his campaign for the legislative elections by attacking the Moroccan community calling them “scum,” and voicing his desire to “cleanse” the country from “the Moroccan trash” and “return it to the Dutch people.” He was charged with hate speech inciting discrimination, although he received no fines or jail time.17 In 2019, he was charged with hate speech and discrimination against Moroccans living in the Netherlands and this time paid a €5,000 fine.
On July 2 2019, he took to Twitter to post a photo of a Moroccan flag in a pool, with the incendiary caption; “We want our pools back! Make them safe for women and children again.” He topped the post off by saying “Tackle the nuisance at last! #StopTerrorism,” implying that Moroccans are inherently terrorists. In 2020, he was convicted for insulting Moroccans in 2020. In 2019, Wilders also organized a cartoon contest to ridicule Prophet Muhammad after first cancelling it in 2018 following death threats.18
Wilders also intended to meddle with the first round of the Turkish presidential election held in May 2023, urging Turkish people living in the Netherlands who voted for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to leave the Netherlands.19
During his election campaign in 2023, he pledged the closure of Islamic schools and mosques but said after the the results of the elections that he would not breach Dutch laws or the constitution regarding freedom of religion and freedom of expression.20
Election Manifesto and Policies
According to his party platform :”With a reduction in the asylum and immigration flood to the Netherlands, the Islamization of our country will also be reduced”. It further states: “The Netherlands is not an Islamic country: no Islamic schools, Qurans and mosques. “We want less Islam in the Netherlands and we will achieve that through less non-Western immigration and the introduction of a general halt to asylum.”21
Wilders’ election manifesto calls for a referendum on the Netherlands’ leaving the EU. It promised a “Nexit” referendum on leaving the EU, a return to the guilder (the pre-euro currency) and an end to the free movement of EU workers.22
He also pledged a total halt to accept asylum seekers into the Netherlands and migrant pushbacks at the country’s borders. Wilders wants to revoke the 1951 UN refugee convention that outlines a refugee’s legal protection and rights. He also wants to expand oil and gas extraction in the North Sea, stop deploying wind and solar parks and stop sending aid to Ukraine”.23
In the run-up to the elections, Wilders toned down some of his more divisive anti-Islamic rhetoric, hinting that he could drop his proposed ban on mosques and the Qur’an, a move that his critics branded opportunistic.24
He has shifted his attention to the growing economic concerns, promising to solve the housing crisis and tackle inflation. He has also criticized climate action as a new form of tyranny, promising to send the Climate Act of 2019, and the 2015 UN Climate Agreement, “straight to the shredder.”25
Fears and Concerns
Muslims who are mostly from Morocco and Turkey make up about 5 per cent of the population in the Netherlands.26 The election results came as a shock. “ We did not expect such a party with a programme that is against the basic principles of the rule of law to be so big,” said Muhsin Koktas of the Muslim organization CMO (Contactorgaan Moslims en Overheid which is a federation of more than 380 mosques serving as the representative body of Islam in the Netherlands.27
Habib el Kaddouri, from the SMN (Samenwerkingsverband Marokkaanse Nederlanders, founded in 1987 to represent Moroccan interests in the Netherlands). pointed to the wider message sent by the Dutch embracing a man who has been labelled as a Dutch version of Donald Trump. “I don’t know if Muslims are still safe in the Netherlands,” he told the news agency ANP. “I am worried about this country.”28
Stephan van Baarle, leader of the minority rights party Denk, refused to congratulate Wilders on the PVV’s electoral success. He declared: “The fact that the PVV is the biggest party is a threat to a million Dutch Muslims (..) Mr Wilders wants to take away their rights”, describing the electoral results as a “threat to our legal state” and undeserving of any congratulations.29
While the possibility of Wilders becoming the Netherlands’ next prime minister remains small, the fact that so many voters had backed him was disappointing, said Mustafa Ayranci of the Turkish workers’ association HTIB: “The Dutch people have made a statement. We must respect that”.30
Musaab Elabbassi Ahmed, the president of the Muslim Student Association of Netherlands (MSA NL which represents over 40,000 students in higher education), described the situation as, a “Disappointment of indescribable proportions; a disaster.” Adding: “These are the thoughts echoing through the minds of a million Dutch Muslims waking up today. Nothing has been learnt from history in scapegoating religious minorities, as these are just some of the proposals in Wilders’s election programme that have catapulted him to success.” 31
Ilyas, a Muslim Dutch journalist (who prefers to be called by his first name) is concerned that Wilders will be able to form a far-right coalition in the Dutch parliament.32
Nourdin el Ouali, head of SPOIR, (Platform for Islamic Organisations Rotterdam, which is an umbrella association of about 100 Muslim organisations), said that the shift in Wilders’s tone during the election is deceptive: “Some utter that party leader Geert Wilders has become mild, but he has not become more moderate; instead, the Netherlands has become more hardened”. He told TRT World that the Netherlands has been adopting anti-Muslim measures for years and the situation can become worse with Wilders at the helm (..) That Wilders is now the largest, (political party holding the most seats) is only a reflection of that reality. Islamophobia has been normalised for the past 20 years.”33
On the public broadcaster NOS (Nederlandse Omroep Stichting), Tom van der Meer, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam, described the result as “the biggest shift we have ever seen in the Netherlands”. In his view: “Wilders has surfed a wave of anti-immigration sentiment and frustration with cross-party coalitions”.34 According to Hein de Haas, a sociologist at the same university, the VVD’s strategy of focusing the campaign on immigration had legitimised Wilders. He wrote on X: “The leading VVD party had the cabinet fall over asylum and centred the entire campaign on immigration”.35
Wilders is a staunch supporter of Israel and over the last few years has advocated the relocation of the Dutch Embassy to Jerusalem from Israel’s capital Tel Aviv and the closing of the Dutch diplomatic post in Ramallah, Palestine. 3637
The Gaza war likely influenced the vote outcome, as Wilders conspicuously displayed the Israeli flag in his office while voicing unabashed support of its military actions. According to Dr. Hanegraaff, from the University of Amsterdam: “Wilders’ stance upholding Israel’s right to self-defence resonated with conservative voters already inclined to affirm Israel’s narrative and tactics.” 38
Nourdin el Ouali, head of SPOIR declared that since the Israel-Gaza war broke out there has been a “huge increase” in Islamophobia with mosques being graffitied and Muslims losing their jobs over comments made on social media. He added that Gaza demonstrated to Muslims that the US and Europe were largely prepared to ignore international law. “On the other hand, public opinion is shifting with pro-Palestine demonstrations being organised and attended by people from all walks of life”.39
Overall, this shocking electoral result highlights undercurrents of anti-immigration populism simmering within the Dutch population after the last decades influxes of population changed the country’s social fabric. While some posit that moderate conservatives may temper Wilders’ radicalism by joining his prospective coalition, others think that formerly marginal political perspectives have become mainstream.
Wilders has been a member of parliament for 25 years but only once took part in government, from 2010 to 2012, when he gave support to Rutte’s minority coalition without holding any cabinet position. Rutte’s VVD and most other mainstream parties later ruled out working with him — until this year. ((https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-11-28/geert-wilders-who-is-the-far-right-dutch-election-winner?leadSource=uverify%20wal ↩