The Dutch either love or hate Geert Wilders, one of Europe’s most radical right-wing politicians.
Wilders hopes Wednesday’s elections in the Netherlands will make his Freedom Party the largest political force in the country.
According to the current prime minister of The Netherlands, Mark Rutte, the upcoming elections are the “quarter finals against the bad kind of populism” – the semi-finals and finals being the elections in France and Germany later this year. In other words, a victory for Wilders could fuel a populist revolt in Europe.
His anti-Islam, anti-EU agenda has been popular amongst a significant section of Dutch voters for over ten years now. And his inward-looking, anti-establishment rhetoric bears a lot of similarities to the political style of US-president Donald Trump. Not surprisingly, last year Wilders showed himself to be an enthusiastic Trump supporter.
The blonde-haired politician – nicknamed Captain Peroxide – has been active in Dutch politics for over twenty years, now. Blue State Digital, the digital strategy firm that also provided its services to Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaign, considers Wilders to be ‘the original Trump’.
According to the Dutch polls Wilders’ Freedom Party is about to divide his home country more than ever. Although he has a decent chance of winning the Dutch elections on March 15th, chances are slim he will actually become prime minister of The Netherlands. Becoming the largest party in parliament would not be enough. The Freedom Party would still need two to three coalition-partners in order to form a majority government.
Over the past few years Wilders has alienated other political parties, as his ideas about countering the perceived threat of Islam and exiting the European Union have made him more extreme than ever. And without coalition-partners there is no way Wilders would be able to actually implement some of his ideas.
These days Wilders vows to ban the Quran in The Netherlands, which he compares to Adolf Hitlers Mein Kampf; he wants to close all mosques in the country and exit the eurozone and European Union. But there was a time when Wilders was just a modest member of a mainstream political party. This is how Wilders slowly transformed into the Europe’s most radical politician.
Geert Wilders was born on the 6th of September, 1963, in the city of Venlo, close to the German border. Not much is known about his youth, except that his mom was born in Indonesia – a former Dutch colony – and that he used to work in a pickle factory.
According to some opponents Wilders bleaches his hair in order to hide his Indonesian roots. He has a brother, Paul, who recently started to speak out against Geert via tweets and interviews with the press, both in The Netherlands and beyond. In a recent interview with German weekly magazine Der Spiegel, Paul said he disagrees with Geert, but he still cares for his brother: “Politically I disagree with him completely. But he is my brother. I believe he is unhappy. That makes me unhappy, too.”
Not much is known about Wilders’ wife, Krisztina Marfai Arib, except for the fact that she is a former Hungarian diplomat of jewish origin.
‘That small piece of muslim extremism’
Nowadays, Wilders is known as a man who says extreme things. But that hasn’t always been the case. He began his political career as a backbencher for the conservative-liberal VVD, the same party that the current Dutch PM Mark Rutte belongs to. Wilders proved to be quite nuanced at the time. This is what he said in a Dutch television interview in 2001:
“From the very start I’ve said that I do not have anything against Islam. It’s not about the religion, contrary to what Pim Fortuyn [a populist Dutch politician who was murdered in the year 2002 by an environmental activist] calls a ‘Cold War against Islam’. I find that a despicable remark, a false generalisation about all muslims. There is nothing wrong with Islam, it’s about that small piece of muslim extremism.”
According to Wilders’ brother, the radicalisation of Geert Wilders was “a process that went on for years”. An important experience was a trip he made as a 18-year old to Israel, where he worked in a kibbutz. Later, he started to feel uncomfortable when more and more people of Turkish and Moroccan descent moved into his neighborhood in the city of Utrecht. “He didn’t like that”, Paul Wilders said.
In the early 2000’s, a series of events gradually made Wilders’ stance on Islam change, his brother says:
“After Sept. 11, and the murders of politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004, he recognized that there was a gap in the political landscape, and he began to make a name for himself as an opponent of Islam.”
In 2003, the current Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte – at the time the secretary of education – and Geert Wilders do agree that their conservative-liberal party could grow much bigger, if they found a way to attract a broader segment of the voters.
However, Wilders and Rutte at this point in time have two completely different ideas about the path forward. Rutte publicly hints at a merger with the progressive liberal-democrat party D66. Wilders on the other hand sees an enormous potential elsewhere. “All the people that voted for the (now murdered politician) Pim Fortuyn are incredibly disappointed”, Wilders said in a 2003 interview.
Finally, in 2004 Wilders leaves the VVD-party. But he keeps his seat in parliament as an independent parliamentarian. On september 3rd, 2004, he starts ‘Group Wilders’, which would later be called the Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid).
No longer held back by his old party, Wilders starts to speak firmer about Islam and immigrants, which causes the first death threats to pour in. From this moment onwards, Wilders is placed under permanent protection. “When you need security officers around you because of that, you become even more paranoid,” his brother explained.
An important tipping point for Wilders was the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh – a descendant of painter Vincent van Gogh – by a muslim extremist in 2004. After the murder, Wilders decides not to lower his voice. Instead, it is an important reason for him to keep protesting against what he calls the ‘political ideology of Islam’.
It’s clear that Wilders isn’t about to back down. But he also understands that there are some benefits to the never ending stream of death threats and permanent protection. His security guards are worth “two to three seats in parliament”, he would later say to his staff, according to a report by the Dutch daily De Volkskrant.
In 2006, Wilders participates in the Dutch general election with his Freedom Party for the first time. His party gets 9 seats out of a total of 150 seats.
In the following years, his party continues to do well in the polls. He proves to be a master of controversial publicity stunts, such as the anti-Islam movie Fitna, which he releases in 2008. The film, which looks more like a Powerpoint presentation than an actual movie, sparks a number protests in the Arab world.
His party also comes up with controversial law proposals, such as a ‘tax on headscarfs’, and protests against two ministers of the Labour Party because of their dual nationality (Dutch-Turkish and Dutch-Moroccan).
In 2009, the PVV decides to participate in the European elections, in order to “fight the European Union from within”. Around the same time, Wilders befriends a number of like-minded politicians across Europe. Marine le Pen of the French National Front party is one of his main allies.
In the Dutch general election of 2010, the Freedom Party gaines 24 out of 150 seats. Although the elections are won by Mark Rutte’s conservative-liberal VVD, Wilders is considered to be the real winner. Mark Rutte feels forced to form a coalition with Wilders, together with the centrist Christian Democrats.
Because Wilders is considered to be too much of a risk on the international stage, however, the Freedom Party does not become an official member of ruling coalition. He only supports the minority government of the other two parties, in exchange for a seat at the table when government plans are being made.
Because of this – for Dutch standards unique – construction, Mark Rutte is able to govern without the controversial Wilders at his side in the cabinet. At the same time, however, this also allows Wilders to have some form of power, while still being able to come up with controversial plans.
For example, in 2012 Wilders launches a special hotline for people with complaints against immigrant workers from Eastern Europe. Initially, Rutte refuses to condemn the initiative, saying that Wilders has the right to do this.
Although Wilders’ behavior at times makes it hard for the governing parties to co-operate with him, prime-minister Rutte – a former human HR-manager at Anglo-Dutch multinational Unilever – finds a way to make it work. In the end, it is Wilders himself who withdraws his support for the coalition government, because he refuses to approve a tough austerity package, in the midst of the financial crisis.
However, supporting the government for two years and then pulling out doesn’t turn out they way Wilders hopes. In the election of 2012, Wilders’ Freedom Party loses 9 seats in parliament.
Between 2012 and 2017 Wilders goes back to opposing the government (a Great Coalition of the conservative-liberals and Labour Party) in his characteristic way; by making controversial, far-fetched proposals that hardly ever get a majority in parliament. He rarely ever gives an interview to the Dutch press, hardly ever joins a debate on television. He is however an effective user of Twitter, just like Donald Trump.
Less, less, less
In 2014, during a regional election campaign, Wilders decides to show up at a local rally to give a speech. He concludes his speech with a simple question for his audience: “Do we want more, or less Moroccans?” The audience replies, loud, clear and repeatedly, with the latter option: “Less, less, less”. “Then we’ll take care of that”, Wilders says in return.
This now infamous incident provokes a wave of protest in the Netherlands. Some people say it reminded them of the Second World War. A couple of party members even leave Wilders’ party.
A lawsuit is filed, and two years later, in December 2016, Wilders is found guilty of inciting discrimination.
The court case doesn’t affect Wilders’ popularity much, though. Once again, Wilders skillfully uses the verdict to his own advantage, speaking of a ‘fake court’, ran by ‘liberal judges’.
Wednesday 15th of March the Dutch will vote in the general election. Wilders’ Freedom Party is tied neck and neck with Mark Rutte’s VVD-party.
However, this time the situation seems different compared to six years ago. It looks like Wilders has radicalised so much, other political parties in the Netherlands simply see no way of striking compromises with The Freedom Party.
In 2010, the established parties still thought they could contain populism by cooperating with it. Now, almost every major political leader has ruled out the option of cooperating with Wilders. “The odds this will happen are zero. It’s not going to happen”, even Mark Rutte said.
Where other parties made eleborate party programmes, the Freedom Party just issued a one pager. It’s main point: “To de-Islamize the country”, close all mosques, ban the Quran. The PVV doesn’t explain what ‘de-Islamizing’ means or how this would be executed.
Wilders has basically put himself in an offside position as far as Dutch politics are concerned. Marianne Thieme, the political leader of the environmentalist Animal Party, phrased it like this: “He might win 20 to 30 out of 150 seats. That leaves 120 to 130 seats that do not belong to him.”