Why Wilders won: Election boosts Dutch far right, but what happens next?

Wilders’s Party for Freedom has been on a long ascent, fuelled by poverty and the fear of competition from migration.

Europe may soon have a new far-right prime minister.

Geert Wilders could become the next leader of the Netherlands after a historic election win on Wednesday.

His Party for Freedom won 37 seats in the country’s 150-seat legislature, the largest single bloc, well ahead of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative People’s Party (24 seats) and the left-wing Labour-Green coalition (25 seats).

Wilders has historically been against immigration and is sceptical of European Union influence over national decision-making.

“We will make sure that the Netherlands will be for the Dutch people again. We will restrict the asylum tsunami and migration. People will have more money in their wallet again,” he said at a recent campaign rally.

“The Party for Freedom scored points in both the Dutch and the European Parliament elections in the past but never managed to win any of them. … Its recent landslide victory is a watershed,” George Tzogopoulos, a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, told Al Jazeera.

What does Wilders stand for?

Anti-Islam and anti-EU rhetoric are historically the main elements in Wilders’s agenda. This proved too marginal for Dutch public opinion when he became the spokesperson for the People’s Party in 2002, and he was dismissed from the post.

Anti-Muslim sentiment rose in the country after filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed in 2004. His film Submission depicted Islam as a religion that encouraged violence against women. The attacker, Mohammed Bouyeri, was a second-generation Dutch Moroccan. The Guardian newspaper called the incident “the murder that shattered Holland’s liberal dream”.

Wilders formed a new party that year, and renamed it the Party for Freedom (VVD) in 2006. He has since argued the Netherlands should revoke the permits of Syrians and ban the Koran.

“His party platform has argued that migration has weakened the Netherlands,” Angeliki Dimitriadi, who heads the migration programme at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, told Al Jazeera.

Why did the Dutch back him now?

Energy inflation stemming from the Ukraine war and sanctions against Russian oil seems to have been a major factor.

“[Wilders] combined this [anti-immigrant] political strategy by also appealing to voters who were disenchanted due to rising costs and high prices,” Tzogopoulos said. “In so doing, he criticised the military support provided by the Netherlands to Ukraine although he condemned the Russian invasion.”

“What does appear to have played a role is Wilders’s ‘ownership’ of the migration issue, which set the tone of the debate,” Dimitriadi said. “It resulted in parties from the centre right adopting more conservative approaches to migration and asylum in an effort to counter the PVV.”

This strategy clearly produced the “opposite result”, she said, “but beyond migration, the party’s agenda regarding the housing crisis and rising cost of living also seem to have played a role.”

What happens next in the Netherlands?

Wilders has to find coalition partners who together would represent a majority of seats in the legislature, so he could win a vote of confidence to form a government.

If these developments occur, he would be Europe’s first far-right leader to head a government since Italy’s Georgia Meloni came to power.

That power could temper his politics.

Meloni, also an anti-immigration, Eurosceptic politician, dispelled fears that she would disrupt the European political scene when she continued her predecessors’ staunch support for Ukraine.

Tzogopoulos believes this moderation has already begun for Wilders.

“[Wilders] had toned down his approach vis-a-vis Muslims in the pre-election campaign. The example of Georgia Meloni in Italy demonstrates that politicians theoretically portrayed as right-wing ones can easily abandon extremism on several issues as soon as they are elected.

“Obviously, there are also other different cases like [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban in Hungary.”

Dimitriadi says Wilders is emblematic of a broader shift to the right – one that could create alliances and harden positions.

“There is a clear shift to the right and a failure of the left to respond to the big issues in a convincing manner for voters,” she told Al Jazeera.

“There is also an already conservative approach on migration and asylum at EU level … It is likely that the shift to the right on migration and asylum will continue,” Dimitriadi predicted.

What does this mean for Europe?

Authoritarian, anti-immigrant, anti-globalist, Eurosceptic, populist parties that had been marginal in Europe began to flourish after the 2008 global financial crisis and received another boost by the 2015 surge in refugee arrivals. Now, high inflation is giving them another boost.

They started out as junior coalition partners but are clearly on the march, now leading governments in Italy and possibly soon the Netherlands.

Wilders’s Party for Freedom became the third largest in the Netherlands in the 2010 elections and supported Rutte’s coalition government for two years.

In 2017, it became the second largest party.

Where else has the far right surged in Europe?

Fidesz has ruled in Hungary since 2010 and the Law and Justice Party in Poland had since 2015, thanks partly to a shared playbook of suppression of free speech and judicial subversion – something that is now landing them both in trouble. They have supported each other in resisting countermeasures from the EU.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) won seats in a series of state legislatures beginning in 2014 and took 12.6 percent of the vote to enter the federal parliament in 2017. It has since outpolled the centre-right Christian Democrats in the former East Germany. Last month, it claimed its highest ever share of the vote in what used to be West Germany after it won 18.4 percent of the vote in Hesse, the state where Frankfurt is located, coming second only to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Co-founder Alice Weidel said: “AfD is no longer an eastern phenomenon but has become a major all-German party. So we have arrived.”

In Finland, the True Finns took 17.7 percent of the vote in 2015 and ruled as coalition partners for two years. In Britain, UKIP exerted extraordinary magnetism on the conservative electorate, resulting in the July 2016 referendum to leave the EU.

The Freedom Party of Austria took 26 percent of the vote in 2017 and ruled as a junior coalition partner for two years.

In France, it was Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party and not the incumbent Socialists who challenged frontrunner Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 presidential run-off. It took 34 percent of the vote to become the main opposition party. Last year, Le Pen increased her share of the popular vote in the run-off to 41.45 percent, suggesting that she will be a leading presidential contender again.

In Italy, the Northern League took 17.4 percent of the vote in 2018 to become the third-largest force on the national stage.

Giorgia Meloni swept to victory in September 2022 elections at the head of a right-wing coalition comprising her Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots; Matteo Salvini’s Northern League; and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Slovakia’s Smer party won 23 percent of the vote on September 30. Its leader, Robert Fico, had spoken out against sanctions on Russia. A week after the elections, Fico said his country would immediately halt deliveries of further military aid to Ukraine.

But there are also signs of a backlash against authoritarianism.

In Poland, the ruling conservative Law and Justice Party and its allies failed to win a majority of seats in October 15 elections, making it likely that the united opposition will succeed it.

Source: Al Jazeera