Dutch electorate votes right-wing and populist

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The centre-right liberal party (VVD) has won its first parliamentary election ever, but Geert Wilders and his right-wing Freedom Party (PVV) are being seen as the real winners of the poll. The Islam-bashing party has nearly trebled its number of MPs. What do the Dutch see in the populist Geert Wilders?

"Fellow party members, bring along a battering ram, because tomorrow we are going to break down the doors.” Geert Wilders marked his election victory with this call to his PVV colleagues. The 1.5 million voters who cast their ballots for the man and his relentless crusade against ‘mass immigration’ and the ‘Islamisation of the Netherlands' were also in jubilant mood. The PVV has nearly trebled its share of the vote since the 2006 elections, and now has the third largest group of MPs after the VVD and Labour (PvdA).

When Labour leader Job Cohen, speaking at a party meeting in Amsterdam, congratulated Geert Wilders and the PVV, his remark was greeted with jeers. However, the former Amsterdam mayor rebuked his supporters: "I don’t want to hear any jeering, the PVV has won a major victory and we should respect that”. All established parties have since congratulated Mr Wilders, and much of the criticism voiced against him has died down with the realisation that one in six Dutch voters chose his populist party.

The much-vaunted Dutch ‘polder model’ - ensuring economic prosperity and political stability by seeking broad political consensus on major issues - is unlikely to provide an answer in the current situation. The major parties are deeply divided on how to deal with the economic crisis and how to address the thorny issues of immigration and Islam. And the election has failed to provide a clear winner with a strong mandate to form a coalition government.

The electorate has rewarded the VVD for its economic policy plans which include drastic cuts to get the Dutch economy back on track. The PVV, meanwhile, won 1.5 million votes by hammering the perceived need to fight immigration and Islam. That was many more votes than predicted by pre-election opinion polls. How did this happen? Radio Netherlands’ political reporter Klaas den Tek says it’s partly due to the secret ballot.

"The polls often get it wrong when it comes to the PVV. One of the reasons could be that many people are reluctant to admit they are going to vote for Mr Wilders. Voters apparently feel PVV issues such as Islam and immigration are important.”

Government responsibility
Geert Wilders has said he wants to be in the next government. “Nobody can ignore us or push us aside,” he declared in his victory speech. However, the fact that Dutch Muslims are fearful of him means he is less likely to be chosen as a coalition partner. Firdaus Dahlan, head of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in The Hague, says that the Dutch essentially attach great value to the freedom of religion. He believes that Wilders' ideas about Islam should change:

“He regards Islam as something evil. If he took a look at Islam in Indonesia, he would see a very tolerant and moderate Islam. We value the freedom of religion. We hope that the new government will look further and consider the deeper values of Islam, not just events or activities involving only a small group.”

Swing to the right
The electorate’s swing to the right will not necessarily lead to a right-wing government. For starters, the right-wing parties only have a very small majority in parliament and so the likelihood is that any coalition will have to combine right and left of centre. Some parties have already ruled out any form of collaboration with the PVV on account of its position on immigrants and Islam.

On top of this, the Christian Democrats(CDA) and the VVD still vividly remember their short-lived collaboration with the right-wing populist party led by maverick-politician Pim Fortuyn who was assassinated in 2002. The party brought political instability, finally causing the government to fall. It may even come to the point where the conservative, pro-business VVD has no other option but to form a coalition with three left-of-centre parties (the democrat party D66, Green Left and the PvdA).

A court case brought against Geert Wilders because of his extremist statements about Islam is still going on, but it is thought unlikely to block his political career. Only a jail sentence, highly unlikely, would spell the end of his voting rights.