Wilders back on the barricades

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Early elections in the Netherlands are all but certain after negotiations on austerity measures broke down on Saturday. Geert Wilders, leader of the populist Freedom Party, dramatically walked out of the talks at the last minute, just as an agreement seemed imminent.

After one and a half years helping govern the Netherlands by supporting a minority government, Geert Wilders has had enough. Now his Freedom Party movement can go back to a more comfortable role as protest party.

Since leaving the free-market liberal VVD party seven years ago, Mr Wilders has fashioned himself into a populist, anti-establishment politician. The champion of the average working class Joe, a constituency he refers to as ‘Henk and Ingrid’.

Strange bedfellows
That anti-establishment image was severely challenged the moment he signed a governing agreement with two stalwarts of the Dutch establishment, the VVD and the Christian Democrats. Wilders did keep a modicum of distance by not actually participating in the government, merely supporting it from parliament. The Christian Democrats refusal to allow Wilders into the cabinet gave him a convenient excuse not to join the cabinet as a full partner.[related-articles]

Even that distance was not enough. Governing in a coalition system such as here in the Netherlands requires compromise. Mr Wilders, on the other hand, rose to prominence by ridiculing the very culture of compromise. He risked being seen as just another wishy-washy politician, willing to trade away his principles.

Lashing out
Wilders’ need to be seen as anti-establishment led to some rather uncomfortable moments for his allies in the cabinet. Prime Minister Mark Rutte was repeatedly asked to condemn various statements by his political partner. Wilders insulted the President of Turkey while he was on a state visit, the Freedom Party started a website inviting people to complain about Polish immigrants, Wilders condemned the Queen for wearing a headscarf when visiting a mosque in Oman and spoke out against Islam at ground zero in New York. Mr Rutte rose to the Queen’s defence, but otherwise refused to comment.

These radical statements have all been part of Wilders’ strategy of disguising compromises with political drama. He pleases his constituents by railing against the system, even while he is an important player in that system.

Put to the test
The recent negotiations for a new round of austerity measures proved the toughest test of Mr Wilders’ political savvy. The day after the last election, Mr Wilders said he would break his promise not to raise the age of retirement. A clear example of compromise in the interest of governing. He could not afford to openly offend pensioners again. Mr Wilders has also fervently advocated more spending on healthcare. He was being asked to compromise on both in the recent austerity package.

Attempting to explain why he walked out, Wilders lashed out at the European Union, saying the Netherlands should not blindly obey commands from Brussels. This is a popular standpoint in the Netherlands which, ever since rejecting the European Constitution in a referendum back in 2005, has shown a growing anti-Europe sentiment.

Bash away
Bashing Europe, just like bashing immigration, is a tried and tested manner for Wilders to score among his electorate. Now, freed from the burden of governing, Mr Wilders can bash away to his heart’s content. But this time, the formula may not prove as successful as it has in the past.

Wilders has taken a calculated risk by walking away. He is saying farewell to his position of power and is unlikely to get the chance again soon. But that suits him and his supporters. They are more comfortable storming the establishment castle from the outside.

Party poopers
Wilders has suffered a blow to his credibility. His Freedom Party is proving to be an unreliable partner. Having learned from the chaos that sank his party's populist predecessor the Pim Fortuyn List, Wilders has worked hard to avoid divisions within his Freedom Party, but now they seem to have caught up with him nonetheless. Nearly a dozen local Freedom Party representatives have left the party in the past few years. Last month, one of the party's most prominent MPs announced he was leaving. And last week, the Freedom Party suffered a particularly embarrassing blow in Limburg, Geert Wilders’ home province and the only one where the party was in government. The Christian Democrats pulled the plug on the coalition there, saying the Freedom Party was no longer a reliable partner.

These troubles expose the weaknesses of the party’s lack of structure and its complete reliance on one-man rule. Wilders has been unwilling to delegate authority and his party has grown too fast for him to control everything.

Now, as the party regroups, Wilders will undoubtedly fall back on ever more dramatic gestures. Presenting his new book Marked for death: Islam’s war against the west and me in New York next week is only the start. But after his stint in the halls of power in The Hague, his old tactics may have run their course.

(jt/imm/dd/jn)