Wilders' supporters don't really care about headscarves

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Many of those who vote for Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party would be horrified if its extreme anti-Islam policies were actually put into effect. They support him because he’s a wake-up call to other Dutch politicians, according to political researcher Chris Aalberts of Rotterdam’s Erasmus University.

Ban the Qur’an, slap a tax on headscarves: Geert Wilders has managed to stir up plenty of controversy in the Netherlands in the past few years with his radical ideas about Islam. But most of his supporters don’t actually take his more extreme proposals seriously, according to Aalberts. “There’s only a tiny group of fanatics who want these ideas put into effect. Most Freedom Party (PVV) supporters don't actually agree with them, but see them as a clever tactic to get certain issues on the political agenda.

Smart and frustrated
In the run-up to next month’s parliamentary elections, the Freedom Party is doing less well in the polls than a couple of years ago, but it’s still attracting a sizeable chunk of the vote. Reason enough for lecturer and researcher Chris Aalberts to try and find out what motivates Wilders’ supporters. He conducted in-depth interviews with 87 PVV voters for his book Achter de PVV (Behind the PVV) and came to the conclusion that they’re smarter than many people would like to believe.

These are frustrated voters, says Aalberts, because they feel the traditional parties are not dealing with the issues they’re concerned about, such as immigration. Wilders is the only one talking about this. And they view his radicalism as a way of forcing the other parties to talk about it. “The aim is not that Wilders becomes Prime Minster and puts all his policies into effect. The aim is to get the parties to the right of the political spectrum to all move in the PVV’s direction: more critical of Islam, of integration and now of Europe”.  And that aim is being achieved, he says: “it’s very clear that the climate of public and political opinion has shifted”.

Tactical exception
Aalbert’s research also shows that this more moderate faction mostly keeps quiet about its support for Wilders.  A consequence, he says of the stigma attached to the Freedom Party. “PVV voters are seen as being badly-educated racists. These people don’t want to be seen that way.” Ironically enough, many of those interviewed judged other PVV voters as dumb and saw themselves as an exception, voting for Wilders for tactical reasons.

According to Aalberts, it’s only a small minority of Wilders’ supporters who see Islam as being a serious threat. Mostly they’re concerned about the more humdrum irritations of daily life: groups of youngsters from immigrant backgrounds hanging around shopping malls causing a nuisance; hearing foreign languages on the street and not being able to understand what’s being said; the suspicion that ‘foreigners’ are given preferential treatment by council housing departments. “If politicians paid more attention to these sorts of issues we’d hear a lot less complaining about a multi-cultural society. Give those youngsters somewhere to go!”

‘Geert’s hobby’
So why does the Freedom Party continue to hammer away at the anti-Islam argument if that’s not what really motivates its supporters? The answer’s simple according to Aalberts: “Because Geert Wilders IS the PVV and he personally considers the topic extremely important. Plenty of people in the party don’t really agree and refer to ‘Geert’s hobby’."

Anti-EU policies have taken the starring role in the Freedom Party’s programme for the coming elections. But there’s still plenty of attention for Islam and immigration – and in particular the way regulations laid down by Brussels stop the Netherlands from tackling unwanted ‘foreign’ influences.