So it happened. After 25 years of flirting with Geert Wilders’s anti-Islam, anti-Brussels, anti-climate PVV, Dutch voters decided to make a date of it.
The scale of his victory caught everyone by surprise: commentators, pollsters, rival parties, even Wilders himself. The PVV took more than 24% of the vote and topped the poll in Rotterdam, The Hague and around 75% of all municipalities.
University cities, including Amsterdam, Utrecht and Groningen, turned out for the left-green coalition of Frans Timmermans. Pieter Omtzigt’s home region of Twente backed his new party Nieuw Sociaal Contract, which won a creditable 20 seats. But the surge towards the PVV has changed the landscape of Dutch politics.
It will also send shockwaves across Europe, given that Wilders believes the Netherlands should leave the EU, restore the guilder as its currency and stop sending weapons to Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s hopes of denting European support for Kyiv will be raised by the emergence of Wilders, who visited Moscow as recently as 2018, four years after flight MH17 was shot down with 200 Dutch citizens on board – though he abandoned his pro-Russia stance in the wake of last February’s full invasion.
Wilders will also look to block efforts to tackle climate change, which he has denounced as a wasteful leftist fad, and nitrogen pollution, even though the gridlock on the latter issue is holding up agricultural reforms and vital infrastructure projects.
Analysts will spend years dissecting the reasons why voters embraced the PVV, but one statistic stood out. Some 62% of university-educated voters backed PvdA-GL while 24% voted for the PVV, but for those with the lowest-level qualifications the ratio was reversed, 29% to 11%. Nearly half of mid-level educated voters (47%) supported the PVV, while 27% voted PvdA-GL.
This election blew open the myth of the Netherlands as a land of equal opportunities and exposed a sense of despair at the lower end of the social and educational scale. For whatever reason, those voters connected more strongly with Wilders’s rhetoric blaming their difficulties on migrants than the concrete plans by other parties to raise minimum wages and ease the tax burden.
Opinion pollsters picked up a shift towards the PVV in the final week of the campaign, but even the final polls predicted a neck-and-neck race with the right-wing liberal VVD and the left-wing alliance led by Frans Timmermans.
The result broke with a pattern of peaks and troughs in Wilders’s support. The PVV has tended to do well between elections only to fall back during the campaign, as the Dutch proportional system favours parties that are prepared to work together.
For most of the campaign Omtzigt made the running with his modest proposals to reform the tax system, improve people’s standards of living and create a fairer, more accessible justice system.
It was a polite, contemplative, frankly dull contest, with the top three parties – including Omtzigt’s NSC – deadlocked and Wilders in limbo behind them.
Commentators described Wilders as a milder, more responsible version of his old self. He told Nieuwsuur he was prepared to put the policies that have defined his party for 25 years into cold storage, such as a ban on the Qur’an and closing Islamic schools.
Yet the “game changer”, to use his own term, seems to have been a vicious debate on commercial channel SBS6 last Thursday. Wilders threw caution to the wind and, like a casino gambler staking everything on black, turned every discussion to his favourite subject of migration.
From that point the tone became harsher, the chase for tactical votes grew tighter, Omtzigt fell back and migration – only the fourth most important issue according to a survey of voters – came to dominate every debate. Wilders couldn’t believe his luck.
The PVV appears to have benefited from a rash of tactical voting at the expense of the VVD and smaller hard-right parties such as JA21 and Thierry Baudet’s Forum voor Democratie.
There was a more modest shift on the left, with D66 losing votes to Timmermans’s alliance but still taking the nine seats it had been forecast to win for most of the campaign. Overall the election marked a drift to the right, with two-thirds of the seats taken by right-wing and conservative parties ranging from the Christian Democrats (CDA) to Forum.
In one sense the PVV’s success feels like a Brexit or Trump moment, in that it shocked the political order and the consequences are unpredictable. But there are important differences, not least the fact that Wilders does not have a clear path to power and will be constrained by the Dutch system of consensus politics.
The immediate question is whether he can form a cabinet at all. The leader of the largest party takes the initiative in the coalition negotiations, but Wilders will not automatically be prime minister and could still end up in opposition if other parties are unwilling to work with him.
Before election day Omtzigt had categorically ruled out joining a cabinet with Wilders because his manifesto violated the constitution. Yesilgöz opened the door early in the campaign, breaking Mark Rutte’s taboo on doing deals with the PVV, but in the closing days she said Wilders was not the “unifying” leader the Netherlands needed.
Both moderated their language in the wake of the outcome, with Yesilgöz saying her priority was to “listen to the people” while Omtzigt insisted the “country must be governed”.
They are the most likely candidates to join a first round of negotiations with Wilders, along with Caroline van der Plas of the farmers’ party BBB, whose 16 seats in the Senate will be crucial.
Wilders will have little trouble securing support for a much harder immigration policy, given that all three of his potential partners campaigned on a platform of cutting numbers of asylum seekers, international students and labour migrants.
He will almost certainly have to abandon his plans to crack down on mosques and Islamic schools, while the courts will have something to say if he tries to reintroduce racial profiling.
That will not reassure the one million Muslims in the Netherlands who remember the “fewer Moroccans” speech at the local elections in 2014, which Wilders has never retracted or apologised for, even after it earned him a criminal record.
If the talks on the right break down, a centrist coalition, led by Timmermans with VVD, NSC and D66 would have the numbers to form a government, assuming Yesilgöz and Omtzigt are prepared to make substantial concessions to PvdA and GroenLinks. Timmermans will have to walk a tightrope if he is to keep his left-wing alliance intact while heading a cabinet that leans to the right.
In that sense, the real power in shaping the next government lies not with the two largest parties, but the centre-right combination of VVD, NSC and BBB.
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