The Dutch elections planned for March 15 are being closely watched as another test of the strength of European populism, as the far-right provocateur Geert van Wilders—whose PVV party is currently leading in the polls—seeks to take power in a country once seen as a haven of cosmopolitan liberalism. Whether or not Wilders wins, however, readouts from the first election debates show how he has already shifted the public discourse, leading mainstream politicians to tack to the right on the EU and migration. EU Observer reports:
The leader of the Dutch Christian-Democrats party CDA is slowly moving away from the traditional pro-EU message of its European political family, the European People’s Party (EPP).
Christian-Democrat MP, Sybrand van Haersma Buma, said on Sunday (26 February) at the first nationally televised debate ahead of 15 March general elections that he would “throw” the ratification bill of the EU-Ukraine association agreement “in the bin” if he became prime minister. […]
His remarks followed the first national election radio debate on Radio 1 that took place on Friday (24 February), in which Buma said that other countries will follow the United Kingdom out of the EU unless the bloc “drastically” reformed.
“If Europe continues on the same track, Brexit will not be the end of it,” he said Buma.
Buma is hardly the only Dutch politician to embrace aspects of Wilders’ agenda. Lodewijk Asscher, who leads the centre-left Labour party, has argued that the Netherlands should not accept any more refugees, and current Prime Minister Mark Rutte has lately sharpened his tone on the subject while promising to defend “Dutch values.” This may be tame stuff compared to Wilders’ outlandish proposals to close all Dutch mosques and ban the sale of the Koran, but it does suggest how Wilders looms large over the election even as he maintains a low public profile and skips the debates.
Wilders’ influence has affected the race in other, more counterintuitive ways. As the Financial Times notes, the liberal party D66, which has stuck to its guns on supporting the EU and arguing for more immigrants, is poised to have its strongest electoral showing in over a decade. The trend suggests how complicated the race remains, with many on the Dutch left embracing D66’s defiant anti-Wilders stance against Labour’s more flexible approach; the latest polls show that Labour could slip from the second-largest party in parliament to the seventh.
With two weeks to go until the election, then, the race remains a dynamic one, and Wilders’ victory is by no means set in stone. In 2012, his party had a much weaker showing than the polls suggested, and his campaign infrastructure remains weak compared to his more established rivals. And even if Wilders wins, he will face a major challenge in cobbling together a coalition, given that several parties have preemptively ruled out working with him.
But after a year of upset victories, Wilders’ odds cannot be overlooked—and no matter the outcome, the Euroskeptic, populist sentiments he represents are likely to remain potent political force for some time to come.