Geert Wilders set for political comeback in Dutch election

An unexpected surge in public support for the Dutch far-right could pave the way for veteran anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders to play a pivotal role in the formation of the next government after parliamentary elections on Wednesday.

A Maurice de Hond poll over the weekend found Wilders’ Freedom party (PVV) tied in first place with the liberal VVD party of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte, indicating that a rightwing coalition was the most likely outcome, according to analysts.

A Labour-Green alliance of parties was trailing behind in third place, along with New Social Contract, a recently formed centre-right party that is likely to be indispensable to any ruling coalition.

Even if the Hond opinion poll proves to be an unreliable outlier with its projection that Wilders’s party will win 26 seats in the 150-seat assembly, a rightwing government is unlikely to take office without the Freedom party’s backing.

“To build a majority rightwing coalition, the support of Wilders is required,” said Sarah de Lange, professor of politics at the University of Amsterdam.

Wilders may need to back the government from the outside, she added, as some parties including NSC have refused to go into a coalition with him. It would be the second time the Freedom party has supported a government since 2010, when Wilders backed a Rutte minority cabinet for two years.

You are seeing a snapshot of an interactive graphic. This is most likely due to being offline or JavaScript being disabled in your browser.

The new VVD leader replacing Rutte, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, 46, had told the Financial Times she could work with Wilders, saying: “We don’t exclude anybody.” But on Sunday, after the poll came out, she admitted there were “huge differences” between her and Wilders.

All parties on the right share a desire to cut immigration, solve the housing crisis and stimulate the economy as people struggle with high inflation and slow growth. 

Wilders, 60, has long been a fixture of Dutch politics, with his swept back mane of blond hair and phalanx of bodyguards the government has provided after he received death threats in response to his campaign to ban the Koran.

As a critic of Islam, he followed in the footsteps of Pim Fortuyn — a charismatic politician who was murdered in 2002 by a Dutch leftwing activist who said he wanted to show solidarity with Muslims in the Netherlands.

Wilders was briefly challenged by younger far-right figures — notably Thierry Baudet, whose Forum for Democracy topped the polls with 15 per cent in 2019 provincial elections. That party has since deflated because of internal differences and Baudet’s flirtation with fascism and conspiracy theories.

Wilders has recently moderated his language to appear more palatable to potential coalition partners, saying he could drop his proposed ban on mosques and the Koran.

That move seems in particular aimed at NSC, which was set up in August by former Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt. The NSC is polling around 15 per cent and has ruled out joining forces with Wilders, although that leaves open the possibility of the Freedom party backing them from outside government.

“Constitutional rights include freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The election manifesto of Wilders contains ‘no mosques, no Korans’ among other lines. That is a clear violation of the Dutch constitution,” said NSC.

Omtzigt recently told the FT he was leftwing on economics and rightwing on social values and immigration. A perceived outsider who lives in Enschede on the German border far from Amsterdam and The Hague, he has become the new cipher for the countryside, where he is scooping up voters who previously backed agrarian movements.

Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, Frans Timmermans, Geert Wilders and Pieter Omtzigt during an election debate

The NSC is expected to win more than 20 seats, making it indispensable to any coalition, said Barbara Vis, professor of politics at Utrecht University.

“Omtzigt has also stated that he is in favour of a minority cabinet, which leaves open the possibility that the Freedom party could act as a support party in a similar way that it supported the 2010 Rutte government,” said Vis. She added that at least four parties would be needed to get a majority. 

Meanwhile, Frans Timmermans’ attempt to lead a combined Labour and Green party into government is struggling. Timmermans quit his job as European commissioner for climate and environment policy to try to prevent his country swinging further to the right.

But his alliance and its most obvious ally, the progressive Liberal D66 group, are forecast to only muster about 30 seats. D66 is the second-biggest party in the outgoing government coalition and has ensured it pursued ambitious climate policies. They quit over a plan to tighten immigration controls.

But with many voters still to make up their minds, Timmermans has been touring TV studios and addressing rallies to fire up those opposed to the prospect of Wilders getting into government.

“We have to become the biggest party in order to prevent a rightwing government,” said the Labour-Green parties, in reference to the largest political alliance having the right to try first to form a coalition government. “This is the very reason why we united our parties: if we want to prevent a rightwing government we have to work together.”

Read more on the Dutch election