Geert Wilders: The far-right kingmaker of the next Dutch government

23 days ago

Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician, recently secured a surprising victory in Dutch elections and is now positioned to shape a right-wing coalition government. Known for his controversial anti-migrant and anti-Islam stances, Wilders has been a prominent figure in Dutch politics for years. Although he had to forego his bid for prime minister, his leadership of the largest parliamentary bloc ensures his influence in shaping policies on immigration, climate, and EU relations.

Geert Wilders - Figure 1
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By Cagan Koc

Far-right lawmaker Geert Wilders pulled off a surprise victory in a Dutch election in November, after a late surge catapulted his anti-European Union party past its rivals. On May 15, after months of negotiations, he sealed a tentative agreement to form a right-wing coalition government with three other parties. Wilders was forced to renounce his own bid to become premier as part of the deal. But as leader of the largest bloc in parliament, he will still make key decisions behind the scenes. 

1. Who is Geert Wilders?

Wilders, 60, has been a fixture in Dutch politics for decades. He started his career as a member of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal group, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD. But he broke away to serve as an independent lawmaker before setting up the anti-migrant Freedom Party, known as the PVV in Dutch. He has faced death threats because of his anti-Islam views and has been under police protection since 2004. Wilders has been a member of parliament for 25 years but has only once taken part in government, from 2010 to 2012, when he gave external support to Rutte’s minority coalition as a non-Cabinet member. Rutte’s VVD and most other mainstream parties later ruled out working with him — until last year. 

2. Why is he controversial?

Immigrants have been Enemy No. 1 for Wilders, the longest-serving lawmaker in the Dutch parliament. He has called for fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands and for banning Muslim immigration, mosques and the Koran. In the early 2000s he was prohibited from traveling to the UK under a law devised to exclude extremists — although that restriction was overturned in one of many encounters with the authorities. In 2020, a Dutch court found him guilty of insult charges for comments he made about Moroccan immigrants, but the judges imposed no penalty. He’s been suspended from Twitter, as it was then known, for attacking Islam. Like Donald Trump, Wilders cultivates an eye-catching splash of hair. In the final days of the campaign, he took to wearing red ties rather than his usual blue, as if to emphasize the similarities with the former US president. 

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3. What are his policies?

Wilders has been resolute about his demands for a big reduction in immigration to the Netherlands, and any new government is expected to take a hard line on asylum seekers. He also wants the Netherlands to withdraw from its international climate obligations. Another signature Wilders proposal is for a binding referendum on leaving the EU, though he dropped that pledge ahead of European Parliament elections coming in June. He’s also softened his image by rolling back some of his anti-Islam policies such as plans to ban Islamic schools, the Koran and mosques. “People have come up with so many names for me,” he told reporters after his election victory. “Some say I am the Dutch Trump, others call me Geert Milders” — a jibe that suggests his views suddenly and conveniently became less extreme since he began trying to form a coalition. “The truth is somewhere in the middle,” he suggested.

4. What has Wilders said about Islam?

Wilders told the Guardian newspaper in 2008 that “Islam is not a religion; it’s an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture.” In Fitna, a movie Wilders made that was released that year, he called on Muslims to rip out “hate-preaching” verses from the Koran. The film spurred protests in some majority-Muslim countries and led to calls to boycott Dutch products. He has proposed a “head rag tax” in reference to Islamic dress. About 5% of the Netherlands’ 18 million people are Muslims. Most are of Turkish or Moroccan origin. 

5. How did Wilders win?

Opposition to immigration has been growing in the Netherlands, for one thing. But Wilders also benefited from toning down his rhetoric about some of his more controversial policies in the latter days of the campaign. Then he benefited from a strong showing in the final election debates — and from the refusal by Rutte’s successor as party leader, Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius, to rule out working with him or his Freedom Party. Another early front-runner, Pieter Omtzigt, lost ground after equivocating over whether he really wanted to be prime minister. Wilders had articulated his political strategy back in 2003, in a joint interview with the future prime minister, Rutte, conducted by a Dutch public broadcaster. His idea, he said, was “to know which topics you want to claim” — meaning those that stir emotion in voters. Since then he has broadened his repertoire, tapping into worries about the welfare state, health care and affordable housing to appeal to more voters. 

6. Why can’t Wilders become the Dutch PM?

Wilders said repeatedly that he wanted to be the Netherlands’ next prime minister. After his election victory, he negotiated for a right-wing coalition that would include Rutte’s former party, the center-right group New Social Contract and the Farmer Citizens’ Movement. But he was forced by his coalition partners to step aside in March, in a compromise to advance talks after previous efforts to forge alliances with rivals hit setbacks. 

He railed against his coalition partners, calling the move “unfair and undemocratic.” But “the love for my country and voter is great and more important than my own position,” he said. Those comments suggested that bad blood from the negotiations might hamper the functioning of the next administration and be a persistent source of instability.  

Leaders of the other three coalition parties have also agreed to stay out of the next cabinet. Ever since, they have been negotiating for a new form of government called a “program cabinet,” which is based on a less-binding coalition agreement and would be staffed by a mix of ministers affiliated with political parties as well as technocrats.

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7. Who could be the next prime minister?

Wilders and his coalition partners will get to tap the new prime minister, who is expected to be a lower-profile leader than the heads of the four governing parties. Ronald Plasterk, a former education and interior minister and currently a conservative columnist for Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, is seen as Wilders’ most likely pick. Though a member of the Labor Party — which isn’t part of the talks — Plasterk has become more conservative after drifting away from his party over time. Wilders had picked Plasterk as a so-called scout, assigned the task of exploring the various options available for the formation of a new cabinet. Despite Plasterk’s political views, the fact that he has served in government for another party suggests a wide network and understanding of the other parties. He has also worked with Rutte.

8. What are some of the migration and green policies Wilders and his partners agreed on?

Wilders and his coalition partners published their coalition agreement on May 16, with pledges to significantly reduce migration and undo key environmental measures, moves that may draw the ire of the Netherlands’ largest companies as well as the European Union. They agreed on limiting the number of international students, expatriates and especially asylum seekers. The new Wilders-led government wants to invoke emergency legislation to limit the inflow of migrants and will seek an opt-out from the EU’s migration policy. Wilders’ migration policies have put Dutch businesses on edge about political uncertainty, loss of skilled workers and risks to a business environment that’s served them well in recent years. 

9. What other policies have the parties agreed on?

The four parties also stand ready to get rid of measures implemented by the previous government to limit nitrogen emissions by farmers that are harmful to the Dutch environment. As the world’s second-largest exporter of agricultural products, the Netherlands aimed to halve nitrogen emissions in line with EU policy after intensive farming devastated biodiversity in the country. Farmers rallied for months against the measures, which they fear would put some of them out of business. The new government wants to renegotiate the nitrogen policy with Brussels. The parties also want to explore moving the Dutch embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, be critical toward EU enlargement and cut Dutch contributions to the union. 

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