Wednesday 13 December 2017

How Wilders wields power without winning elections

Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders (right), of the PVV party, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, of the VVD Liberal party, take part in a TV debate in Rotterdam last night. Photo: Getty Images
Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders (right), of the PVV party, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, of the VVD Liberal party, take part in a TV debate in Rotterdam last night. Photo: Getty Images

Peter Foster

It has become the 'clever' observation to make about this week's election in the Netherlands that while the populist demagogue Geert Wilders is attracting all the international headlines, he is in fact just a political sideshow. But this misses the point about Mr Wilders, whose success reflects a rightwards shift in Dutch politics seen in the decision to block the Turkish foreign minister from campaigning among the diaspora last weekend.

Those who would dismiss Mr Wilders as a eurosceptic fantasy take comfort from fact that the "Dutch Donald Trump" - same big hair, but even more stridently Islamophobic - is fading in the polls. He now looks unlikely to beat the VVD party of Mark Rutte, the sitting Dutch prime minister, as many had feared. Even in the unlikely event that Mr Wilders does come top and wins 20 or more seats in the 150-seat legislature, he can never get power because the other main parties have already vowed to club together to keep him out.

But that is to misunderstand how Mr Wilders wields power. The persistent attraction of divisive figures like Mr Wilders has weakened mainstream leaders like Mr Rutte. He felt he had little choice but to take a tough line with Turkey, in the process boosting the same anti-foreigner politics that Mr Wilders has made his trademark.

Not surprisingly, Mr Wilders is using the Turkish episode to fuel his campaign, taunting the Turkish minister for families on Twitter by telling her to "go home" and "take all your Turkish fans from the Netherlands with you". When Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fired back - observing that Dutch elections were imminent and that "last night we found out Geert Wilders was already in power" - he was uncomfortably close to the truth.

This isn't to say that all Dutch are racist, or that the Netherlands is about to vote to leave the EU or descend into fascism but it is clear that the Dutch are turning away from the progressive politics of the EU establishment, with all three main contenders at this election - Mr Rutte, Mr Wilders and the Christian Democrats (CDA) - all firmly on the right.

Mr Wilders doesn't need to enter government, therefore, to have power.

Indeed, viewed cynically, the absolute last thing that a demagogue like Mr Wilders wants is to enter into government and make compromises that would entail a disastrous dilution of his brand. This is a populist politician, after all, who has only allowed one person to join his Party for Freedom - himself.

In truth, Mr Wilders is much happier - and more influential - commanding the Twittersphere, taunting Muslims, promising to ban mosques and promising a referendum on EU membership that he knows is very unlikely to happen.

In short, Mr Wilders doesn't need to win formal office to be powerful on his own terms. The rise of identity politics and the corresponding splintering of the Dutch polity - no party from the 20 or so on the ballot paper is expected to win more than 30 seats - is allowing Mr Wilders to be heard as never before.

The Dutch vote is the first act in a trilogy of elections in northern Europe this year that are being watched as a barometer of the EU's political future. The sheer range of possible outcomes is a clear indicator of the volatility of the union.

It spans a Europe run by nativists like Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, who are both deeply Eurosceptic or, on the other hand, a Europe powered by a revived Franco-German juggernaut helmed by Emmanuel Macron and Martin Schulz, who have promised to lead a 'rebirth' of the EU.

These extremes mask a much messier, populist politics in Europe that will persist even it is mainstream candidates who shoulder the complex burdens of office.

Irish Independent

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