Wilders plans for 'patriotic spring' amid Dutch chaos
Hemmed in by a jostling crowd of chanting supporters, detractors and security guards with sniffer dogs, the Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders yesterday launched his campaign to lead Holland by denouncing "Moroccan scum" whom he claimed "make the streets unsafe".
On the first day of canvassing ahead of elections in mid-March, the current frontrunner toured a market square in the small town of Spijkenisse, rallying voters with a call to "make the Netherlands ours again".
Before posing for selfies and accepting bouquets from a small band of hard-core supporters, Wilders spoke out against the "Islamisation" of Holland and urged his compatriots to "regain your country".
"Not all are scum, but there is a lot of Moroccan scum in Holland who make the streets unsafe, mostly young people," he told camera crews from across the continent.
Wilders, whose platinum blond hair has become as much a trademark as the hardline views that once resulted in a travel ban from Britain, said he was "very positive" that he would win the election on March 15. His Party for Freedom has a slim lead in the polls, just ahead of prime minister Mark Rutte's Liberal party.
The vote is widely seen as a test of whether the anti-elite sentiment that underpinned Brexit and Donald Trump's victory will now dislodge centrist parties in continental Europe. Wilders has said he hopes to start a "patriotic spring" ahead of elections in France and Germany later in the year, where far-Right parties are already gaining ground.
"What you see happening now is what we saw happening after Brexit," Wilders said. "Despite all the hate and fear-mongering of the elite, both in Britain and in Brussels, the people took their fate in their own hands."
His rivals are just as conscious that the world's eyes are turned on their country and are determined to deny the hard-Right a victory.
"People are very much aware that it's not just a national election - it is part of a series of international elections where right-wing populists try to challenge the ruling parties," Michiel Servaes, a Dutch Labour MP who holds the party's foreign affairs brief, said. Wilders has been campaigning on an anti-immigration platform for more than a decade, but his support has leapt in the wake of the refugee crisis. When he was convicted last December of inciting racial discrimination and insulting Moroccans, still more voters flocked to his party.
Immigration has long been a political issue in Holland. Far-Right politicians have exploited concerns about the families of "guest workers" from Turkey and Morocco who settled in the country from the 1960s. In 2015, Holland accepted nearly 57,000 migrants. Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte responded to support for Wilders by publishing an open letter warning migrants to "be normal or be gone".
Wilders's plans to close all mosques, shut down the asylum system and ban headscarves at public functions have proved popular with white working-class voters whom the party dubs "Henk and Ingrid". He has also appealed to voters who feel they have not shared in the benefits of the economic recovery by pledging more generous welfare payments and to stage a "Nexit" from the EU.
Despite such endorsement, there is little realistic prospect that Mr Wilders will become prime minister. Although polls put his party in the lead, it is only expected to win up to 27 seats in parliament, far short of the 76 needed to form a government. Other parties have emphatically refused to form a coalition with him, raising the prospect that the leader of the largest party in parliament could be prevented from running the country for the first time since 1977.