What Geert Wilders’ victory means for Dutch society

Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), celebrates
Image caption,Geert Wilders faces an uphill task in forming a government but promises to be prime minister for everyone

For decades Geert Wilders has been one of the most divisive characters in Dutch society.

A hero of the hard right, who made his name preaching religious intolerance, is trying to rebrand.

Dutch society is polarised over what impact the rise of the peroxide blonde populist will have on their lives.

In Schilderswijk, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas of the Netherlands, Dutch Muslims say they’re afraid their religious freedoms may be curtailed.

“My mother and my wife wear headscarves,” says Sahil Achahboun, a sociologist who was born in Schilderswijk.

He now worries his families’ movements may be restricted.

“Wilders wants to stop them from going into government buildings wearing the scarf or pay a tax. I’m afraid for them, and for my children.”

Sahil Achahboun
Image caption,Sociologist Sahil Achahboun fears a Wilders-led government will limit the movement of his wife and mother

Mr Wilders said he could be a prime minister for everyone. No-one in this neighbourhood can see how a party that has anti-Islamic beliefs ingrained in its DNA can represent them.

Mr Achahboun laughs as though it’s a ludicrous idea: “Wilders has been saying we have to ban everything that is from Muslims, of Muslims, by Muslims.

“People have been brainwashed. I hope one day he’ll be a true leader but for the last 20 years I’ve seen the opposite.”

Geert Wilders’ manifesto promotes a ban on all Islamic schools, Qurans and mosques, and would forbid anyone wearing the hijab from entering government buildings.

Ten minutes away, I discovered a different universe.

Gambling machines and Christmas lights flashed in a traditional Dutch bar, shoppers were counting out change and calculating the cost of their groceries.

The tight-knit seaside suburb of Duindorp is Wilders heartland. Life is tough, people here tell me, and too expensive.

Outside the supermarket I met Janette, who didn’t give her surname, picking up some vegetables for dinner.

Her sons can’t afford to buy a home, she complains, and rent is making them broke: “But we give homes and benefits to people from elsewhere, we are happy to help them but we need to help our own people first. Old people are freezing at home because they can’t afford to turn on the heating.”

This is a message Geert Wilders has been pumping out for decades, but the cost of living crisis has resonated with a growing population of newly poorer people who want someone to acknowledge their insecurity of existence, and find someone to blame.

Image caption,Janette sees Geert Wilders’ victory as good for Dutch democracy

Janette tells me it’s a good day for democracy, and that “Geert”, as she fondly refers to him, wants to put the Dutch people first and stop giving money to people in other countries when “we can’t look after our own”.

Packing her plastic bags on to a scooter, another shopper called Anje said she did not think the Freedom party leader would fix her community. But she seemed satisfied that he would at least put pressure on other parties to do something about her problems.

A decade ago the firebrand leader was found guilty of insulting Moroccans.

In 2009 he was blocked from entering the UK over his plan to show a video that criticised the Quran as a “fascist book”, which made him a threat to national security.

I have been reporting on Geert Wilders for more than a decade, and witnessed a softening, less shouty style.

He has toned down provocative social media posts. This week he explained to the BBC with a smile: “I have become a positive person.”

But as Leonie de Jonge, professor of European Politics at Groningen University, points out, his party programme is anything but moderate.

“The PVV is an archetypical populist radical right party, characterised by nativism, authoritarianism and populism,” she said.

Mr Wilders wants to cancel the overseas aid budget, cut EU funding and reduce the number of foreign students coming in.

He promises to have 14 year-olds treated the same as adults in criminal cases, cut taxes, provide 10,000 more police officers, and show zero tolerance for “street scum” – not to mention the controversy over bringing back Zwarte Piet.

His manifesto ends with a promise of a government that will “put the Dutch back at number one!”

There is an irony attached to the fact that the pre-election favourite for prime minister may have been key to his party’s electoral success.

Dilan Yesilgöz, who came from Turkey as a child refugee and now leads the conservative-liberal VVD, has been accused of funnelling voters towards someone whose policies would not have allowed her family to enter the country.

Unlike her predecessor Mark Rutte, she said she would be open to working with Geert Wilders, making the Freedom party or PVV seem like a palatable, plausible partner.

Liberal party leader Rob Jetten described the Wilders party surge as the “Dilan Yesilgöz effect”.

“I did not open the door to Geert Wilders,” she told the BBC defiantly.

Geert Wilders (L) and leader of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius attend a meeting in parliament
Image caption,Dilan Yesilgöz’s party has refused to be part of a Wilders coalition, but would be prepared to prop up a minority government

Instead she blamed “the leftist parties who refused to see the issues we have here, with immigration, with migration, with integration, who refuse to work with us on solutions, they have opened the door”.

But according to Sarah de Lange, professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, it was a significant factor: “It made it more attractive for voters to support Wilders’ party because influence on government policy was finally in sight.”

And Leonie de Jonge interpreted this as one of the main explanations for the landslide following a campaign in which immigration featured prominently.

Prof de Jonge believes the PVV has “issue ownership” over immigration, and voters then prefer the “original” over the “copy”. In that sense she says Dilan Yesilgöz’s party “tilled the field for the populist radical right”.

Ms Yesilgöz was the first to declare that her centre-right conservatives would not join a Wilders-led coalition, but was prepared to tolerate one.

Will any of his more far-right policies actually come through in any government he forms?

Much of what he wants to do about immigration cannot be done under existing laws.

His manifesto includes a plan to end free movement of labour within the EU, though some groups would be entitled to working visas.

Mr Wilders knows there is little appetite for leaving the EU, or “Nexit”, but his manifesto pledges to hold a referendum on the issue..

Some of the policy propositions, such as closing mosques or banning the Quran, clearly run against the principles of liberal democracy, most notably the protection of minority rights.

His PVV wants to stop granting asylum for refugees, withdraw from the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and reinstate border controls.

He could take a page from recent US and UK playbooks and just forge ahead then blame judges for blocking it.

Is this the Netherlands’ Brexit or http://sukaati.com/ Donald Trump moment? It is too premature to predict.

Geert Wilders’ pathway to power is paved with unknowns and will be constrained by consensus politics.

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