Does Geert Wilders really matter?

He is unlikely to form a government, so why is he getting so much attention and what do the Dutch think of him?

Emilie van Outeren: 'I'm not relying on the polls, but even if he gets twice what the polls are predicting he's still not going to govern the Netherlands' [Emmanuel Dunland/AFP]

Netherlands – Even if you previously knew nothing about the Netherlands other than its liberal attitudes to prostitution and cannabis, chances are you have now heard quite a bit about Geert Wilders – the controversial, right-wing leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV). His anti-Islamic statements regularly make headlines and have turned the usually parochial Dutch election into an international event. But within the country, many feel his importance has been overstated.

“It’s like he’s number one and the rest doesn’t mean so much,” says Agnes Sterk, a 55-year-old family coach, as she walked with a friend through the centre of Amsterdam. “I think the media plays a big role in it, to pay so much attention to negativity. I just ignore him, that’s much better.”

Agnes Sterk, a 55-year-old family coach [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]
Agnes Sterk, a 55-year-old family coach [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]

Wilders’ party is one of 28 running in Wednesday’s parliamentary polls. It is currently predicted to win 19-23 of the 150 seats up for grabs, roughly 14 percent of the vote, according to Dutch aggregate poll Peilingwijzer. He achieved a similar result in the 2010 election, which led to him going into a coalition government for two years before withdrawing and causing its collapse.

After months of lagging behind, the incumbent People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is now due to collect up to 28 seats. Five other parties – many left-leaning – are expected to get a dozen or more, pointing to a highly fractured political landscape rather than one dominated by populists as has been claimed.

Wilders’ hurdles

Most significantly, nearly all of the major parties have ruled out working with Wilders, which in the Dutch coalition system means that he will not be able to form an alliance to get the 76 seats he needs to form a government.

“There’s no way that there will be a hand over of power to the populists,” says Emilie van Outeren, a political reporter at Dutch daily NRC. “I’m not relying on the polls, but even if he gets twice what the polls are predicting he’s still not going to govern the Netherlands.”

She highlights the fact that the national discontent over issues of integration, immigration and identity that Wilders is playing on is nothing new. Back in 2002, anti-Islam politician Pim Fortuyn gained such popularity that, even after he was assassinated by an animal rights activist just days before an election, his newly created party went on to win 26 seats.

READ MORE: Dutch Muslims reflect on Geert Wilders before vote

“So this story is from 15 years ago,” says van Outeren, who recalls coming back from a study trip in England to a totally different country. “All of a sudden political correctness was out of the window. But it’s 2017 and the situation has not drastically changed since then, in fact it looks like they [populist politicians] are losing support.”

She explains that even if Wilders found himself in government, he legally would not be able to do many of the things he has talked about – such as banning Qurans, closing mosques and deporting Dutch Muslims. “He’s not going to turn the country upside down.”

Firebrand politics

Ihlam, an 18-year-old trainee nurse in Rotterdam, is similarly calm about the firebrand politician.

“I don’t think Wilders can be stopped, but I also don’t think he has much power,” she says as she prepares Arabic bread at a manouche stall in the port city’s colourful indoor food market, Markthal. “Even if he wins I don’t think everything he says will come true. I don’t like what he says but he’s just one person who is a racist and I just ignore it.”

“I think a lot of Dutch people also don’t like Geert Wilders,” she adds with a shrug, “so I don’t feel very worried.”

Markthal, the port city's colourful indoor food market [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]
Markthal, the port city’s colourful indoor food market [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]

One of those people is Joop Veraart, a 44-year-old engineer originally from the southernly Brabant region. He used to vote religiously for the VVD, headed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. But, like nearly a million other people, he is switching his allegiance this election, giving his vote instead to the tiny Party for the Animals.

“Mr Wilders is good for protest, maybe,” said Veraart on a windy bridge in central Amsterdam. “But the maybe is already years and years ago … he crossed the line.”

Amsterdammer Esma, a 20-year-old law student who withheld her last name due to the sensitivity of the issue, also felt the PVV leader was full of empty threats.

“I looked at his programme and it’s like one page and it doesn’t make sense,” she said, referring to his party manifesto, a single sheet of A4 paper with scant details. “How are you gonna make those things happen? You can’t, it’s not possible.”

Media traction

She said she was still deciding who to vote for on Wednesday, but that she wasn’t worried about Wilders. “I’m not losing any sleep over him,” she laughed as she adjusted her hijab.

Still, the peroxide blonde, who has been in Parliament since 1998, has been supremely successful at setting the agenda in the lead-up to the Dutch election.

Joop Veraart, a 44-year-old engineer originally from the southernly Brabaant region [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]
Joop Veraart, a 44-year-old engineer originally from the southernly Brabaant region [Venetia Rainey/Al Jazeera]

“Indirectly, his influence has been pretty large,” explained Joost van Spanje, an associate professor at the University of Amsterdam’s Communication Science Department. “And that is simply because most other political parties have repositioned on immigration and integration policy.”

One striking example of this is the open letter Prime Minister Rutte wrote earlier this year, telling immigrants to “act normal or get out”.

This shift to the right in mainstream political discourse has caused many Dutch Muslims to feel anxious about their place in the country they call home.

Nevertheless, van Spanje said it was “difficult to say whether he [Wilders] actually induces people to think differently”.

Like van Outeren, he pointed to long-existing tensions over the increasing multiculturalism among a “significant minority” of the Dutch population, suggesting that “what Wilders does is try to make the issues as salient as possible”.

Despite all of his shouting and grandstanding, and the intense media attention it has attracted, Wilders is likely to remain more bluster than wind of change – barring a major election-day surprise.

“He won’t enter government, he won’t support a government coalition, and he hardly has any cooperation with other political parties,” said van Spanje. “Directly, his influence will probably be zero.”

Source: Al Jazeera