Dutch elections: What is the Wilders effect?

Populist Geert Wilders’ biggest impact on Dutch politics is shifting the mainstream discourse to the far right.

Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders of the PVV party and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party take part in the "EenVandaag" debate in Rotterdam
Geert Wilders and Dutch PM Mark Rutte take part in the 'EenVandaag' debate in Rotterdam on March 13 [Yves Herman/Reuters]

2016 was the year of the Brexit referendum and the victory of Donald Trump. It was the year of a “patriotic awakening”, according to various European nationalists. Many wonder if 2017 will also be a year of patriotism.

In the upcoming months, elections will be held in France and Germany. But the first test will be on March 15, when the Dutch go to the voting booth.

One of the big questions is what the impact of the radical right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV) of Geert Wilders will be. But before we can address that question, we should first make clear what kind of party the PVV is.

Nativism and populism

The PVV’s political message consists of two main ingredients. The first one is a strongly exclusionary form of nationalism: nativism. This is an ideology according to which the “good” nation is threatened by “evil” outsiders.

In other words, the nation is said to be under attack by non-native elements – both people and the ideas they hold.

Nativism can be directed towards various types of outsiders – it could, for instance be based on race, ethnicity or religion.

The form of nativism expressed by the PVV, focuses, more specifically, on Islam. Wilders argues that Islam should not be conceived of as a religion, but as a violent political ideology, and should therefore be banned from Western European societies.

The second main ingredient of Wilders’ political message is populism. Populism is not necessarily related to nativism. It is an ideology that pits the “good” people against an “evil” elite.

OPINION: What can the Dutch elections tell us about Europe?

What exactly constitutes the good people is often unclear. In most cases it refers to something like “hard-working men”, “ordinary citizens”, or, in Wilders’ own words, Henk and Ingrid.

The problem, according to Wilders, is that political elites have no idea what ordinary people deem important. Instead, they are arrogant, selfish and corrupt, and think only of their own interests.

No real threat?

What makes the political message of Wilders – and similar radical right-wing populist parties – so special is that the nativist and populist elements are combined with each other. Because both ideologies employ in-group/out-group stereotypes, the two reinforce each other.

According to Wilders, the ordinary and hard-working Dutch citizens are betrayed by a cosmopolitan elite that promotes internationalism and cosmopolitism and thereby undermines the Dutch national identity.

Right now there exists a very fertile breeding ground for this message. Because of the refugee crisis, the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the Brexit referendum, the election of Trump, and, very recently, the diplomatic clash between Turkey and the Netherlands, the political issues that the PVV focuses on – immigration, Islam, security and European integration – are highly salient in the public debate.


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– on both the right and the left – have become more restrictive towards immigration and more hesitant about European integration – most likely because they feel the PVV breathing down their necks.”]

Moreover, in a recent trial, Wilders was found guilty of inciting discrimination against Dutch Moroccans. Wilders successfully framed this verdict as yet another attempt of the elite to silence him – and thereby hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens.

Despite Wilders’ recent successes in the opinion polls, it is important to emphasise that his direct influence on policy making is very limited. With his polarising and strongly stigmatising statements, he has alienated himself from basically all other parties.

About two months ago, the current prime minister and leader of the conservative liberals (VVD), Mark Rutte, was the last leader of a big mainstream party that ruled out collaboration with Wilders in a government coalition.

This might well be one of the reasons why the PVV is doing less well in the polls lately – why vote for a party that is most probably not going to govern anyway?

Shifting the mainstream discourse to far right

Yet, this limited direct effect on policymaking should by no means be interpreted as proof that the political impact of the PVV is negligible. Quite the contrary.

Although mainstream parties have excluded Wilders from participation in a government coalition, they have included many elements of his discourse in their own rhetoric.

Over the years, all mainstream parties – on both the right and the left – have become more restrictive towards immigration and more hesitant about European integration – most likely because they feel the PVV breathing down their necks.

During the current election campaign almost all parties strongly focus on identity issues and “Dutchness”. In an open letter to Dutch citizens, Prime Minister Rutte has said that those who refuse to adapt, and criticise Dutch values, should “act normal or leave”.

He wants to “make it crystal-clear what is normal, and what is not normal, in our country. We must actively defend our values”.

The leader of the main Christian Democratic Party (CDA), Sybrand Buma, called for all pupils in schools to learn and sing the national anthem.

Lodewijk Asscher, leader of the Social Democrats (PvdA), is rather critical of labour migration within the EU, and promotes what he calls “progressive patriotism”.

This move from the mainstream in the direction of the PVV’s nationalism is worrisome. Although none of the Dutch mainstream parties should be labelled radical right-wing populist, some of their policy proposals are very radical, and incompatible with our system of liberal democracy.

READ MORE: Who votes for Geert Wilders?

In a recent report, a committee of academics and lawyers expressed great concern about some of their policy proposals. The Christian Democrats, for instance, want to forbid funding of mosques and Islamic organisations by foreign governments.

This is highly problematic, because such a measure is directed towards Islamic institutions only and therefore leads to discrimination.

The Conservative Liberals want to deprive those who have participated in a terrorist organisation of their Dutch nationality. This is incompatible with basic human rights.

So whether Wilders will win the elections or not, by driving other parties dangerously close to illiberalism, his impact on Dutch politics is – and most probably will be – huge.

Matthijs Rooduijn works as a political sociologist at Utrecht University. His research focuses on topics such as populism, voting behaviour and public opinion. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.