Far-Right Geert Wilders Won the Dutch Election Because the Establishment Indulged Him

While the election victory of Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders is being treated as a shock, his rise was long in the making. For years, mainstream conservatives have echoed his talking points — and now, they may well make him prime minister.

Far-right politician Geert Wilders reacts to the results of the House of Representatives elections in Scheveningen, the Netherlands, November 22. (Remko de Waal / ANP / AFP via Getty Images)

The Dutch elections on Wednesday sent a shock wave across Europe. Geert Wilders’s far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) became the biggest party in the Netherlands, according to exit polls, winning 37 of the 150 seats in parliament. Never in Dutch postwar history has a far-right party achieved such a massive victory. Among commentators, disbelief and outrage prevail. And yet this rings hollow, because Wilders’s advance was in fact long in the making.

Without doubt, this result is symptomatic of the further radicalization of the Right. Although the themes of the “cost of living” crisis and the democratic accountability of government figured prominently in this election, the politicization of migration was decisive. It has risen in fits and starts over the last decades but became central again when the last government collapsed over the issue. Wilders, the politician who made his peroxide blonde haircut a questionable fashion statement before Donald Trump, drew on the latter to inspire his election slogan: “Dutch people first.”

The liberal-conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which pursued ruinous neoliberal policies for thirteen years under outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte, has played a dangerous game with its focus on messaging around migration. The party, led by Dilan Yeşilgöz, incurred heavy losses, dropping from 34 to 24 seats. The newcomer, Pieter Omtzigt’s Christian-democratic New Social Contract (NSC), took 20 seats. Although the center-left alliance under Frans Timmermans (PvdA-Green Left) emerged as the second-largest force, with 25 seats, that is insufficient to counterbalance the overall right-wing shift.

The Normalization of the Far Right

Geert Wilders made an earlier breakthrough back in 2006, when he gained nine seats in that year’s elections and renamed his outfit the Party for Freedom. Heir to the far-right Pim Fortuyn, which warned of the “Islamization of the Netherlands” after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Wilders made an imaginary culture war against Islam the cutting edge of his party. His first program, which would remain essentially unchanged, called for Article 1 of the Dutch constitution — the ban on discrimination — to be scrapped and replaced by an article on “the dominance of the Judeo-Christian and humanist tradition and culture.”

Since then, Wilders — the only member of this peculiarly structured “party” — has posed as the beloved bête noir of Dutch politics. Among other things, he has called for a ban on imams speaking and — using his own derogatory neologism — for a kopvoddentaks, a “head rag tax,” i.e. a special tax levy on Muslims wearing headscarves. Back in 2010, he scored such a good election result that the VVD and the Christian Democratic Appeal formed a government reliant on his outside support. This marked a turning point in the mounting normalization of the Dutch far right.

The VVD under Mark Rutte played a major role in this paradigm shift. Due to external pressure from the PVV, small, ever-new right-wing contenders such as Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy (FvD), and internal discontent within the VVD, the party has renounced its own classical-liberal values, increasingly embracing the language of the far right. Mark Rutte spoke ever more about the “refugee crisis.”

He played a significant role on the European stage this year when, together with Ursula von der Leyen and the “pragmatic” Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, he struck a refugee deal with Tunisia, where, according to human rights organizations, refugees are abandoned and left to fend for themselves in the desert. On X (formerly Twitter), Rutte triumphantly spoke of “a true milestone.” On July 7, his last cabinet fell apart as he opportunistically issued an ultimatum on the number of family reunions for asylum seekers.

A Fabricated Asylum Crisis

With increased prices for food and energy, and the continuing shortage of housing in the Netherlands, the theme of “social security” seemed to dominate this election campaign. With this nostalgic call for the restoration of the welfare state, the Christian-democratic Omtzigt in particular managed to push this as a political agenda. But in recent weeks, in the many television debates and printed media, an identitarian logic increasingly echoed through this debate. Not everyone could benefit from government welfare; the lack of affordable housing was said to be caused by the relentless influx of asylum seekers.

This is clearly a political framing, indeed a political fable created by the Right. The figures show that the number of applications for asylum has remained roughly the same since the 1990s. Moreover, 90 percent of immigrants are migrant workers and expats, including foreign students.

The Dutch economy, characterized by a shortage of low-paid labor, has long profited from labor migration. As migration expert Leo Lucassen has pointed out: “The sectors of distribution, logistics, slaughterhouses, agriculture and horticulture mainly employ Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians. They do so in working conditions with hyper-flexible work schedules that most Dutch people would rather avoid.”

During this election, there was very little talk about this 90 percent. Wilders cast the Netherlands as “one big asylum seekers’ center.” But sensing the way the wind was blowing, he changed his approach: instead of his usual anti-Islam rhetoric, he focused on keeping out asylum seekers, and indicated that he will abandon his anti-constitutional proposals so that he can take part in government.

For this reason, the mainstream media spoke about Wilders becoming “milder.” But this is only the appearance: a sly change of messaging, not of the essentially discriminatory and racist content of his program.

Looming Right-Wing Government

As throughout Europe, the PVV’s victory in the Netherlands is the product of a long-standing normalization of the far right. The VVD, in competition with the far right, opportunistically wanted to score on migration, but this has backfired.

Wilders’s party drew some 15 percent of its voters from the VVD and also managed to mobilize a significant number of previous non-voters, responsible for another 12 percent. Besides its small core base that subscribes to its racist anti-Islam ideology, its larger base is diverse, coming from across the country and different classes. Presumably, many cast their vote out of dissatisfaction with the less radical establishment parties.

Disappointingly, in this campaign the center-left Timmermans managed to relate to Wilders only reactively and sentimentally, exclaiming on various occasions that he needs to be “stopped,” instead of presenting a powerful narrative in return. In the last phase of their campaign, his party promoted the call to vote “strategically” for PvDA-Green Left.

It is true that the creation of the Netherlands’ next government remains complicated. To form a majority, a coalition of PVV with VVD and NSC is possible, or else an anti-Wilders cabinet of VVD, NSC, and PvdA-Green Left. Tellingly, the nominal resistance to Wilders among the VVD and the NSC — their earlier statements about the refusal to govern with him — already seems to have melted away. The day after the elections, VVD leader Yeşilgöz was already speaking in a conciliatory tone about “a new reality.”

But also as in much of Europe, the Dutch left seems to face a new ice age. The PvDA-Green Left had seemed to rightly pair the “green” issue of the ecological transition with the “red” issue of social security. But because of Timmerman’s credentials as former architect of the European Green New Deal, it focused on its climate politics, to the neglect of its social program. The Socialist Party (SP), the one force with a convincing agenda on social security, fell from nine to five seats.

So, today, the extreme right has the ball in its court. Faced with this threat, the Left needs to stop endlessly compromising on its politics — and finally become combative again.