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Shock for Europe as far-right populist Wilders set to win in Netherlands
23 November 2023, 10:34
The anti-Islam figure’s triumph is one of the biggest political upsets in Dutch politics since the Second World War.
Anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders has won a huge victory in the Dutch elections, according to a near complete count of the vote, in a stunning lurch to the far-right for a nation once famed as a beacon of tolerance.
The result will send shockwaves throughout Europe, where far-right ideology is on the rise, and puts Mr Wilders in line to lead talks to form the next governing coalition and possibly become the first far-right prime minister of the Netherlands.
With nearly all votes counted, Mr Wilders’ Party for Freedom was forecast to win 37 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, two more than predicted by an exit poll when voting finished on Wednesday night and more than double the 17 he won at the last election.
A jubilant Mr Wilders said: “I had to pinch my arm.”
Political parties are set to hold separate meetings on Thursday to discuss the outcome before what is likely to be an arduous process of forming a new governing coalition begins on Friday.
Despite his harsh rhetoric, Mr Wilders has already begun courting other right and centre parties by saying in a victory speech that whatever policies he pushes will be “within the law and constitution”.
His election manifesto includes calls for a referendum on the Netherlands leaving the European Union, a total halt to accepting asylum-seekers and migrant pushbacks at Dutch borders.
It also advocates the “de-Islamisation” of the Netherlands, although he has been milder about Islam during this election campaign than in the past.
Instead, his victory seems based on his campaign to rein in migration – the issue that caused the last governing coalition to quit in July – and tackle issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and housing shortages.
“Voters said: ‘We are sick of it. Sick to our stomachs’,” he said, adding he was now on a mission to end the “asylum tsunami”, referring to the migration issue that came to dominate his campaign.
“The Dutch will be number one again,” Mr Wilders added. “The people must get their nation back.”
But the legislator, who has in the past been labelled a Dutch version of Donald Trump, would have to form a coalition government before he can take the reins of power.
That will be a tough task, as mainstream parties are reluctant to join forces with him and his party, but the size of his victory strengthens his hand in any negotiations.
Mr Wilders called on other parties to constructively engage in coalition talks. Pieter Omtzigt, a former centrist Christian Democrat who built his own New Social Contract party in three months to take an estimated 20 seats, said he would always be open to talks.
The closest party to Mr Wilders’ outfit was an alliance of the centre-left Labour Party and Green Left, which was forecast to win 26 seats. But its leader, Frans Timmermans, made it clear that Mr Wilders should not count on a coalition with him.
“We will never form a coalition with parties that pretend that asylum seekers are the source of all misery,” Mr Timmermans said.
“And in the coming days and weeks we will increasingly see how difficult, how important, how essential our task is to stand up for the Netherlands where we exclude no-one, to stand up for the Netherlands where we embrace everyone, to stand up for the Netherlands where we do not look at what your background is, what your religion is, what your skin colour is,” he added.
The historic victory came one year after the triumph of Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy’s roots were steeped in nostalgia for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
Ms Meloni has since mellowed her stance on several issues and has become the acceptable face of the hard right in the EU.
Mr Wilders has long been a firebrand lashing out at Islam, at the EU and migrants – a stance which brought him close to power but never in it, in a nation known for compromise politics.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who boasts of turning Hungary into an “illiberal” state and has similarly harsh stances on migration and EU institutions, was quick to congratulate Mr Wilders.
“The winds of change are here!” Mr Orban said.
During the final weeks of his campaign, Mr Wilders somewhat softened his stance and vowed that he would be a prime minister for all Dutch people, so much so that he was nicknamed Geert “Milders”.
The exit poll was published as voting ended in the general election. It can have a margin of error of up to three seats but generally is accurate within one or two seats, said Ipsos, which was involved in the poll.
The election was called after the fourth and final coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned in July after failing to agree to measures to rein in migration.
Mr Rutte was replaced by Dilan Yeşilgoz-Zegerius, a former refugee from Turkey who could have become the country’s first female premier, had her party won the most votes. Instead, it was forecast to lose 11 seats to end up with 23.
The election had been called a neck-and-neck race, but in the end Mr Wilders handily beat all opponents.