Geert Wilders has won the snap general election in the Netherlands. Recognizable by his blond bouffant hairdo, the Dutch populist is a ferocious critic of Islam and Muslim immigration to Europe. In 2009, he was denied entry to Britain for posing a threat to “community harmony.” He has had several fatwas pronounced against him, as a result of which he never goes anywhere without armed bodyguards. The latest election saw Wilders run on a “Netherlanders First” platform, vowing to end “discrimination against the Dutch” in their own country. His plank also included making health care more affordable, raising the minimum wage, reducing the retirement age, and a binding referendum on leaving the European Union, setting the stage for a “Nexit.”

Wilders has arrived at the center of Dutch politics because Dutch politics have shifted in his populist direction: The cost-of-living crisis has pushed other parties to the left economically, while the influx of newcomers has pushed them to the right on migration and cultural issues. Yet if the recent history of populism on both sides of the Atlantic is any guide, a Wilders-led government is unlikely to deliver on its promise of popular sovereignty.

As a young parliamentarian, Wilders was allied with the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD, and soon made a name for himself as a scourge of Islamism. In the wake of 9/11, his ideas found a growing audience far beyond the Netherlands. Together with the Somali-born anti-Islamist politician and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, he denounced multiculturalism and called for the shuttering of Islamic schools. In 2004, he broke with the VVD over Turkish accession to the European Union, which Wilders opposed. A few months later, an Islamist fanatic murdered Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam over the Dutch filmmaker’s critique of Islam’s treatment of women, an event that further raised Wilders’s profile.

In the run-up to the 2006 election—the first contested by Wilders’s new Freedom Party, or PVV—he published a manifesto, or what he called a “Declaration of Independence.” He challenged the perception of the PVV as a single-issue party. The problem wasn’t Islam, he wrote, but “the incompetence of the political elite.” He declared himself independent of this elite and promised to “return the country to its citizens.”

Since its formation, Wilders’s Freedom Party has consistently been one of the largest in Parliament. But in the Netherlands, governments are formed by coalitions, and the other parties have refused to cooperate with him. The closest Wilders came to governing was in 2010, when his party entered into a short-lived confidence-and-supply arrangement with a minority government. Winning the most recent election by a landslide, Wilders has now effectively shattered the cordon sanitaire that fenced his party.

Wilders’s victory makes sense against the backdrop of the scandals and upheavals that preceded it. Since 2019, the Netherlands has been in the grip of a “nitrogen crisis” after a court ruled that exemptions to nitrogen regulations handed out by the government violated EU law. As a result, 18,000 construction projects were suspended, and 3,000 farmers lost the right to rear livestock. The government’s heavy-handed approach led to massive protests and exacerbated an already acute housing shortage. Around the same time, it was revealed that the Dutch tax authorities had falsely accused thousands of families of benefits fraud, creating untold misery. Victims were forced into debt, lost their homes, or even had their children removed—all without legal recourse.

“A segment of the population was doing just fine.”

During the pandemic, the government imposed a curfew and made participation in public life conditional on getting the jab. The subsequent cost-of-living crisis coincided with an unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees, putting additional pressure on already-stretched public services. Not only did these crises open the door to a populist revolt against the elites, they also exposed deep rifts in Dutch society: Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling VVD remained popular throughout; clearly, a segment of the population was doing just fine.

Last summer, Rutte’s fourth government fell after a failed attempt to curb migration. Rutte took a hard line, and when his coalition partners demurred, he tendered his resignation. In doing so, he managed to appear tough on migration in spite of his laissez-faire record. The strategy seemed to pay off: Until days before the election, VVD was projected to retain the largest share of seats in Parliament.

Things changed dramatically when VVD’s new leader, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, said in an interview that she would consider a coalition with Wilders. The taboo against collaborating with Wilders had been broken. For years, a ballot cast for PVV had been a protest vote, based on the assumption that Wilders would be kept out of government. Now his party suddenly seemed capable of entering government. Meanwhile, Wilders sounded more reasonable and statesmanlike than ever before. He toned down his anti-Muslim rhetoric and reiterated that he was ready to govern. He did well in televised debates, reaching out to other right-wing parties while panning the hypocrisies of the left.

The only serious challenge came from an alliance between the GreenLeft and the Labour Party, the old social-democratic standby. The Dutch left’s base had long ago shifted toward educated middle-class professionals, but there was always a pretense of solidarity with the working class. This time around, the sham was dropped. Heading up the new alliance was Frans Timmermans, a former EU commissioner for climate action and an advocate of the European Green Deal, parachuted in from Brussels on short notice. It was a remarkable choice of leader given that Timmermans is the embodiment of the unaccountable technocratic elite that many have come to loathe. Wilders relentlessly exploited this weakness. In response to Timmermans’s strained attempts to show solidarity with the poor, Wilders pointed out that this “leader of social democracy” was getting paid €15,000 ($16,433) per month by the European Commission.

Wilders wasn’t alone in trying to exploit the widespread dissatisfaction with politics. Earlier this year, the farmers’ party, known as the BBB, won the provincial elections by a landslide, making it the largest grouping in the Senate. This victory proved bittersweet, however. As the farmers forced other parties to listen to them, the nitrogen crisis lost its urgency. In March, the BBB was projected to become the biggest party, but it came in sixth by the time voters went to the polls.

There was also a new party, founded by Pieter Omtzigt, the man who helped bring the benefits scandal to light. Like Wilders and the BBB, Omtzigt promised to do away with the old politics. His New Social Contract group campaigned on “good governance.” Instead of taking a populist tack, Omtzigt looked back to neoliberal technocracy and the culture of the “expert.” His team of would-be governors all have “demonstrable expertise” in a specific subject area. Omtzigt himself exudes the disinterestedness of a civil servant, and his strong performance goes to show the enduring appeal of this figure. His party, together with Wilders’s, is seen as the major winner of this election. Wilders needs him if he is to form the center-right coalition he dreams of.

The question now is whether Wilders can maintain his anti-establishment position—or whether he will fail as miserably as left-wing populists have done in his effort to secure a better deal for his base. In the weeks ahead, he will try to forge a coalition that leaves his policy proposals intact, but compromises will have to be struck. There are also international pressures that make a break with the established form of politics unlikely.

The case of Italy is instructive in this regard. Italy is the only country in the eurozone where a right-wing populist is in power—Giorgia Meloni. Last year, Meloni took over from Mario Draghi’s technocratic national-unity government. The differences between the two leaders couldn’t be more stark. One was a populist and Eurosceptic coming out of a post-fascist social movement; the other, a former central banker and employee of Goldman Sachs who had spent much of his life working for supranational organizations. Yet the story of Meloni in power is the story of continuity with what came before: namely, Draghi’s arch-technocratic, pro-EU government. Liberal fears of a fascist takeover quickly evaporated when Meloni turned out to be a trusty ally of the euro. On the Ukraine war, too, she fell in line, emerging as a staunch supporter of NATO. As the Financial Times archly observes, Meloni has “distanced herself from her past populist, anti-EU rhetoric” in order to pursue “fiscally prudent policies.”

Despite her Eurosceptic roots, Meloni has proved a reliable partner for Brussels. Wilders, meanwhile, says wants to leave the bloc. Yet it remains to be seen whether he, too, will U-turn. He has already prepared public opinion for a significant dilution of his program. Immediately after his victory, he extended an olive branch to his opponents, promising that he would be a prime minister for every Netherlander, regardless of his background or religion. He also promised to remain strictly within the limits of the constitution, meaning his proposed ban on mosques and Islamic schools isn’t to be taken seriously. “The electoral campaign is over,” he explained.

Wilders is generally understood to be on the far right. There is some truth to this. But what is more interesting—and less frequently observed—are the similarities between Wilders and his left-wing critics: Both have “authoritarian” tendencies, even as both are invested in the idea of “democracy” and accuse each other of being “undemocratic”; both are staunch supporters of the welfare state.

Wilders’s proposal to shut down mosques is crude demagoguery. But so is the suggestion that his right of speech be taken away. Whereas Wilders’s proposal must be regarded as a form of speech, not as the actual taking away of Muslims’ rights, the accusation of being “right-wing” is often deployed in such a way as to suppress speech. The point of descriptions such as “nativist,” “authoritarian,” and “populist” is to tighten the parameters of legitimate debate. Those with “authoritarian” views can expect to be soft-censored, or worse. “Extremism,” it is argued, requires surveillance and “deradicalization” programs, not a political solution.

Shortly after Wilders’s victory had been announced, Timmermans, the leader of the GreenLeft-Labor alliance, called on his followers to “defend the constitutional order,” the implication being that democracy was under threat. Of course, things looked very different for Wilders. In his eyes, it is the left that undermines democracy by vesting power in unelected bureaucrats. In this war of words, a dichotomy emerges between national sovereignty and supranational unaccountability; or, from the perspective of the left, between nativism and a forward-looking attempt at pooling sovereignty. However, recent history has shown that populism’s promise to “take back control” is just as illusory as the dream of European solidarity. As long as these are the options, popular sovereignty will remain out of reach.

“Both Wilders and his left-wing critics embrace the idea of the welfare state.”

Notably, both Wilders and his left-wing critics embrace the idea of the welfare state. The left prefers not to talk about this, but it hasn’t escaped Wilders’s right-wing critics. A conservative rival recently denied he and Wilders had anything in common; Wilders’s Freedom Party was “deeply socialist, even neo-Marxist,” he said, whereas his party was “capitalist.” Indeed, Wilders wants more affordable health care, more generous pensions, and an increase in government allowances. This munificence goes hand in hand with a project that seeks to clarify who forms part of the polity and who can legitimately be excluded from it. When progressives call Wilders a right-wing extremist, what they oppose is the idea that “natives” should be prioritized. According to them, “climate refugees” deserve our sympathy, not affluent Westerners.

But the point isn’t to decide which group is most deserving, but to reject the alternatives. Emancipation is universal, or there is no emancipation. A left that abnegates such true universalism is bound to stoke the rise of more Melonis and Wilderses, who, in turn, will continue to deliver populist flops—the perfect ouroboros of the age of neoliberal crisis.

J. A. Koster is a writer and researcher.


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