Geert Wilders: The left needs to be a real opposition

Geert Wilders’ election victory: The left must concern itself with being a real opposition
5 min read

Alex de Jong

01 December, 2023
Victory of Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party shows how mainstream Islamophobia & anti-migrant views are in The Netherlands. Left wing parties must now focus on building real opposition, not conceding on policies for power, argues Alex de Jong.
Far-right political leader Geert Wilders was convicted of inciting hatred against Moroccans when he called them "scum" at an election rally in 2016. [GETTY]

Last week, Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party (PVV) won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the Dutch national elections. The political figure is known internationally for his Islamophobia, and demands for, among other thing, the closing of all mosques in The Netherlands.

Crucial to his victory is the radicalisation of former supporters of the mainstream conservative-liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of the incumbent prime minister, Mark Rutte. As Dutch news satire website De Speld explained, VVD’s new leader Dilan Yesilgöz had run an excellent campaign...for Wilders.

Rutte had triggered the fall of his own coalition-government by demanding further restrictions on refugee rights that were unacceptable for part of his coalition. The VVD hoped the elections would be dominated by migration, and not other urgent issues such as the country’s housing crisis and the rising cost of living.

During the campaign, Yesilgöz exaggerated the supposed ease with which refugees enter the Netherlands. The main beneficiary of this tactic ended up being the PVV, the political force that for a decade-and-half built its political profile on hostility towards migrants.

The VVD lost 10 seats, leaving them with 24. Of the new PVV voters, one out of four previously voted for VVD.

Like many of his voters, Wilders is a product of the right-wing establishment. In the early nineties he worked for the VVD and in 1998 he represented the party in parliament. He also wrote speeches for the future European Commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, a pioneer in the ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric regarding the West and Muslim societies in Dutch politics.

Wilders eventually left the VVD in 2004, partly because they would not categorically oppose Turkey joining the European Union.

Since founding the PVV in 2006, Wilders gathered a loyal base; almost 80% of those who voted for him in the previous national elections, did so again last month. Whilst the PVV largely rallied support as an opposition to Rutte, it is important to highlight that Wilders is not a political newcomer. Voters showed up for a seasoned politician who for years has remained consistent in his main policies. His popularity therefore shows how mainstream Islamophobia has become in The Netherlands.

Unfiltered

Indeed, the PVV’s manifesto presented the racist and authoritarian positions that characterise the party. Pledges ranged from the petty revoking of the government’s apologies for the role played by the Dutch state in slavery, to the deportation of criminals with double nationality, to the deployment of the army against ‘street scum’, and the closing of borders for refugees and preventive arrests of ‘jihadist sympathisers’. Particularly drastic was Wilders’ long-standing insistence on ‘no Islamic schools, Qurans and mosques’.

However, it is not only racist and xenophobic politics that has attracted voters to the PVV. Wilders was originally an explicit supporter of neoliberal economic policies but for the past decade, his party increasingly posed as defenders of the welfare state. The PVV programme contained seemingly progressive positions, such as raising the minimum wage, lowering healthcare costs, and returning the retirement age from 67 to 65.

Though such rhetoric is contradicted by the party’s actions.

In his book Marked for Death: Islam's War Against the West and Me (2012), Wilders described the role of the PVV as supporting the austerity plans of Rutte’s first cabinet in return for measures to 'restrict immigration, roll back crime, counter cultural relativism, and insist on the integration of immigrants'. In parliament, the PVV introduced a proposal to make collective bargaining agreements no longer binding, and supported further restrictions to access to social security.

Not to mention, today the PVV seeks to form a government with the VVD – the party that for the last decade headed the government’s implementation of neoliberal measures that they claim to oppose.

Whilst a substantial number of Wilders' voters are certainly committed to far-right politics, part of his appeal is that he has been able to pose as an opposition force to an establishment that included the left-wing parties like the Labour Party.

In an attempt to present itself as a legitimate party that could govern, Labour entered a coalition headed by Rutte back in 2012 after they had won close to 25% of votes. They remained despite the deeply unpopular harsh austerity measures that were implemented, and even ran a former minister in the government as the candidate on a joint Labour/Greens ticket.

The result was a modest advance mostly through votes coming from the centre and other left-wing parties, but it hardly attracted new voters. In the elections last month Labour/Greens won 25 seats, and became the second largest party, but finished far behind Wilders.

Unfiltered

Another error made by parts of the Dutch left is that anti-racism and migrants rights are considered secondary to social-economic issues. However, as the recent election dramatically showed, these are incredibly decisive issues in Dutch politics.

When Wilders’ electoral victory was announced, hastily organised protests took place in some cities. A coalition of progressive groups called a national demonstration in defence of civil liberties, freedom of religion and human rights. Such protests are of course not only important, but urgent because they make visible the opposition to Wilders’ agenda and show solidarity with groups that are threatened, especially Muslims.

After all, the case of Giorgia Meloni's Italy shows what can happen when the far-right is in power; it may moderate some of its rhetoric, but it will not abandon its authoritarian and nativist project.

But protests alone are not enough. For years, Wilders pushed the mainstream to the right, pulling voters to his side. The Dutch left can learn something from this; instead of pandering the right, it needs to pressure them. As for rebuilding a left that can effectively pressure the centre and win new supporters, this will need to be a long term project.

What is needed now more than ever is a left that sees itself not as a government-in-waiting but as an opposition force.

Alex de Jong is co-director of the International Institute for Research and Education (IIRE) in Amsterdam, Netherlands and editor of the Dutch socialist website Grenzeloos.org.

Follow him on Twitter (X): @AlexdeJongIIRE

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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