Posted on December 18, 2023

A Populist on the Verge of Power

Tunku Varadarajan, Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2023

Geert Wilders doesn’t like it when he’s described as “extreme,” though over his quarter-century in the Dutch Parliament he’s given his critics plenty of ammunition. In a 2008 interview with the Journal, Mr. Wilders described his message for Muslim immigrants: “You have to give up this stupid, fascist book”—the Quran. “This is what you have to do. You have to give up that book.”

Fifteen years later, Mr. Wilders, 60, sings a softer tune. “If people and other parties really believe that banning the Quran and closing down mosques or Islamic schools is a problem because they find it’s unconstitutional, then I can put those points aside, whatever I may think of them,” he says. He pauses and repeats the point: “If other parties say, ‘This is unacceptable for us,’ I’ll put them aside.”

Mr. Wilders’s conciliative attitude is a product of political success. There’s a real chance he’ll be the Netherlands’ next prime minister. Last month his Party for Freedom, known by the Dutch acronym PVV, won 37 of the 150 seats in snap elections for the Dutch House of Representatives, beating 14 other parties and expanding its representation by 20 seats.

“You can call my party what you want, but to call it ‘extreme’ is an insult to the voters,” he says. Can the PVV form a governing coalition? “We are not there yet,” he says with a cavalier shrug. But he’s bracing himself for several rounds of hardball haggling in the parliamentary souk {snip}

International media sometimes liken Mr. Wilders to Donald Trump, whom he’s never met, and to the French nativist Marine Le Pen. In addition to the proposals to ban the Quran and shutter Islamic schools, his election manifesto called for a referendum on “Nexit”—Dutch withdrawal from the European Union. He acknowledges, though, that ardor for that proposal has cooled as a result of post-Brexit chaos in the U.K.: “When Brexit won, in 2016, something like 45% of the Dutch were in favor of Nexit. Now it’s between 25% and 30%.”

More pertinent is his stand against Dutch generosity on political asylum, which he believes economic migrants abuse. He’d like the number of asylum-seekers admitted to the Netherlands to be “zero”—“as a temporary measure” of indefinite duration. In 2022 the Netherlands, population 17.7 million, recorded 46,400 asylum seekers. The number in 2023 will be close to double that.


Mr. Wilders appears immovable on the question of asylum. He wants a moratorium. But he concedes the difficulty. Not only does he lack the parliamentary numbers; he’d “also have to change international law,” including Dutch treaty obligations, which would make for messy diplomacy. In defense of his position, Mr. Wilders insists that most asylum-seekers in the Netherlands are “not refugees but migrants.” He says 95% of them come to the country overland, forgoing the opportunity to seek asylum in any of the “five or six safe countries” they traverse. “They come to us because they believe it’s more attractive for them here. We have a better economy, better housing, better social benefits.”

Resentment runs deep in the Netherlands over the material benefits the state gives to foreigners who claim asylum, Mr. Wilder says. Many PVV voters are the working-class Dutch—including pensioners—who must bear the burden of soaring medical costs and a housing shortage. Mr. Wilders would like to put more money in the pockets of the working class and the elderly. He jokes that Mark Rutte, the conservative prime minister who resigned in July, “calls me a socialist when he wants to tease me.”

The label isn’t wholly misplaced. Mr. Wilders says he believes in a welfare state that works “for the good of the common people who have been left out of liberal expenditure projects”—by which he means “wasted” environmental and foreign-aid efforts. His party is a combination that is “not very common, at least in Dutch politics,” of avowedly prudent social support that ensures citizens can live in “dignity” and “cultural conservatism when it comes to immigration and law and order.” Mr. Trump and some of his allies have tried to reinvent the Republican Party along similar lines.

Mr. Wilders says many of his voters live in neighborhoods that they no longer recognize as Dutch. “There’s an overrepresentation of nonindigenous people in the committing of crimes,” he says, “people from Morocco, Somalia, and also the Dutch Antilles.” His supporters are “normal folk, not xenophobic or racist.” But if they say anything critical about the way Dutch society has changed, “they are labeled racist by the left and liberal elites. Well, I stand up for them, I fight for them. They’re not racist. They’re fed up.”


Mr. Wilders attributes his party’s victory in part to the political aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. “People saw what happened in the weeks after this massacre,” he says. “People saw what happened on the streets of Europe—in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Berlin, London, Paris and Rome.” They saw tens of thousands of people “coming out of wherever they came from. Living in our nations. Waving not only Palestinian flags but flags of Hamas and the Taliban.”