Europe’s anti-immigration far right tested in Dutch polls

Sunday 12/03/2017
Fading out? Firebrand anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders (L) and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte visit De Telegraaf newspaper in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on March 5th. (AP)

London - In what has been dubbed a “su­per election year” for Europe ahead of key votes in France and Germany, the Dutch head to the polls on March 15th fol­lowing a campaign that has been heavy on anti-immigration, specifi­cally anti-Muslim rhetoric.

A contentious campaign has seen Dutch far-right, anti-Muslim leader Geert Wilders pledge to de-Islamise The Netherlands by shutting all mosques, banning the Quran and halting immigration from major­ity Muslim countries. Wilders, who leads Holland’s Party for Freedom (PVV), kicked off his campaign by labelling Moroccan immigrants as “scum” and questions over Islam’s place in Dutch society have domi­nated the campaign.

“They say Islam isn’t normal. It doesn’t belong in Dutch society and that being hijabi means I am an op­pressed person,” Dutch Moroccan Hafsa Mahraoui told the BBC.

“It’s tiring because we are always in the spotlight and you have to defend yourself. Amsterdam is a big city, there are 180 nationalities here. They talk about a (Dutch) cul­ture but when I look around I don’t see it,” she said.

Wilders’ anti-Muslim rhetoric had found strong support in the early stages of campaigning and he was consistently polling as the front runner. However Prime Minister Mark Rutte managed to pull off a comeback by pivoting to the right and playing up his experience in government.

“What I sense is that people are coming back to my party… At the moment in the Netherlands we are experiencing a revival of our econo­my, our housing market, people are finding jobs again. This is all good news,” Rutte said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

Rutte, who leads the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and De­mocracy (VVD), wrote a controver­sial open letter in late January call­ing on immigrants to “act normal or go away”.

“People who don’t want to adapt, [who are] attacking our habits and rejecting our values, who attack gay people, who shout at women in short skirts or call ordinary Dutch people racist… you have the choice, go away. You do not need to be here,” he said.

Wilders took to Twitter, where he has been increasingly active during the campaign, to slam Rutte’s let­ter as disingenuous. “Mark Rutte, the man of the open borders, asy­lum tsunami, mass immigration, Islamisation, the lies and deceit,” he tweeted.

Holland’s Muslim population is estimated at between 840,000- 960,000 — about 5% of the coun­try’s population. Holland has well-established Turkish and Moroccan ethnic communities dating to the 1960s and 1970s.

There was no clear front runner in the final week of campaigning as analysts said a number of par­ties had a chance of coming in first, including Rutte’s VVD and Wilders’ PVV.

General elections in Holland take place via party-list proportional rep­resentations meaning that no party can expect to win an outright ma­jority and so any government must govern by coalition. Twenty-eight parties are set to contest the elec­tions and as many as 14 could en­ter Holland’s 150-seat parliament, meaning a ruling coalition could comprise as many as five parties.

Even if the ruling VVD does see its parliamentary share fall from its current 40 seats, and the PVV makes gains on its 12 seats, Wilders’ hard-line anti-Islamic rhetoric has turned off potential coalition part­ners. Virtually all of Holland’s main­stream political parties have said they would not enter into a coali­tion with Wilders’ PVV.

During a televised debate, Rutte said that “under no condition, ir­respective of the outcome” would the VVD ally with the PVV. Wilders was a coalition partner in Rutte’s 2010 government but withdrew his support over EU requirements re­garding Holland’s national deficit. Early elections in 2012 saw Rutte retain the premiership with an even stronger coalition, not including the PVV, which lost nine seats.

However, at a time when crime and unemployment are down and the economy is going strong, many question why such strong anti-immigration sentiment is being evidenced in a country traditionally known for its liberal and tolerant outlook.

Hundreds of Dutch citizens met at an Amsterdam mosque in a show of solidarity with the country’s Muslim population as news spread that crimes against Muslims have increased.

“It’s very important that we make our voice heard. We as a Muslim community pose no danger whatso­ever to society,” said Najem Oulada­li, one of the meeting’s organisers.

“Good news: Dutch #TrumpWan­nabe Wilders is losing support for his hate and fearmongering. People see where it leads,” tweeted Andrew Stroehlein, European media direc­tor for Human Rights Watch.

Dutch elections could set the tone for forthcoming ones in France and Germany where similar anti-immi­gration and anti-Muslim sentiment is governing the election scene.

Far-right Marine Le Pen is expect­ed to win the first round of French elections, scheduled for April 23rd, but not be able to secure an out­right victory necessitating a run-off scheduled for May 7th.

The right-wing Alternative for Germany party is looking to unseat German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September. Facing major criti­cisms over her refugee policy, Mer­kel has pivoted to the right in a bid to make up ground against populist right-wing views.

Regardless of the outcome of the Dutch elections, few can deny Wilders’ influence on the political climate in Holland and the general move European politics has taken to the right. Speaking in Amsterdam recently, Wilders said: “You can notice that we’ve basically already won the elections before they’ve started because everyone is mov­ing towards us. The discussions are about our topics.”