Europe flirts with far-right in Dutch election

Wild ride: Polls predict that Wilders will win 22 of 76 seats needed to form a government. © PA

Today the Netherlands heads to the polls, and all eyes are on its blonde-haired anti-Islam politician, Geert Wilders. Is this the first wave in a tsunami of far-right support across Europe?

It is a peaceful country. To outsiders it is mostly known for its idyllic windmills, liberal values, and hedonistic capital city. And yet as election day finally arrives in the Netherlands, there is a feeling of unrest among its citizens.

The world’s media is watching closely. This election is the first in a year of potentially disruptive votes across Europe. As such, tonight’s results will be seen as a bellwether for the continent’s future.

This is mostly thanks to the head of the right-wing Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders. Until recently, the anti-immigration politician was leading the polls. His message is strongly anti-Islam. He says he wants to close down all mosques, stop refugees from entering the country, and ban the Koran. He tweets angrily about the “Islamisation” of the Netherlands. And just like Donald Trump, his message has resonated with older, lower-educated voters.

Despite his popularity, Wilders is unlikely to win enough seats in the Dutch parliament to form a government.

And yet, according to Roger Cohen in The New York Times, he is part of a “vanguard” of populist European politicians, alongside Marine Le Pen in France and Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary. Cohen argues that their views are similar to those of President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who predicts a “very brutal and bloody conflict” between Christians and Muslims.

This extreme view is directly opposed to the liberal, multicultural values which have dominated Western societies for decades. But it is becoming increasingly mainstream in America and Europe, where fears over terrorism and hate crimes against Muslims have also been rising.

Yesterday, the EU ruled that employers could ban workers from wearing headscarves — a decision that “sends out the right signal”, according to Germany’s anti-immigration party.

“There’s something in the air,” concluded Cohen, “if the Netherlands succumbs, France cannot be far behind.”

Winds of change

This is a flash in the pan, say some. Wilders is unlikely to be the Dutch prime minister tomorrow. Le Pen is unlikely to be the French president in May. Trump’s ratings are already falling in the USA. Things may seem turbulent now, but the storm of populism will soon pass. In a few years things will be back to normal.

Don’t count on it, say others. Even if they don’t win outright, the influence of far-right parties could have huge long-term effects. Just look at how the threat of UKIP in Britain — a party with just one MP — eventually led to Brexit. If the same thing happens elsewhere, the EU may not survive. And if the anti-Islam rhetoric continues, it could have a major effect on an already fragile world order.

You Decide

  1. Are you worried about far-right politicians like Wilders and Le Pen in Europe?
  2. What has caused their surge in popularity over the last few years?

Activities

  1. As a class, list everything you know, or have heard, about Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. Then take it in turns to research each statement and find out if it is true.
  2. Write an open letter to the people of the Netherlands, explaining how you feel about their election today.

Some People Say...

“Fear is the foundation of most governments.”

John Adams, second US president

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t live in the Netherlands. Should I worry?
You should pay attention. Today’s election is specific to the Dutch people and their concerns, but it is also part of a larger picture. Changing attitudes towards Muslims and immigration could easily affect you or people you know, no matter where you live. If anti-immigration politicians are successful, they could have a direct effect on your country’s laws, as we are seeing in America.
Is Wilders a Dutch Trump?
There are striking similarities, from the hair to the open-armed embrace of Twitter, to the campaign slogan “Make the Netherlands ours again”. But Wilders is not a carbon copy. He is a more experienced politician, and he sometimes uses the liberal culture in the Netherlands to argue that Islam is an illiberal threat to its values.

Word Watch

Netherlands
The country is sometimes also referred to as Holland, the name of a region on the western coast.
Year
This includes the French presidential election which is completed in May: Marine Le Pen is likely to reach the final round. In September, the German chancellor Angela Merkel will be challenged in a federal election.
Bellwether
The word for a sheep which leads a flock — or, in politics, somewhere or something which indicates wider trends.
Islamisation
According to Pew Research Center, Muslims make up around 6% of the country’s population, and around 15% in larger cities. This is about average for Europe.
Unlikely
There are 28 parties running in the election, meaning that the winners will probably only receive around a quarter of the vote. This means they will need to form a coalition — but most mainstream parties have ruled out working with Wilders.
Hate crimes
According to reports by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, and the FBI.
Headscarves
The ruling specified that this could only be the case in the context of a broad ban on religious dress.

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