Why Europe’s most tolerant country is surging right

The Netherlands is often considered one of the most liberal and tolerant countries on the planet.


It’s not just tourists flocking to Amsterdam for recreational drugs and legalised prostitution – the country was also the first in the world to legislate for same-sex marriage and takes a progressive approach to euthanasia.

But for most of the past 18 months – the leading party in the polls has been the stridently anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-EU Party for Freedom (the PVV).

The party’s leader, international provocateur Geert Wilders, saw his popularity surge in December, when he was found guilty of inciting racial discrimination against Moroccan immigrants.

Similar to rhetoric from Donald Trump and One Nation, Wilders’ policies include a ban on headscarves, the Quran and Muslim immigration, the closure of Islamic schools and mosques, and withdrawal from the European Union.

Pulling support between 15 per cent and 20 per cent, the Party for Freedom has been the most popular among a crowded field for much of the campaign.

Wilders has only recently fallen behind the Prime Minister’s center-right party, itself only polling at 16 per cent.

Polling from the last 12 months shows Wilders’ PVV has narrowly fallen behind Prime Minister Rutte’s VVD, while the PvdA labour party remains stuck at 8%.Peilingwijzer

But while Prime Minister Mark Rutte is hoping to stay ahead and win the chance to form a coalition government, the race could be even closer than it looks says Carolien van Ham, a UNSW politics lecturer and a Dutch voter herself.

“Recent polling experiences with Brexit and in the US seem to indicate that support for populist right tends to be under-estimated,” expert in political representation said.

“I think it’s because there might still be a group of people who are polite, or don’t dare to say they intend to vote for those parties.”


Polls show that concern about the preservation Dutch culture is one of the most dominant political issues – but Dr van Ham pins the surge in far-right sentiment on voter dissatisfaction, and a failure of mainstream parties to represent their interests.

“People that vote PVV tend to be white, lower educated, with lower incomes, and are more often jobless,” she said, “his supporters live mostly in more rural areas and in semi-urban areas around the big cities.”

Those voters don’t feel represented by centrist parties, Dr van Ham says, and they haven’t been big winners from globalisation or the Netherlands’ economic recovery.

Geert Wilders takes a photo with a supporter on the campaign trail in March 2017 (AP).EPA

Cultural decay

Dutch political researcher and Loughborough University lecturer Stijn van Kessel says voters are anxious about cultural decay and the social consequences of immigration.

With the European migration crisis and a rise in terror attacks, the Netherlands is just one of numerous countries witnessing a growth in anti-immigrant, anti-Islam sentiment.

“The last election was largely about dealing with the economic crisis. Now that the economy has recovered, there is more room for cultural issues again,” he said.

The focus on Dutch culture has sparked a debate on what Dutch values actually are. 

On the right parties have referred to the country’s Judeo Christian heritage and national iconography, while on the left leaders have emphasised tolerance and empathy. Both sides have stressed the importance of Freedom. 


But Dr van Ham says the underlying issues driving voting behaviour are not confined to the Netherlands.

“Europe and America are seeing a rise of the far-right – and it will come to Australia I’m sure,” she said.

“There are several clear causes of that – First there’s a rise in economic inequality and the impact of globalisation, that’s led to voters feeling as if their national politicians can’t properly represent their interests.”

“Then, there’s the failure of the Labour parties on the left to represent the interests of those voters – they’ve shifted to the centre and embraced neoliberalism, letting go of the welfare state a little bit.”

“There’s a feeling among some citizens that national politicians are losing control to multinational corporations and to the European Union.”

A multitude of party leaders vie for support in a televised election debate.EPA/Remko de Waal

Matt Sherwood –  lead strategist at Perpetual Investments and one of the few to correctly predict Trump’s victory – says the rise of the far-right is becoming a global phenomenon in established democracies.

“All around the world governments are struggling to find jobs for lower skilled workers – but it’s not an economic problem, it’s a social problem,” he said.

Voters bitter about globalisation and immigration are misdirecting their frustration, Sherwood says, and the prescription of closing borders isn’t going to help.

“The jobs Trump and others talk about were lost to technology, so they won’t be coming back,” he said.

It’s a challenge that wedges progressive labour parties, Dr van Ham says.

“They feel they can’t go hard against immigration, even if they are strong on labour and pay issues.”

The Dutch Labour Party is facing a wipeout – they’re currently projected to lose just over half of their 35 seats.

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The rise of the Dutch right

Dr van Kessel says it’s debatable whether the Netherlands truly ever was a country properly characterised by liberal tolerance and acceptance, where multiculturalism was truly celebrated.

“It was long considered politically incorrect to identify perceived problems concerning the cultural integration of immigrants,” he said.

“But since the rise of [anti-Islam leader] Pim Fortuyn in 2002, issues related to immigration and integration have been placed firmly on the political agenda.”

Dr van Ham agrees.

“There was this less tolerant side – which was there all the time, but was suppressed,” she said.

“They were told their opinions were racist and that it wasn’t okay to be anti-Islam or anti-immigrant – but then we had Fortuyn, who said that actually we needed to talk about these things and to call it out, and so that brought it all out into the open.”

Wilders has taken Fortuyn’s place in the Netherlands – Fortuyn was assassinated in the 2002 election campaign by a far-left activist.

Pallbearers carry the coffin of Dutch right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn out of the Laurentius and Elisabeth Cathedral in Rotterdam.AP Photo/Bas Czerwinski

Under siege from their right, more centrist parties have been attempting to woo voters by co-opting Wilders style rhetoric.

“Mark Rutte urged people with a migrant background to accept Dutch values – to ‘act normal’ – or to leave the country,” he said.

“The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) leader Sybrand Buma proposed to teach immigrants the national anthem and to make schoolchildren sing it every morning in class.


“They have arguably legitimised the concerns expressed by the PVV, which is still the ‘issue owner’ regarding immigration and multiculturalism.”

It’s debatable whether that approach has worked – while the PVV has fallen from its peak of 21 per cent support to 15 per cent currently – Rutte’s party hasn’t been a major beneficiary.

Support for the left-of-centre Green Left and D66 have risen in line with the PVV’s most recent decline, as has the Christian Democratic Appeal.

As has been the case in Australia – major parties are losing ground as minor parties are surging.

As demonstrated to the left of the graph, in 2012 the mainstream centre-right VVD and centre-left PvdA plummeted. They have struggled to regain support as Wilders PVV and the Green Left have surged.Peilingwijzer

Dr van Ham says Rutte’s centre-right party will struggle to regain appeal from those who have fled to the far-right.

“These people are not only going for anti-immigration, they’re also against multinational corporations, against rich people getting richer, and there’s an anti-EU sentiment as well,” she said.

“Rutte and his party just can’t represent that, because they represent business interests and the governing elite.”

The centre-left will also have to undergo a change. The minor Green Left party has seen a sustained increase in support – the Labour party has flatlined.

“For the left, they have to re-engage with those lower-income, lower educated voters and see how they can better represent those voters,” Dr van Ham said.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte is struggling to maintain a narrow lead over Wilders in the final days of the election.EPA/REMKO DE WAAL

Dr van Ham says the reason voter are angry is because of their lived experiences, which makes them difficult to woo back to the establishment centre.  it’s their reality and that can’t be ignored.

“It’s their reality and that can’t be ignored,” she said.

“In the last 30 years, globalisation has improved trade flows and developing countries have become richer – and the rich have done well in developed countries – but for the lower middle-class it hasn’t done much for them at all,” she said.


“Globalisation just doesn’t have equally good effects for everyone.”

While Rutte has sworn not to include Wilders in a governing coalition – he was burned by Wilders after doing so in a previous government – Wilders’ inclusion may be unavoidable if he gains a sizable swathe of seats in a minority dominated parliament.

Dr van Ham puts little stock in his pre-election promise.

“Yeah, he goes back on his word pretty often,” she said.

After the assassination of Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and Theo van Gogh in 2004, Wilders has been sourrounded by tight security.Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Implications for Europe

The Netherlands will be the first of three major European elections to be held this year, with France and Germany to follow.

All three countries have seen a rise in support for far-right parties.

But Dr van Kessel is cautious about reading too much into the Dutch results when it comes to figuring out the broader implications for Europe.

He says the decline of the major parties and the rise of minor parties is likely a result of domestic politics.


The centre-left Labour party has been governing in coalition with Mark Rutte’s centre-right party – and it hasn’t been popular.

“Both are seen to have watered down their agenda, they are traditionally polar opposites on the class cleavage,” he said.

“The parties seem unable to benefit from the economic recovery, and their ability to pass many reforms.”

Dr van Ham puts it in starker terms.

“It would be a bit like Turnbull going together with Shorten now – that would make a lot of people very angry right?” she said.

Dr van Kessel, who lives in the UK, says that while the rise of euro-skeptic minor-parties is problematic for the European Union, he doesn’t see it as evidence of Brexit contagion.

“I’m not a big believer in other countries rapidly following the path of the UK, which has an exceptionally Eurosceptic electorate,” he said.  

“A victory of Marine Le Pen still looks unlikely – though I don’t dare to rule it out anymore after Brexit and Trump.”

He describes support for the far-right ‘Alternative for Germany’ party as “rather modest”.

Dutch PM Mark Rutte greets British PM Theresa May during an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, March 9, 2017.Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP

Dealing with Wilders

It’s Dutch custom that the party with the largest number of seats is given the first opportunity to form government, normally one or two other parties.

This year, it looks like it’s down to Wilders or Rutte – and negotiations are likely to be more complex than ever.

“Up until the 1990s, there would generally be three parties which would get 80 per cent of the vote between them so you only had to form a coalition with one or two other parties at most,” Dr van Ham said.

“Now it looks like only two parties are likely to get more than 20 per cent of the vote and many other parties might get 10 per cent to 15 per cent.”

Indeed, according to the latest polls, no party is pulling higher than 17 per cent.

That likely means cobbling together a majority of 75 seats could take weeks or months of protracted negotiations after the dust of the campaign settles.

Wilders shakes hands with Rutte at a newspaper forum, leaders from the Socialist Party, D66 and the Labour party look on.AP Photo/Peter Dejong

Forming a coalition which excludes Wilders and his projected 23 seats will require some complex triangulation between parties which may have little ideologically in common.

Forming a coalition with Wilders at the helm, or in second place, will also prove challenging.

“If the PVV is included, it’s going to take a long time, because the ideological differences are just so large,” Dr van Ham said.  

“Wilders wants things like banning Islamic headscarves and shutting down Islamic schools, which goes against our constitution, so if they have to be included there will be a lot of parties strongly pushing back against that.”

But Dr van Ham says the best outcome may be for Wilders to be included in the government, although she’s no fan of the party herself.

“What we know from experience elsewhere is that when you govern you inevitably make mistakes, and they will have to compromise and moderate to get things done,” she said.

“Right now all his support is based on promises, and not on what he can deliver.”

The Netherlands heads to the polls on Wednesday, March 15.