POLITICS

In a shock for Europe, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders records a massive win in Dutch elections

Nov 21, 2023, 10:31 PM | Updated: Nov 23, 2023, 12:28 am

Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, known as PVV, smiles after announcement of the firs...

Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, known as PVV, smiles after announcement of the first preliminary results of general elections in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders won a huge victory in Dutch elections, according to a near complete count of the vote early Thursday, in a stunning lurch to the far right for a nation once famed as a beacon of tolerance.

The result will send shockwaves through Europe, where far-right ideology is on the rise, and puts Wilders in line to lead talks to form the next governing coalition and possibly become the first far-right prime minister of the Netherlands.

With nearly all votes counted, Wilders’ Party for Freedom was forecast to win 37 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, two more than predicted by an exit poll when voting finished Wednesday night and more than double the 17 he won at the last election.

“I had to pinch my arm,” a jubilant Wilders said.

Political parties were set to hold separate meetings Thursday to discuss the outcome before what is likely to be an arduous process of forming a new governing coalition begins Friday.

Despite his harsh rhetoric, Wilders has already begun courting other right and center parties by saying in a victory speech that whatever policies he pushes will be “within the law and constitution.”

Wilders’ election program included calls for a referendum on the Netherlands leaving the European Union, a total halt to accepting asylum-seekers and migrant pushbacks at Dutch borders.

It also advocates the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands. He says he wants no mosques or Islamic schools in the country, although he has been milder about Islam during this election campaign than in the past.

Instead, his victory seems based on his campaign to rein-in migration -— the issue that caused the last governing coalition to quit in July —- and tackle issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and housing shortages.

“Voters said, ‘We are sick of it. Sick to our stomachs,’” he said, adding he is now on a mission to end the “asylum tsunami,” referring to the migration issue that came to dominate his campaign.

“The Dutch will be No. 1 again,” Wilders said. “The people must get their nation back.”

But Wilders, who has in the past been labeled a Dutch version of Donald Trump, first must form a coalition government before he can take the reins of power.

That will be tough as mainstream parties are reluctant to join forces with him and his party, but the size of his victory strengthens his hand in any negotiations.

Wilders called on other parties to constructively engage in coalition talks. Pieter Omtzigt, a former centrist Christian Democrat who built his own New Social Contract party in three months to take 20 seats, said he would always be open to talks.

The closest party to Wilders’ in the election was an alliance of the center-left Labor Party and Green Left, which was forecast to win 25 seats. But its leader, Frans Timmermans, made clear that Wilders should not count on a coalition with him.

“We will never form a coalition with parties that pretend that asylum seekers are the source of all misery,” Timmermans said, vowing to defend Dutch democracy.

The historic victory came one year after the win of Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy’s roots were steeped in nostalgia for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Meloni has since mellowed her stance on several issues and has become the acceptable face of the hard right in the EU.

Wilders was long a firebrand lashing out at Islam, at the EU and migrants -— a stance which brought him close to power but never in it, in a nation known for compromise politics.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who boasts of turning Hungary into an “illiberal” state and has similarly harsh stances on migration and EU institutions, was quick to congratulate Wilders. “The winds of change are here! Congratulations,” Orban said.

During the final weeks of his campaign, Wilders somewhat softened his stance and vowed that he would be a prime minister for all Dutch people, so much so that he gained the moniker Geert “Milders.”

The election was called after the fourth and final coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned in July after failing to agree to measures to rein-in migration.

Rutte was replaced by Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, a former refugee from Turkey who could have become the country’s first female prime minister had her party won the most votes. Instead, it was forecast to lose 10 seats to end up with 24.

The result is the latest in a series of elections that is altering the European political landscape. From Slovakia and Spain, to Germany and Poland, populist and hard-right parties triumphed in some EU member nations and faltered in others.

___

Casert reported from Brussels.

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In a shock for Europe, anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders records a massive win in Dutch elections