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Can Geert Wilders defeat the Dutch establishment?

Will Wilders blink first? Credit: Getty

December 5, 2023 - 7:00am

There’s no getting away from it: the Dutch are sadists. At least they are in respect to their politicians. Following the recent general election, it has become apparent that the mainstream parties are caught in a trap of fiendish cruelty. No matter which way they wriggle, their situation becomes more desperate.

It all began with the shock win for Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) late last month. The voters could have chosen a more moderate kind of populist, but instead they went with Wilders — who is arguably further to the Right than Marine Le Pen or Viktor Orbán.

He didn’t get a majority of seats, but if one takes into account the overall result it’s clear that public opinion has shifted in favour of a Right-of-centre government and a restrictive immigration policy. In fact, polling shows that popular support for the Freedom Party continues to grow.

Coming so soon after a general election, a mere opinion poll wouldn’t normally matter — but, as we’ll see, it is very relevant to the fraught negotiations over the composition of the next government. There are four options for the mainstream parties, all of them excruciating.

The first is to submit to the voters and form a coalition between the Freedom Party and the two biggest parties of the centre-Right — i.e. the Dutch Liberals (VVD) and a Christian Democrat offshoot called New Social Contract (NSC). The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) could also be included. As it happens, that’s exactly what Wilders is suggesting.

However, as leader of by far the largest party in this potential coalition, he would be the logical choice for prime minister and neither the VVD or NSC would be keen on that. Nor would the wider EU establishment — the last thing they want is to normalise hard-Right power in Western Europe.

Option two would be to slam the door in Wilders’s face — but none of the mainstream parties want to receive the blame for frustrating the will of the people. Besides, as the NSC leader Pieter Omtzigt puts it: “the Netherlands must and will be governed.” So if the centre-Right won’t form a coalition with the populist Right, the only other choice is to shack up with the centre-Left. But that would mean one side or the other betraying their voters on the pivotal issue of immigration.

A third option is to hold fresh elections. However, with support for Wilders growing, that would be a high-risk strategy — and likely to produce a result that gives the populists even more power.

The final option is to play for time. The Dutch don’t exactly rush their coalition negotiations — on the last occasion they took 299 days to form a government. In theory, spinning things out provides time for Wilders to slip up. But he has every incentive to play it cool, presenting himself as the choice of the Dutch people while the elites attempt to overturn a democratic mandate for change. 

The Dutch situation therefore bears a passing resemblance to the Brexit logjam of 2016 to 2019 — when the UK’s Remain establishment tried to overturn the referendum result. As I recall, that worked out rather badly for them.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago

Establishment politicians are keen on democracy except where it delivers the wrong answer. Currently there is a wide spread cultural difference between established parties and what voters want that is easier to suppress under FPTP voting systems such as the UK system.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Under FPTP, the Freedom Party would have won an outright majority, and the country wouldn’t be hanging around for 299 days waiting for its next government.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Good point. The problem is that it would never have gained the footing that it has in the Dutch system. There are many who would vote for Reform or the SDP in the UK but who don’t because it would be a “wasted” vote.

Simon Shaw
Simon Shaw
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

True but a shame for true democracy!

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Voting Reform is not a wasted vote. Those votes will instruct the Conservative Party on what to include in the 2029 manifesto if they want to win it.

George Venning
George Venning
7 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Would it?
The Freedom party got less than a quarter of the votes cast. That doesn’t make you the party of Government under any system. Geert Wilders’ shock “victory” actually represented about 72% of the vote share that Corbyn’s Labour got in 2019 (23% for Freedom, 32% for Labour) and barely half of what Labour got in its 2017 defeat. These are not winning numbers.
The truth, of course is that under FPTP, people would have voted differently from how they actually voted under PR.
In the negotiations now underway, all the parties who are trying to make a coalition will know what their voters want from them because their voters actually voted for them. It will take time and grubby compromises will get made – no doubt. But no other party (77% of the electorate) wanted to ban the Koran or hold a referendum on membership of the EU. If those policies get dropped, Wilders may feel frustrated but it won’t be undemocratic.
However, under our system, nobody can say what percentage of the people who voted for them might actually have preferred to vote for someone else – if only that party had had a chance of winning. Starmer can (and will) claim a mandate from lefties who hate his guts but who voted for him to stop the Tories – just as Sunak would claim the same about anti-immigration voters who loathe his. In my view, that is even grubbier and even less democratic than what is happening in the Netherlands.
FPTP gives huge power to unpopular governments and excludes swathes of the electorate from any meaningful form of representation at all.
The great claim of FPTP is “stability” but, if that means giving the wrong government more power more quickly, then it’s hardly an advantage is it?

Last edited 7 months ago by George Venning
Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

The British government had an 80 seat majority under FPTP and was clear in its manifesto: overall numbers of immigrants would come down below 200k per annum after we left the EU and controlled our own borders.

Instead immigration numbers trebled! And dinghies continue to arrive from France!

Had Boris and co focused on reducing immigration numbers and stamping out illegal immigration they would have been ahead in the polls today.

It was incompetence or venality or cowardice that thwarted the public on this issue, not the voting system.

AC Harper
AC Harper
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Incompetence and venality and cowardice.
Why the politicians failed to take on the Establishment. It could have been done, and wasn’t.

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

I think the main problem is that even when they have the public backing on a “controversial” issue, few politicians will act in ways that will get them ostracised in polite society. Better to concentrate on NetZero or “trans rights” or overseas aid than get your hands dirty doing what the public wants. After all, political careers are fleeting things and there is always the chance of an Exec Directorship or a media slot at the end of it if you play the game.
Even if Wilders is reconciled to being unpopular among the Dutch upper classes, he may find that too few of his political allies are to make a real policy difference.

Last edited 7 months ago by Matt M
Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
7 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

This is THE million dollar question! Why did Suella not slam on the brakes on legal immigration like Cleverley did in a flash? Was it Rishi? Or were the manifesto promises crushed by active opposition from progressives within the anti Brexit Home Office and Treasury?? Given the way civil servants played a direct role in the asassinations of Johnson Patel Raab and Suella it is really important that we know. Was the policy subverted by inaction and cowardice? Did the Tories give up fighting an obstructive machine? Or were they liars taking us for fools? Are all anti progressive policies being mangled and stopped by a politically active/hostile State? The future of the Tory Party depends on answering this question. It is taboo to reveal any such an illegal rift in governance. But we really need to know.

Geoff W
Geoff W
7 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

It could have been a vast deep-state conspiracy orchestrated by The Blob.
Or it could have been the utter uselessness of the Conservatives’ parliamentary party.

George Venning
George Venning
7 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

“Why did Suella not slam on the brakes on legal immigration like Cleverley did in a flash?”
Because doing so would have crashed an economy deeply dependent upon immigration. There are 100,000 unfilled vacancies in the NHS. Many of them will only be filled by immigrants. The Care sector is totally dependent upon immigration, see also, agriculture etc.
Changing those dynamics is hard and Tories don’t want to do that work (paying fruit pickers enough to attract British workers whilst remaining competitive with imports is probably impossible, and paying nurses and junior docs enough to fill all those NHS vacancies will cost real money). If you actually wanted to slow immigration, and improve life in the UK, you’d have to change the structure of the economy, not just change the immigration rules as Cleverly is now proposing.
The fact that he is doing it now probably reflects the fact that the Tories know that they will lose the next election. So they are going to shut the door now, hope the consequences don’t show up until after the election and then pillory Labour when they relax the rules again.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Back to my first sentence. Reducing immigration was the “wrong” answer so it got sidelined. The Conservative establishment couldn’t conceive that failing to deliver on immigration would induce people to vote in an even more immigration enthusiastic Labour Party or LibDems. Indeed it is a bit of a paradox but conservative voters have become so disillusioned they are voting for the destruction of the Conservative Party in the hope something better arises from the ashes.

N Satori
N Satori
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

For many years Peter Hitchens was urging conservative voters not to vote Conservative because in his view the party deserved to die. This would enable a newer, truer conservative party to rise in its place. Now, noticing the disillusionment among conservative voters and ever the contrarian, he has discarded that pipe dream (voters have left it too late, apparently). His current position, unless he’s shifted ground again, is that victory for Starmer’s phoney moderates would be a disaster for Britain.

Matt M
Matt M
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

That is a good point Jeremy. The Tories probably thought “we can soft-peddle on this because our voters have no where to go. What they going to do, vote Labour?” But because their voters are so disillusioned, because this issue has been going unaddressed for so long, they have decided to sit out the next election or vote for a minority party to register their disgust.
I wonder though, what would happen in PR. Presumably CON would be destroyed, REFORM (or whoever) would scoop up lots of Tory votes but would it lead to a low-immigration government? Or would it either give us a flaky coalition of REFORM, CON and DUP coalition or a LABOUR-led government?
It is hard to tell.

George Venning
George Venning
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

Precisely.
Under the present sytem, the Tories (and Labour FWIW) get to pretend to be broad churches (aka coalitions). The leadership then gets to pick and choose which of the factions within that coalition they actually represent. That is not democratic.
E.g. the remainers within Johnson’s Tory party – he purged them to better reflect the views of his electorate – so that wasn’t actually anti-democratic but it was a choice he had to make. The only reason the party didn’t split was because there was no viable vehicle for europhile conservatism (See, Change UK – RIP).
For his part, Sunak knows that the British economy (as currently constituted) cannot function without immigration and he therefore chooses to do very little about overall immigration, (700,000 people net) whilst making a big, cruel fuss about asylum (50,000 gross). He does that because it’s easier than reforming the UK economy to make it less dependent upon immigration (which would upset other parts of his coalition) so that he could shut the door on legal migration.
Under PR, issues like these would split parties. There would certainly be a significant number of MPs in parliament who sat on an explicitly anti-immigration platform and who would genuinely work for that cause. There would also be substantial representation for greens and anti-war parties, probably rather less representation for the Nationalists and so on. Our political parties would look totally different and our outcomes would almost certainly be different.
That’s what makes the current system such a travesty. It has to go.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
7 months ago
Reply to  George Venning

We did have a vote on it

George Venning
George Venning
7 months ago

A fair point.
But the problems of the current system weren’t then anything like as acute as now. We hadn’t had 3m UKIP voters get not a single MP in 2015. And we hadn’t seen what Labour would be willing to do to its left flank in order to maintain its position in the “centre”

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
7 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Good point

Simon Shaw
Simon Shaw
7 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

The senior civil servants and the 1922 commitee were the main source that thwarted democracy!

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
7 months ago

Nor would the wider EU establishment — the last thing they want is to normalise hard-Right power in Western Europe.
They still don’t get it. The longer hard-right (or extreme right, or just right wing or whatever they’re calling it now) parties are ignored, marginalised and smeared, while centrist and left-wing parties continue to ignore and sidestep the legitimate concerns of voters, the more powerful parties like the Freedom Party are going to become.
The choice is this: either let Wilders, Le Pen & Co govern and allow the people to decide on their performance after 4-5 years, or address head-on the issues that are driving even moderate voters towards these parties.

Last edited 7 months ago by Katharine Eyre
George Venning
George Venning
7 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Hang on. Whatever you want to call that strain of rightism, there’s no denying that it has a foothold in the Tory party – which has been in power for 13 years. Suella Braverman would be right at home in a party led by Wilders or LePen, as would Robert Jenrick. And she keeps being invited back into cabinet, despite her obvious lack of ability.
Whatever that is, it’s not being marginalised.
Nor is having the bananas Rwanda plan and the prison barge on the front of all the papers “ignoring” them. Perhaps there’s another part of the plan where they raise wages and improve public services for the native born population and we’re ignoring that bit – if so point me at it. Has someone done a paper saying that, if we’re sufficiently horrid to refugees, employers will increase wages?
As to “smearing” the right, I’m not sure what you consider a smear and what you consider to be reporting. Was it a smear that Robert Jenrick ordered a cheerful mural painted over lest refugee kids get the wrong impression? Was it a smear that he took a bizarre planning decision that happened to favour a party donor immediately after being lobbied by said donor? Happy to be enlightened as always.
Now, I don’t know what is the real impediment to their various agendas. It could be that anti-democratic forces are ganging up on them. Or it could be that they don’t have the numbers (i.e democratic forces are ganging up on them).
I’ll admit that I want to marginalise Braverman and Jenrick but I’d like to do it fair and square – under a PR system, where people who like their politics can vote for it. I’m confident that, under such a system, the right would lose.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
7 months ago

Anger is a powerful emotion and there is an awful lot of it around in European electorates. I wouldn’t leave it too long were I the Dutch “elite”. An unhappy combination of spiralling costs (increasingly revealed as self-inflicted through Net Zero policies), loss of border control, and the rise of Islamist voices and violence is toxic. I somehow think that politics is going to move beyond the ballot box in the next few years and fully expect to see Toxteth/Brixton replayed on screens in the West. The 4th Turning.

Lancastrian Oik
Lancastrian Oik
7 months ago
Reply to  Susan Grabston

Yes. I agree.
They (our British politicians) cannot seem to grasp just how angry people are. If substantial change is not forthcoming, I can foresee much blood being spilled. And it isn’t as though they haven’t been forewarned.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago

Wilders is not ‘hard right’. On all issues bar that of Islamic supremacism he’s quite milquetoast.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
7 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

He’s strongly against net zero, although that’s not necessarily a right wing position.

George Venning
George Venning
7 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Nexit
Anti-immigration
Islamophobia

Pretty much in line with the Tories. He does have that right wing hair though.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
7 months ago
Reply to  George Venning

Islamophobia is just common sense. Read some history.

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
7 months ago
Reply to  George Venning

In what way exactly are Tories ‘anti-immigration’?

George Venning
George Venning
7 months ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

See my comments elsewhere on this page

Russell Sharpe
Russell Sharpe
7 months ago

[Wilders] would be the logical choice for prime minister and neither the VVD or NSC would be keen on that. Nor would the wider EU establishment — the last thing they want is to normalise hard-Right power in Western Europe.
Option two would be to slam the door in Wilders’s face — but none of the mainstream parties want to receive the blame for frustrating the will of the people…”
If the choice is between frustrating the will of the people and frustrating the will of the EU establishment, there can be little doubt which way the mainstream parties will jump.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
7 months ago

The Dutch politicians are causing problems for themselves because they refuse to accept the electorate’s decision.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

Where have I heard that before?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

Perhaps the Dutch ‘elite’ should recall what happened to the de Witt brothers in 1672?
If ‘they’ have forgotten there is a fine painting of the event by Jan de Baen.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
7 months ago

They should have renamed the punishment as ‘Hung, painted and quartered.’ or alternatively, ‘Where the f**k is Belgium?’

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago

I gather certain choice bits were even EATEN!

michael harris
michael harris
7 months ago

As far as I got last time at the Rijksmuseum before my bad hip gave out. Also saw an interesting painting of the newly built Herengracht looking very like a modern gated development with a canal.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
7 months ago
Reply to  michael harris

I hope you saw the Royal Coat of Arms of Charles II, taken off the captured HMS Royal Charles, when the Dutch raided the Medway in 1667 under the incomparable Michiel de Ruyter!

POSTED AT: 17.09 GMT.

Last edited 7 months ago by Charles Stanhope
michael harris
michael harris
7 months ago

By then I’d retreated to the cafe. Very good food, by the way.

Nathan Ngumi
Nathan Ngumi
7 months ago

Word.