The Dutch will vote in parliamentary elections on 15 March and, whatever the outcome, will set the stage for key elections across Europe this year – starting with the first round of the French presidential election on 23 April. Seldom has Europe followed Dutch elections so closely, and seldom have they been so unpredictable. So what can Europe expect from the Netherlands and what can we learn? For decades Dutch elections were the most boring in western Europe, with the vast majority of people voting for the same party their whole life, creating only small electoral shifts. This changed in 2002, because of the shock effect of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the rise of the populist Pim Fortuyn, cut short by his murder nine days before the 2002 general election. Although the political party that Fortuyn founded, the LPF, existed for less than six years, it fundamentally changed the political system. Dutch elections are now more volatile, the tone is harsher, and the issues broader – with immigration and Islam now dominating most campaigns.
While unconnected to the LPF, Geert Wilders has in many ways taken Fortuyn’s role of enfant terrible, transforming himself from a conservative backbencher into a populist radical-right leader. Today, no article on Dutch politics is written without at least a mention of “the firebrand MP with the peroxide-blond hair” who has been in a neck-and-neck struggle for first place with his former party, the conservative VVD of prime minister Mark Rutte, for months now. The former political allies – Wilders supported the minority government of Rutte from 2010 to 2012 – have become political enemies. Wilders has been attacking Rutte and his policies for years now, while Rutte has categorically excluded Wilders from a future coalition government.
The Economist recently wrote that Dutch politics are a bellwether for Europe, arguing that developments in the Netherlands tend to be followed in other European countries a few years later. In a similar way, Politico described Wilders as “the man who invented Trumpism”. Both claims hold some kernel of truth.