Why Dutch Politicians May End Up Working With Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders
Dutch far-right Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders in a courtroom in Schiphol, Netherlands, on March 18. Many politicians have ruled out dealing with Wilders. Michael Kooren/reuters

Two months ahead of the Dutch parliamentary election of March 15, Dutch prime minister and leader of the Liberal Party (VVD) Mark Rutte has ruled out cooperating with the radical right Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders. Most other parties have also dismissed the idea of participating in a government with the PVV. If the prime minister and other party leaders stick to their words, and if the PVV performs as well as expected, the Dutch coalition formation process is bound to become complicated.

As in many other European countries, the populist radical right has become a prominent force in the Netherlands. The PVV has attracted considerable support in the past decade with an agenda opposing immigration, Islam and the European Union, and stressing the need to preserve Dutch culture and identity. Wilders, its leader, is further known for his harsh anti-establishment criticism, claiming that mainstream parties and other elites are out of touch with the ordinary people, whose "will" he purportedly represents.

Wilders' discourse has proven electorally attractive. The PVV is currently the third largest party in parliament, and is leading in the opinion polls ahead of the March election. According to the most recent Dutch Polling Indicator (Peilingwijzer) the PVV is expected to win between 31 and 37 of the 150 lower house seats. Mark Rutte's VVD follows with between 22 and 26 seats. The party has previously provided parliamentary support to a minority coalition between 2010 and 2012.

Anticipating that the PVV is becoming a serious contender for government, Rutte declared in a TV interview on Sunday that there is a "zero chance" of his party cooperating with the PVV, adding that Wilders' plans are "in conflict with Dutch freedoms," and that the PVV's socio-economic position is more left-wing than that of the radical left Socialist Party. During their party conferences held in the same weekend five significant other parties also ruled out governing with the PVV.

For the first time all Dutch mainstream parties have unanimously refused to cooperate with the PVV, whose leader was in December 2016 found guilty by a Dutch court of insulting Moroccans and "inciting discrimination." On Monday morning Geert Wilders reacted in his usual way to his ostracization by other parties. He wrote in a tweet: "Excluding in advance the possible winner of democratic elections is an insult to millions of voters and smells like dictatorship." Indeed, the other parties' exclusion of the PVV ostensibly lends credence to Wilders' claim that established politicians continue to ignore the "voice of the people."

The polls further indicate that the Dutch party system is highly fragmented: six parties are expected to win between around 10 and 15 seats each. Among these is the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA), which is currently in a governing coalition with the VVD, and which is looks likely to face a considerable electoral defeat.

While the eventual results may look quite different from these polls—many Dutch voters are "floating" between parties that are ideologically adjacent—forming a viable majority coalition without the PVV is not straightforward. Such a coalition would possibly require the cooperation between a minimum of five (programmatically diverse) parties.

When it comes to making a decision, parties on the centre-right, the VVD and Christian Democrats (Christen Democratisch Appel, CDA) in particular, may feel inclined to "take responsibility" and agree on a construction similar to the one after the election of 2010, whereby the PVV supported a minority coalition between the VVD and CDA in exchange for the implementation of some of its desired policies.

Given that relations between the parties soured after Wilders pulled out of the coalition in 2012, such a construction is now arguably less likely than in 2010. If the PVV indeed becomes the largest party, a mere role as "support partner" may also not be appropriate. Given the lack of viable other options, it remains to be seen whether the PVV will indeed be excluded from executive power.

Stijn van Kessel is lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University, UK. His main research interests are populism and the discourse, voters and electoral performance of populist (radical right) parties in Europe.