Monday, shortly after ten o’clock, and the morning mist is still lingering over Almere, the 7th largest city in the Netherlands. As yet, only a few people are out and about in the pedestrian zones in the city’s oldest borough. Most of the businesses don’t open until midday but Bakker Bart is ready for business. The bakery chain is celebrating its 40th anniversary across the country, and in Almere it is about as old as the city. Construction of Almere’s first building started in 1975 on land reclaimed from a former inland bay – a triumph of Dutch engineering skill and a symbol of all the land wrested from the sea. Almere is growing faster than any other city in the country; 200 ,000 people now call it home.
One resident, who moved with his family into one of the first new apartments in 1983, is sitting with a friend, drinking a cup of coffee at Bakker Bart and talking about the city. But the mood is anything but relaxed. This goes not only for Almere but for all of Holland, and he asks that his name is kept out of the newspaper.
We’ll call him Jan Visser. He is in his late 50s, works for the post office and is a supporter of Geert Wilders. When the Dutch vote this coming Wednesday, Mr. Visser will put his mark next to the right-wing populist Partij voor de Vrijheid, or PVV.
Mr. Wilders may not be a new phenomenon, with representatives of right-wing populist parties sitting already in almost every European parliament. But nonetheless, all eyes are on the Netherlands. The country will be the first in E.U. to hold federal elections in 2017, thereby serving as a litmus test for France and Germany, which will vote in May and September, respectively. For the first time since the founding of the E.U., right-wing populists could become the strongest power in one of the bloc’s model countries.
Europe’s hard right has itself declared 2017 the “Year of the Patriots” and the Dutch election will be a key test of to what extent the hard Right is right. Of all places, The Netherlands is widely considered to be the epitome of European openness and tolerance, a country that looks back on a history of triumphs and political stability. Indeed, few countries are as dependent on their neighbors. The exporting nation, with a population of 17 million, is Germany’s fourth largest trading partner – after China, the USA and France.
To understand the Dutch, taking a seat next to Mr. Visser in Bakker Bart’s in Almere and listening to what he has to say is a good place to start. “There used to be room here,” he said. Room for his family and many others, who primarily moved from Amsterdam, which is only about 15 miles away. But many didn’t find the life here they were looking for. There is much discontent, as the local elections have shown. Almere is a stronghold of the PVV, which has been the main political force in the town council already for three years.
Like many others in town, Mr. Visser wants to use his vote for Mr. Wilders to “show dissatisfaction.”
The Netherlands and Almere have changed, he says, “since the attacks,” a phrase he uses to describe all attacks by Islamists in Europe. Frustration paired with the desire to disturb the establishment is a toxic mixture – one which, for good reason, brings to mind the sentiment in Great Britain before the Brexit referendum, as well in the USA during its presidential elections.
The PVV is tapping into this mood. They want to “stop Islam” and Mr. Wilders’ campaign slogan is “The Netherlands must belong to us again.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mr. Wilders has taken to tweeting, “Make the Netherlands Great Again,” channeling the embodiment of intolerance, Donald Trump.
Koen Vossen, a political scientist who wrote a book about Mr. Wilders in 2013, said most Dutch see themselves as tolerant. “And many think you have to be intolerant once in a while, particularly to protect the tolerance in the country – right up to the notion that Islam is tainting Dutch culture.” But can the Dutch still be tolerant when the PVV is the strongest party?
More and more people are finding Mr. Wilders’ slogans appealing, and terrorism has played a role. There were two attacks that shook the country and paved the way for Mr. Wilders’ political success, whose mother came to Holland from the former Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia. Shortly before the 2002 elections, a militant animal-rights activist shot the politician Pim Fortuyn. His right-wing populist party then grabbed 17 percent of the votes and co-governed. A little more than two years later, an Islamist murdered the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, an enfant terrible, known for ridiculing Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The perpetrator, who had both Dutch and Moroccan passports, shot Mr. van Gogh several times, as he was bicycling through Amsterdam before finally cutting his throat.
This brutal murder in broad daylight fanned the debate on the role of Islam. Questions were raised about how well second generation immigrants were integrated into Dutch culture, particularly those from Morocco and Turkey. It was Mr. Geert Wilders’ big moment. Until then he had been politically involved with the liberal VVD – the party of the current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. He dropped out of the party in 2004 and founded the PVV in 2006. During the parliamentary elections that year, the party captured 5.9 percent of the vote, and in 2010 it was already a good 15 percent – about as much as is forecast now by the polls.
Mr. Vossen said the Netherlands did not just support the PVV because of the attacks. “Actually, what is happening in the Netherlands is also what is happening in other European countries. There is a group of voters of perhaps 20 percent, for whom immigration and the concern about their own identity is an important issue,” he said.
There is, however, something else in line with this trend that also worries other E.U. countries: major political parties in the Netherlands are dying out.
Despite the paucity of his ideas, Mr. Wilders is dominating the election campaign.
A number of parties are running closer in the polls than ever before, many ranking barely above ten percent. The two front-runners, the PVV and Mr. Rutte’s VVD, are at 15 and 16 percent respectively. Given the fact that some of the 17 parties in parliament are very similar to each other, three out of four registered voters are still not sure whom they will vote for. “The floating voter” has now become a familiar term.
Mr. Visser from Almere decided long ago. “I don’t know what other party I could vote for.” None of the others have such extreme, simple demands as Mr. Wilders, who is officially the PVV’s only member. Party communications take place primarily through his comments on Twitter; that, as well, is reminiscent of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Wilders’ election platform would fit on a single sheet of copy paper: Money is supposed to go to “normal” Dutch people again, not to immigrants. Refugees’ residence permits are to be retracted. The Netherlands is not to admit migrants from Islamic countries. And, finally, the Netherlands should leave the European Union.
How, exactly, are these things supposed to be implemented? That is something Mr. Wilders has remained conspicuously quiet about.
But despite the paucity of his ideas, Mr. Wilders is dominating the election campaign. At the same time, he avoids interviews and TV debates. And although his supporters love taking selfies with the frosted blond politician, he only rarely appears in public.
But that isn’t just a ploy. The 53-year old, who began his political career in Utrecht’s town council and has been a member of parliament since 1998, has been under police protection for twelve years. Mr. Wilders, who is married to a Hungarian, has long been threatened with death by Islamists.
Still, despite these restrictions, the PVV is pushing the other parties to the right and setting their agendas. This was evident in a campaign by Prime Minister Rutte, who recently directed an open letter to “All Dutch People” in several newspapers in which he stated, “Behave normally or go away.” As Mr. Rutte has stated, there is a growing discontent in Holland with immigrants who came for Dutch freedom only to “misuse” it. His sharply-formulated appeal reveals how much the VVD is gearing itself to the mood.
One issue that is currently on the minds of many PVV supporters is what the welfare state will be able to provide in the future. Mr. Visser, for example, is concerned about the elderly receiving proper care. Another hot issue in the election campaign is the health insurance deductible of just under $425: the PVV wants to abolish it and, in addition, improve care for the elderly as well as lower the rents for those in assisted living. However, here too Mr. Wilders also has yet to give an answer as to how this can be achieved.
Mr. Wilders is especially successful in regions that feel economically left behind, such as in the south. In cities such like Limburg, where the population is both shrinking and aging, the PVV garnered up to 19 percent of the votes in recent elections. Although the Dutch economy is growing – by over two percent in 2016 – it still isn’t at the level it was shortly before the turn of the millennium.
The country was hit hard when the dotcom bubble burst in 2000. Property prices collapsed, causing hardship for many homeowners who had exclusively financed their purchase with loans. And not all have profited from the economic recovery by a long shot. A good third of all Dutch workers are self-employed or have a “flexible” contract, meaning temporarily employed with irregular work hours or filling in for others. The present ruling coalition of the VVD and Social Democrats has yet to find a solution to the development. And now they’re feeling it in the polls.
But in Almere they are fighting for every vote and against the PVV becoming the strongest party in parliament, as well. “The PVV stands for everything I don’t,” said Jerzy Soetekouw, the Social Democrat’s faction leader in the Almere town council.
He said Almere is a good place to live. The city attracts new residents, and is growing more quickly than any other in the country. Many residents have foreign origins and have stayed here without living in ghettos. Almere is considered safe, and yet many residents are deeply dissatisfied and worried. People like Mr. Soetekouw are perplexed about the development, as are many local politicians in France and Germany.
The only consolation for Mr. Soetekouw is that Almere also represents a model of how to keep the PVV out of power. While Mr. Wilders’ party won the most local votes, it neither provides the mayor nor the aldermen. Instead, a five-party coalition ranging from the left-liberal to conservative parties is in charge. Everybody has agreed not to form a coalition with Mr. Wilders and old rivals have decided they would rather work together than join with the PVV. And that seems to be a glimmer of hope in an otherwise gloomy political landscape.
Elisabeth Atzler has been a banking correspondent of Handelsblatt since 2012. Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.