Will Geert Wilders’ Rise Change the Face of the Netherlands?

Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders at the Republican National Convention, Cleveland, U.S., July 19, 2016 (AP photo by Carolyn Kaster).
Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders at the Republican National Convention, Cleveland, U.S., July 19, 2016 (AP photo by Carolyn Kaster).
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Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders doesn’t hate Muslims—he just hates Islam, or so he said in 2008. And his feelings haven’t changed: In a television interview earlier this year to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of Wilders’ right-wing, populist Party for Freedom (PVV), he said that “by and large, Muslims aren’t the problem. Islam is.”

Wilders built the PVV on a platform of anti-immigration, euroskepticism and a pledge to stop what he calls the Islamization of the Netherlands. “My goal,” he said in the same television interview, “is to speak the truth other parties don’t dare speak, for fear of being called racist or receiving threats.”

That type of rhetoric has made Wilders the recipient of many threats and denunciations over the years. He has been under 24-hour security protection since 2004, unprecedented in a country where, until recently, even the prime minister traveled to his office by bicycle each day. In 2009, Wilders was denied entrance to the U.K. when he arrived at the invitation of the right-wing U.K. Independent Party to show his anti-jihadi film, Fitna; British officials said his opinions “threaten community harmony and therefore public safety.” He has also been banned from Indonesia and denounced by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and he currently faces charges in the Netherlands for hate speech.

Yet among the Dutch population, Wilders has built a credible following. When the PVV was formed in 2006, Wilders immediately called for a ban on minarets and hefty fines for wearing headscarves. Wilders tapped into the growing fear of Islam and anti-immigration sentiment—a 2008 poll revealed that 56 percent of the Dutch saw Islam as a threat to society, and 57 percent believed the Netherlands’ biggest mistake was permitting so many Muslims to enter the country. Wilders himself credits his popularity to his willingness to say “out loud what millions of people are thinking.”

To date, Wilders’ party has failed to make sizable inroads in parliament. In the 2012 parliamentary elections, the PVV won 15 seats, down from 24 in 2010, when it had become the third-largest party in the parliament. The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, won the plurality of votes in 2012—26.6 percent—and 41 of the 150 seats that make up the parliament. The Labour Party (PvdA) came in second with 24.8 percent, securing 38 seats.

But although polling numbers fluctuate, Wilders’ PVV has nonetheless maintained an impressive standing. At certain points, it has been the most popular party in the Netherlands—though a public opinion poll from early November showed it had dropped to a level of between 16.7 and 19.3 percent, compared to 26 to 30 percent for the VVD and 11 to 15 percent for the PvdA.

As the March 2017 general elections approach, Wilders continues to have viable public support, and if his party were to win the plurality of seats in 2017, he would become the next prime minister. But other members of parliament say they will have nothing to do with him, including Rutte, who has stated flatly that he will never form a coalition government with the PVV.

According to Wilders, Rutte and others will not have the choice. If members of parliament refuse to cooperate with him in forming a government, Wilders has said, there will be a public revolt—though he hopes a peaceful one. “If we all vote for the PVV, if we grow really big,” he said, “it will become difficult to ignore us.”

For a country like the Netherlands, which has long enjoyed a reputation for liberal-mindedness and tolerance, the rise of the far right along with overwhelming public support for anti-immigration policy, a growing suspicion of Muslims, and heightened resentment toward the European Union is a dramatic shift.

A small and densely populated country, the Netherlands has legalized abortion, prostitution and euthanasia, and is well-known for its relaxed policy on soft drugs. In 2001, it became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. It is these very liberal freedoms that Wilders believes make Dutch culture so incompatible with Islam and its restrictions on homosexuality, women’s rights and alcohol consumption, for example.

Since 9/11, and even more so amid the current refugee crisis, the Netherlands has shifted from a tolerant, pro-EU, multicultural society to one that increasingly supports closed borders and views the EU with skepticism. It is now a country that might make a man like Wilders, who wants to ban the Quran and shut down all Islamic schools, the next prime minister.

A Reluctant Immigrant Nation

With this rightward political shift have come a growing nationalist sentiment and a desire to clearly define an “us” and a “them”—the symptoms of a country facing an identity crisis. What does it mean to be Dutch? What defines Dutch norms and values? And can a person integrate into the culture regardless of his or her ethnic background or religious affiliation?

Although the Netherlands has been associated for decades with diversity and multiculturalism, it is in reality a reluctant immigrant nation. Historically, the country has managed to sweep issues relating to immigration under the rug politically, relying on a policy of avoidance and opting for tolerance rather than integration.

The Netherlands is now a country that might make a man like Wilders, who wants to ban the Quran and shut down all Islamic schools, the next prime minister.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, guest workers were invited from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Morocco and Yugoslavia to the country to help rebuild and industrialize after World War II. In that same broad period, the Netherlands also experienced two major surges of immigration, after the decolonization of Indonesia in 1949 and Suriname in 1970.

The Dutch assumption was that these immigrants would eventually return home. Because of this, there was not much focus on how to approach integration. Talk of multiculturalism at the time referred not to creating a truly multicultural environment, but to permitting various ethnic groups to maintain their own cultures for when they eventually returned to their countries of origin. But many, especially Turks and Moroccans, remained in the Netherlands, bringing their families with them.

As a result of these immigration surges, Surinamese, Turks, Antilleans and Moroccans now account for the largest immigrant groups in the Netherlands. Today, about 1 million Dutch inhabitants—approximately 5.8 percent of the total population—are Muslim, of which 75 percent are of Moroccan or Turkish origin. Most non-Western immigrants live in the Netherlands’ biggest cities. In 2006, a third of the populations of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague were of non-Western backgrounds.

Over the past 50 years, these waves of immigration, and more recently the arrival of asylum-seekers mostly from Syria and Eritrea, have transformed the Netherlands from an ethnically and culturally homogenous country to one that is quite diverse. Yet, as these immigrant populations grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the political elite kept immigration from entering the political conversation. This had in part to do with the Netherlands’ WWII-era past: Despite having a relatively low rate of anti-Semitism, the country had the highest percentage of Jews murdered during the Holocaust of any in Nazi-occupied Western Europe: Only 27 percent of Jews living in the Netherlands in 1941 survived the war, compared to 60 percent in Belgium and 75 percent in France. This made for a political culture that preferred to avoid topics that could be perceived as having even the slightest echo of neo-fascism or racism.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the government took a multicultural approach to immigration, emphasizing integration but also the preservation of immigrants’ and minorities’ cultural identity. Immigrants were thus expected to integrate into Dutch society, but without being forced to abandon their heritage or hide their religious beliefs.

In the context of a major overhaul of the constitution in 1983, and to emphasize the acceptance of the permanent multicultural character of the country and to prevent discrimination, an article was added to the Dutch constitution to include a comprehensive nondiscrimination clause: “All persons in the Netherlands shall be treated equally in all circumstances. Discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief, political opinion, race or sex or any other grounds whatsoever shall not be permitted.”

Also in 1983, an Ethnic Minority Policy was introduced, with three main goals: to ensure equality before the law; to promote multiculturalism and the freedom of ethnic communities to choose their own religious and cultural activities; and to improve the social and economic situation of minorities. However, a 1989 report issued by the Scientific Council for Government Policy, an independent Dutch think tank that advises the government, argued that overly liberal attitudes focusing on maintaining cultural and religious differences actually hindered the integration and socio-economic participation of ethnic minority groups, hinting at a pivot from a multicultural to an integration-focused mindset for immigration policy.

Sowing the Seeds of Discrimination

There were several watershed incidents that put anti-immigration, and particularly anti-Muslim, sentiments center stage in Dutch politics over the past 20 years. The first was the publication of “Against the Islamization of Our Culture,” a book by Pim Fortuyn, in 1997. Fortuyn, then a writer and academic, pointed to Islamic culture as a national threat, and called it a political ideology rather than a religion. The book catapulted him into the spotlight as a central critic of immigration policy.

A charismatic speaker, sharp debater and openly gay man, Fortuyn did not engage in the level of hate speech that has made Wilders such a reviled political outcast among his parliamentary peers, although he did arguably pave the way for Wilders’ acceptance by the public. In 2002, Fortuyn was forced out of the centrist Livable Netherlands party after a February 2002 interview in which he expressed support for closing Dutch borders to Muslim immigrants because of their “backward” ideology. He subsequently founded his own political party, the Pim Fortuyn List.

Fortuyn framed his anti-Muslim stance as rooted in cultural, rather than ethnic, ideas. He argued that Muslim culture was incompatible with liberal Dutch values regarding homosexuality and women’s rights. He also made clear that his rejection of Islam was not a rejection of Muslims. During an infamous televised debate with an imam in 2002, for instance, his opponent claimed Fortuyn had clearly never spoken to a Muslim, based on his ideas about them. Fortuyn bated him by saying he had not only spoken to them, but had even slept with them.

The Pim Fortuyn List became the first viable alternative to the Netherlands’ long-standing status quo parties, a groundbreaking feat for someone so relatively new to the political scene. During Fortuyn’s campaign for the 2002 elections, he became one of the most notorious and popular figures in modern Dutch history.

Fortuyn argued that Muslim culture was incompatible with liberal Dutch values regarding homosexuality and women’s rights.

Fortuyn’s rise was also the first time an individual, rather than party, could energize voters. But his ascent came to an abrupt halt. On May 6, 2002, just 11 days before the election, he was murdered, marking the first notable political assassination in the country since 1672. His killer, a Dutch environmental activist named Volkert van der Graaf, said he murdered Fortuyn to protect Muslims.

Even after Fortuyn’s death, the Pim Fortuyn List managed to win 17 percent of the vote. But within days of the election, the party disbanded, unable to organize without its leader.

Fortuyn’s rise was bolstered by the anti-Muslim sentiments fueled by 9/11. Suspicions of Muslims in the Netherlands were expressed particularly violently following the attacks: Mosques were vandalized and set on fire, and received bomb threats; Muslims reported numerous instances of hate speech and physical aggressions. The Dutch parliament debated how to respond to rising tensions, with a divide between proponents of multiculturalism and defenders of assimilation.

Public opinion surveys from the time reflected the hardened attitudes. One poll published by the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant two weeks after 9/11 found that 62 percent of Dutch people believed that any Muslims who supported the attacks should be expelled from the Netherlands; 62 percent thought the integration of Muslims would be more difficult following the attacks; and 66 percent wanted to see the introduction of a requirement to carry identification papers at all times. At this point, anti-immigration views became virtually synonymous with anti-Muslim views.

Against that backdrop, the November 2004 murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was seen as the final nail in the coffin of the Dutch liberal dream. His killer was a 26-year-old Dutch-born man whose parents had moved to the Netherlands from Morocco. He had become inducted into Takfir wal-Hijra, a radical Islamist group, and left behind a suicide note with a poem indicating his intension to die as a martyr.

Van Gogh, who was murdered while cycling in Amsterdam, had recently co-produced a short film with Somali-born writer and former Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who many have criticized for stoking anti-Muslim sentiment and deriding Islamic practices. The film featured naked women with verses from the Quran painted on their bodies. The letter Van Gogh’s murderer left behind also threatened to kill Hirsi Ali, who later emigrated to the United States.

After 9/11, mosques were vandalized and set on fire, and received bomb threats; Muslims reported numerous instances of hate speech and physical aggressions.

Hours after Van Gogh’s murder, then-Immigration Minister Rita Verdonk addressed more than 10,000 people who had gathered before the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, and announced that Dutch tolerance had stopped in its tracks and would go no further. Over the coming year, anti-Muslim hostility rose.

Van Gogh’s murder helped to sustain the anti-Muslim wave that began after 9/11 and gained steam with Fortuyn’s rise. Dutch opinion polls in 2006, for example, showed “more than 40 percent of the Dutch want only someone of Dutch origin as a teacher for their child, more than 60 percent thinks that Islam is incompatible with modern life in Europe, half are afraid of the influence of Muslims, and one third openly admits to having become more racist in recent years.”

Tightening of Immigration Policy

In 2007, amid increasing xenophobia and heated anti-Muslim sentiment, Verdonk introduced an obligatory “inburgering,” or integration, test that any non-European Union and non-Western immigrant coming to the Netherlands had to pass before gaining entry. The test, which was also made mandatory for many non-EU, non-Western people who had already been living in the Netherlands, assesses an individual’s competency with the Dutch language, but also with Dutch cultural norms.

The concept of “inburgering” was actually conceived in 1995 as a way to help, if not push, immigrants to better integrate as members of Dutch society. The idea was for municipalities to provide services for immigrants, including language courses, labor orientation and counseling.

A flag reads ‘Islamists Not Welcome’ as mounted riot police separate demonstrators during a rally against Islamization, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Feb. 6, 2016 (AP photo by Peter Dejong).

But the exam introduced 12 years later, and which remains in place today, was very controversial. Some questions were immediately flagged as overly vague and obscure—for instance, “What do you do with the fat after making French fries?” Others stressed Dutch values and policy toward homosexuality that are not compatible with traditional interpretations of Islam—such as, “What do you do if see two men kissing on the street?”

Government-funded classes were introduced to help people prepare for the integration test, but in 2013, tuitions were imposed, ranging from about $330 to $5,500. There is also a fee of about $380 to take the exam. Failing the test can mean the loss of a residency permit.

The exam and other new policies introduced since 2007—including restrictions on immigration for family reunification and the removal of a prohibition against the expulsion of immigrants who have resided in the country for 20 years or more—appear to aim to restrict immigration, rather than encourage and support newcomers to integrate successfully. In 2015, the EU-sponsored Migrant Integration Policy Index, which reports on shifts to more restrictive immigration policy in 38 different countries, dropped the Netherlands to 11th place, down from fifth just five years earlier. New immigration measures, critics argue, only serve to further isolate the Muslim population of the Netherlands, increasing the threat of radicalization.

The Multicultural Drama

In 2000, Paul Scheffer, a professor of European studies and member of the social-democratic Labour Party, published an essay called “The Multicultural Drama”—sometimes translated as “The Multicultural Disaster.” In it, Scheffer argued that the Netherlands had never actually been a multicultural society, in the sense of embracing its immigrant communities, but merely one that was indifferent to them. An overly generous welfare system, he wrote, and a policy that failed to adequately promote the Dutch language and define the Dutch culture had led to a situation where immigrants’ identities—particularly those of Muslims—were allowed to remain separate from and even privileged over Dutch values.

That in turn created a subclass of unemployed and culturally nonintegrated immigrants, predominantly Muslims, in the country’s largest cities, where most of the non-Western population lives. And because integration policy continues to put the onus of “belonging” on the immigrants themselves, segregation has often been the result.

New immigration measures, critics argue, only serve to further isolate the Muslim population of the Netherlands, increasing the threat of radicalization.

The Dutch school system reflects this trend. The system gives all parents the right to choose what type of school their children attend, with the options ranging from Catholic, Protestant and Muslim parochial schools, to schools that emphasize a particular pedagogical style, such as Montessori. Apart from a small token tuition fee, all education is state-funded. This system gives parents a wide range of options, but it has also led to a degree of school segregation.

In the Netherlands, schools are commonly referred to as “black” or “white,” depending on the percentage of non-Western students that attend them. The terms, though not official, are widely used in press reporting and elsewhere. A school is considered “black” if 60 percent or more of its students are ethnic minorities and have immigrant backgrounds. White parents are less likely to send their children to so-called black schools, of which there are approximately 500 in the country, widening the gap between immigrant children and the general Dutch population.

A school’s ethnic representation does not necessarily reflect the demographics of the neighborhood where it is located. Some black schools exist in very ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Though the result of parental choice and not government policy, the de facto segregation has at times been the cause of tension. In May 2015, elementary school students of primarily Turkish and Moroccan descent from two such schools in ethnically mixed Amsterdam staged a protest wearing white t-shirts with the slogan, “Is this white enough for you?” The back of the shirts read, “Integration is every child’s right.”

In other important ways, including the language, Dutch identity is based more on ethnicity than on citizenship. The term referring to people of non-Dutch ethnicity, “allochtonen,” is often used to refer to third- and even fourth-generation citizens of migrant backgrounds, begging the question: At what point does someone become Dutch?

The question of who can be Dutch has in turn led to arguments about who can criticize Dutch traditions. One of the most heated examples of this phenomenon is the Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, tradition, which involves people dressing up as “Saint Nicholas’ helpers” by donning blackface makeup for a period of approximately three weeks leading up to Dec. 5—the feast day of Saint Nicholas—each year.

Because integration policy continues to put the onus of “belonging” on the immigrants themselves, segregation has often been the result.

The practice has become increasingly controversial over the years and has generated protest from minority groups. The United Nations has characterized the practice as racist and recommended banning it, but the majority of Dutch still support the tradition, and each year many continue to participate in it. However, attitudes are changing: A 2016 poll found that 21 percent of Dutch people believe the Zwarte Piet tradition should change, up from 10 percent in 2013.

The refusal to take these concerns to heart is in part due to the way some Dutch interpret racism, arguing that if no harm is intended, an act cannot be considered offensive. This was the overwhelming response in July, when an anti-racism group appealed to a well-known theme park in the Netherlands to get rid of amusement rides they found offensive. The main complaint was over Monsieur Cannibale, a ride that had also caught the attention of journalist Gisela Williams when she reviewed the theme park for the Wall Street Journal in 2014. She described Monsieur Cannibale as “an enormous figure [wearing] a chef’s hat on his head and a spoon through his nostrils—a racist throwback to the days of the Dutch East India Company that made for more explaining.” She summed up the park as “a meticulously landscaped European park from the past” with an “unpleasant” side: the way “dark-skinned people were depicted.”

The public response was largely to dismiss the criticisms, with Wilders telling the Dutch press that protesters should “stop with the silliness” and insisting the rides had nothing to do with racism.

Wilders’ Ascent

It is in this post-9/11, post-multicultural-minded Netherlands that Wilders has found his foothold. Wilders joined the national parliament in 1998 as a VVD member, but kept a low profile for his first four years. In 2002, he was appointed public spokesman of the conservative VVD—now led by Rutte—of which he had been a member since 1989.

In this role, Wilders had a more public platform from which to broadcast his criticism of Islamic extremism and, accordingly, of Muslims. In 2004, he told the Associated Press that the Netherlands had democratic norms and values. “If you choose radical Islam you can leave,” he added, “and if you don’t leave voluntarily then we will send you away. This is the only message possible.” He was further to the right than most other VVD members, and eventually left the party to form Groep Wilders in 2004, which he later renamed the Party for Freedom.

Initially, Wilders’ ideas about banning mosques and his comparison of the Quran to Mein Kampf were received as the declarations of a crazy xenophobe. But he has since steadily gained public support.

The terrorist attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 increased Wilders’ appeal to his core supporters, many of whom believe he saw the growing danger of Islam ahead of other politicians. The PVV rose sharply in the polls in the attack’s aftermath, with Wilders continuing to gain popularity. Today Wilders is considered not a raving lunatic, but a populist—among the many on the rise in Europe and globally.

Immediately after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Wilders went on the offensive. He called for closing the Dutch borders, reinstating border controls, doing away with political correctness, and banning immigration from Muslim countries. To put free speech to the test, six months after the attacks, Wilders took advantage of a three-minute television time slot reserved for political parties to provoke Muslims by broadcasting caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad, while declaring that freedom should always win over violence and terror.

Following the synchronized terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, Wilders tweeted that “this is war.” Rutte rebuked him, characterizing the threat not as a war, but rather as a “struggle with extremists who are using a belief as an excuse for attacks.”

Yet public opinion supported Wilders. A poll taken in January 2015 indicated that if the elections had been held at the time, the PVV would have been the biggest party in parliament, with 31 seats—nearly twice what it held in 2012.

Today Wilders is considered not a raving lunatic, but a populist—among the many on the rise in Europe and globally.

In July 2016, Wilders spoke as an invited guest at an event during the U.S. Republican Party Convention, where he expressed confidence about his chances of becoming the Netherlands’ next prime minister. Wilders appears to have good reason to believe his chances for victory in 2017 are strong. In August, he released his campaign manifesto on Twitter and Facebook, outlining his priorities for the upcoming election, including closing asylum centers, mosques and Islamic schools, and banning the Quran—a move that caused him to surge in polls, once again putting him in the lead.

More recent polling suggests Wilders is unlikely to become prime minister if the PVV is unable to form a functioning coalition with another party. Nevertheless, Wilders still wields enormous power to drive the Dutch conversation about Europe, immigration and Islam farther to the right. In many ways, in fact, he has already done so.

Take Rutte’s VVD, for example. According to its website, the party aims to “further the free intellectual and social development of each individual, without making distinctions according to religious or ideological conviction, nationality, sex, race, colour of skin or language. Central to its beliefs is freedom of choice for everyone.”

Yet Rutte has said that immigration could lead to Europe’s decline, albeit in less provocative terms than Wilders. He has hinted that the EU’s Schengen agreement guaranteeing open internal borders should be re-examined to stop the unchecked movement of migrants across Europe. And the refugee crisis, combined with demands from Brussels regarding mandatory settlement of asylum-seekers, has pushed Rutte to say that the Netherlands cannot cope with the influx of people entering the country. “We need to get a grip on this,” he said in January.

And still the immigrant population of the Netherlands continues to grow. In 2015, 203,000 new immigrants—including approximately 21,000 Syrians, 3,000 Eritreans and 2,000 Ethiopians—registered with Dutch municipalities, an increase of 20,000 from 2014. Statistics Netherlands expects further increases in 2016.

The refugee crisis, and how it has played into heightened security concerns in Europe, has also influenced Rutte’s rhetoric on integration. After the Paris attacks of November 2015, Rutte rejected any “compromise” when it comes to asylum-seekers in the Netherlands conforming to the Dutch way of life, adding that the Dutch will not “adjust our norms and values. They have to make the adjustment. We are Western Europe. We are civilized.”

Looking Ahead

After years of relative political stability and a commitment to making immigration work, the Netherlands has taken a sharper turn to the right over the past 15 years. Today, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment and a growing feeling of euroskepticism have become central to the national political debate.

Wilders appears to have good reason to believe his chances for victory in 2017 are strong.

While some argue the country has gone from a glowing beacon of multiculturalism to a prime example of its failure, it seems more likely that the Netherlands was never as multicultural as it, or the outside world, believed it to be. With different groups of people living together but separately, the Netherlands was perhaps never tolerant of other cultures, but indifferent to them. Now, recent evolutions make the situation impossible to ignore.

The country, with its long tradition of cohesiveness, is now facing profound divisions. As many Muslims in the Netherlands and across Europe feel growing hostility, their communities have become further isolated, and fundamentalism is on the rise. Approximately 220 Dutch citizens or residents have fled to Syria and Iraq to join the so-called Islamic State. Islamic extremism, according to the Netherlands’ General Intelligence and Security Service, has risen from “virtually invisible” to prevalent, with numbers of sympathizers growing into the thousands. And as immigration continues, many Dutch are voicing growing resentment toward the EU.

Yet Rutte remains pro-EU, declaring that the member states can best succeed when they act in concert. The Netherlands has historically favored the EU, and was among its six original members. The purpose of the EU, Rutte says, is to “tackle issues and seize opportunities that transcend national borders; issues and opportunities that are too big to tackle alone.”

But euroskepticism is undoubtedly growing in the Netherlands and creating more space for Wilders. Immediately after the Brexit vote, he demanded a similar EU exit vote for the Netherlands. In an April referendum, Dutch voters overwhelmingly rejected a Ukraine-EU association agreement to establish closer political, economic and defense ties. Rutte’s government, and all other EU members, had already approved the deal. Although turnout was low, the vote reflected changing Dutch attitudes toward the EU; Wilders called the outcome “the beginning of the end” for Rutte and the EU as it is currently configured. The Dutch parliament nevertheless ended up voting to approve the association agreement, despite voter opposition to the deal.

The issue of immigration in the Netherlands has exposed other feelings of insecurity among the ethnically Dutch, who fear radical Islam and the loss of sovereignty, either at the hands of Brussels or of new citizens and asylum-seekers who want to be treated as equals while preserving their own cultures.

Flags of the Dutch EU presidency and campaign posters for a non-binding referendum on the EU-Ukraine association hang in The Hague, Netherlands, April 6, 2016 (AP photo by Peter Dejong).

Today, the debate over integration and multiculturalism is politicized and has become almost impossible to divorce from discussions of Wilders’ rise and the 2017 elections. However, the questions of how different cultures and ethnicities can truly live together, and what aspects of “Dutchness” all citizens can share, will outlast the election, and must be addressed in the long term.

In the meantime, the road to 2017 and beyond is a complex one. The populist, anti-immigration, anti-EU candidate could well earn the biggest number of seats in parliament, but find himself unable to form a functional government, reflecting the growing divide between what a sizable portion of the public wants and what major Dutch parties are willing to tolerate. With increasing popular support for Wilders and hints that he will not accept being ignored by his parliamentary peers, the traditional cooperation among establishment parties may no longer be a viable solution. Wilders has also said a coalition with VVD, led by Rutte, is unlikely to form, as the two men have been at odds for many years.

Throughout Dutch parliamentary history, political leaders managed to maintain the peaceful coexistence of a divided population through a policy of consensus and cooperation. One party has never had complete political control, and that lack of hegemony is perhaps the best chance for staving off the challenge Wilders represents. For he would almost certainly need such a monopoly on power to make his manifesto a reality.

Tracy Brown Hamilton is an Irish-American journalist living in the Netherlands. She has written about politics, education and social issues for The Atlantic and The Irish Times, among other publications.

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