Shockwaves from the Netherlands

, by Catherine de Vries, Professor of Political Science and Dean for International Affairs
Election victory for Party for Freedom fits into a wider picture of European radical right populism

The results of the Dutch election, in which Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom emerged as victors, have sent shockwaves through the political establishment.

For the first time in Dutch history, a party of the extreme right is the largest in the national parliament. Wilders is an eccentric politician known for his inflammatory rhetoric. He advocates the Netherlands leaving the European Union and has called Islam a "fascist" religion. In a 2016 trial, he was found guilty of inciting discrimination (but received no penalty for the crime).

While polling leading up to the election had suggested that Party for Freedom could become the largest party, it had appeared to be running practically neck and neck with the parties of the mainstream left and right. But the polls were wide of the mark and Wilders ended up taking the most seats by a comfortable margin, even if he will need to seek coalition partners to form a government.

Rightwing newcomers the New Social Contract also did very well. Like Party for Freedom, this party sees immigration as one of the reasons for problems such as the Netherlands' congested public services and lack of affordable housing. However, Pieter Omtzigt, the New Social Contract's leader (and a former member of parliament for the more centre-right Christian Democratic Party), is critical of some of Wilders' more inflammatory rhetoric.

Omtzigt would nevertheless seem the most likely candidate to form a coalition with Wilders, together with the former party of the now-departed prime minister, Mark Rutte. But it will be some time before it's clear if such a partnership is achievable. Coalition in the Netherlands is the work of months rather than weeks.

These talks will be all the more complex thanks to Wilders' personal profile. He may hold the greatest number of seats, but the controversy that has surrounded him for so many years may yet rule him out of the role of prime minister, even were he to be part of a governing coalition.

Should a coalition be formed, questions about the Netherlands' place in the EU will inevitably come to the fore. Wilders wants a Brexit-style referendum and, even if this doesn't materialise, we can expect him to bring a more Eurosceptic stance to any government in which he participates.

This could have considerable consequences for the EU. Even when extreme-right parties in Europe differ on the question of exit, they agree on transforming the EU into a more intergovernmental body, taking power away from Brussels.

Wilders will be conscious of how the Italian elections played out last year for Italy's prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, with whom he shares a certain ideological affinity. Meloni's radical-right Brothers of Italy emerged as the strongest force in the 2022 vote and formed a coalition with other parties of the right and hard right.

Like Wilders, Meloni was seen as a political outsider and has long put immigration at the heart of political debate. But since coming to power, her strong anti-immigration rhetoric has had to be simmered down. She was quickly confronted with calls from the business community to address Italy's labour shortage, which meant granting permits for migrant workers.

In my book Political Entrepreneurs, co-authored with Sara Hobolt from the London School of Economics, we show that governing changes political parties. It is relatively easy to gripe from the sidelines but in government, parties bear responsibility for policy. They have to make decisions, weigh up interests – and can only spend money once. Meloni, like the leaders of so many other populist parties, quickly lost her sharp edge once she became the person in charge.

Most notably for Wilders, the Brothers of Italy had also campaigned with a Eurosceptic tone during the election, but can now be found walking in lockstep with Brussels even on matters relating to immigration. Meloni has even made a show of her closeness with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

That said, the Italian experience also offers another example that Wilders may find appealing. In our research, we've found that parties that have become popular by opposing existing politics sometimes prefer to keep one foot in the government and one foot out. This is certainly the case for Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega party and a junior coalition partner to Meloni.

Salvini never misses an opportunity to boost his own profile, even if it causes his government difficulty. Only a junior coalition partner can get away with such antics, since a prime minister faces far more pressure. Wilders may therefore find it most convenient to follow Salvini's path rather than Meloni's.

Whichever route he takes, if Wilders becomes part of a government, the results of these elections are certain to have consequences for Dutch relations with the rest of Europe.The Conversation

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