We might have hoped we could wait until the third week of September, when Parliament reconvenes, for the grim business of the Dutch election campaign to begin. But Geert Wilders is not a man to run to anybody else’s timetable, and so on Thursday evening he presented, through the mediums of Facebook and Twitter, a draft version of his manifesto for next March. If the opening gambit is any guide, it promises to be an ugly contest, tinged with the kind of desperate dog-whistling not seen since the Netherlands eradicated rabies. Asked to put his manifesto pledges in context, Wilders retorted: “The context is 1400 years of jihad.” On the face of it this seems an odd pretext for cutting vehicle duty by 50%, but Geert, like God, tends to move in mysterious ways.
The main themes of Wilders’s campaign are the well-worn hobby-horses of immigration, immigration and immigration, as well as a pledge to leave the EU. Wilders reaffirmed his core belief in the need to ‘de-islamise’ the Netherlands by refusing all new asylum seekers as well as anyone whose application is still in progress. This will come as an unpleasant shock to the many millions of non-Muslims who are currently fleeing the swords and Kalashnikovs of Islamic State. More insidious is the plan to shut all mosques and Islamic schools, ban the Koran and outlaw ‘expressions of Islam that interfere with public order’ – in essence, putting the presumption of guilt on Muslims for any incidents they get caught up in. Wilders may protest that he does not endorse violence against Muslims, but such measures would do much to facilitate it.
The rest of the manifesto is a list of tax cuts and spending pledges that reflect the awkward balancing act Wilders has to perform to satisfy both low-income voters and tax-busting fiscal conservatives. Possibly the one truly radical measure is the abolition of the excess charge on health insurance, which has risen steeply in the last five years, at an estimated cost of €3.7bn. This outflanks even the 50Plus party, which has only pledged to bring the cost down to €200 a year. Wilders’ other sweetener for older voters is a proposal to bring the retirement age back down to 65 – matching 50Plus and cancelling the plan to raise the age to 67 which Wilders himself endorsed during Mark Rutte’s first term of office. Wilders’s plan to index-link the supplementary pension contribution brings the total outlay on pensions to €3.5bn. Reversing budget cuts in the care sector, especially care in the home, will cost €2bn. And another €1bn Wilders will go on reducing rent levels, though there is no detail whatsoever on how this might be achieved in an increasingly fragmented housing market.
But a policy programme focused solely on giving money to the poor, the sick and the elderly would raise the hackles of the libertarian right, so Wilders matches his social spending commitments with tax cuts: a 50% reduction in vehicle duty and an unspecified cut to income tax, at a total cost of €5bn. Wilders also earmarks an extra €2bn for spending on policing and defence. We must wait and see if this includes a revival of the animal protection squad, one of the few PVV policies that came close to fruition during Rutte’s first cabinet, defying seemingly insurmountable ridicule, and which was given a swift mercy shot when Wilders pulled the plug on the government in 2012.
Other party leaders have dismissed the PVV’s programme as an unworkable wish-list, but this misses the point. The really dubious claims lie not in the spending plans, but the savings Wilders would make to finance them. He believes his ‘de-islamisation’ programme would save €7.2 bn a year, largely through the closure of asylum centres and mosques, but the consequences of criminalising the behaviour of Muslims and removing their social support structures are not accounted for. Wilders also asserts he can save €10bn by cutting funding for public service broadcasting, innovation, the arts, overseas development, wind energy, ‘and so forth’. It is a puzzling piecemeal blacklist with no obvious common thread other than the fact that Wilders has denounced all of them at various times as ‘leftist hobbyists’ or subsidy-swallowing sinkholes. Pulling funding for innovation, combined with quitting the European Union and turning its extensive investment in research and development, would be a catastrophic setback for the kind of cutting-edge engineering projects in which the Netherlands has consistently punched above its weight for the last 70 years. Even if Wilders succeeds in reclaiming €10bn in subsidies, the long-term cost of this economic self-laceration is incalculable. Similarly, in a country whose chief geographical features are a shortage of land and access to a large area of open sea, abandoning wind power makes as much sense as cutting out one of your own lungs.
The Volkskrant has observed that next year’s election is likely to be a battle for the hearts of ‘hard-hit older voters’. The Wilders plan indicates, at any rate, where he thinks his votes will come from. Around 10% of the electorate has probably made up its mind to vote for the PVV on the basis of Wilders’s vocal stance on Islam. People who see little or nothing wrong in standing on a political platform and whipping up a crowd into chanting ‘fewer Muslims’ with gusto are unlikely to vote for anyone else; the main challenge is reminding them to get out and vote at all. But to sustain his position at the top of the opinion polls Wilders needs to secure the approval of the next 10%, the more conservative voters who tend to drift away from the PVV as elections draw closer. So it makes sense for Wilders to concentrate his efforts on people in the second half of their careers, who may be in fairly secure jobs with a reasonable income, but have little saved up and are anxious about their retirement. His target voters resent paying hefty tranches of their income to the government in income tax and the cost of keeping a car. In particular they worry about their pensions going down while the cost of managing their declining health goes up. The freedom to move around in the European Union no longer forms part of their future, if it ever did, and so they see its open borders only in terms of inward-bound threats rather than outbound opportunities. Crucially, they have seen the country change immensely since the 1970s, but feel excluded from both this process and its benefits. Immigrants, as the most visible manifestation of these changes, have become the focus of this resentment. It is not a wholly irrational thought pattern, but to stake the future of your country on a nostalgic desire to turn the clock back 40 years, as Wilders does, is wilfully delusional and self-destructive.