Since Donald Trump’s improbable victory in the US presidential race, one question has dominated the build-up to the Dutch general election on March 15: can Geert Wilders surf the wave of populism sweeping in across the Atlantic to become prime minister of the Netherlands? Wilders’s right-wing, Islam-bashing Freedom Party (PVV) has been the front runner in the polls for most of the last 15 months and drawn clear of the pack since November, prompting many commentators to make Wilders the favourite to take over from Mark Rutte. However, much of the analysis has ignored the peculiarities of Dutch elections, which puts a number of high hurdles in Wilders’s path even if he tops the poll.
The lower house of the Dutch Parliament has 150 members elected by a pure proportional representation system, with no threshold. Anyone who secures 0.67% of the total vote across the country gets a seat. In practice, it’s impossible for any one party to get anywhere near securing a majority, and coalitions of three or four groups are not uncommon. The last election in 2012 was unusual in that the two largest parties, Rutte’s Liberals (VVD) and Labour (PvdA), formed a ‘grand coalition’ which still only had just enough members (79) to get its legislative programme through the house. What’s even more unusual is that the cabinet stayed the course – the first to do so since 2002, though Labour in particular looks set to pay a heavy price in March.
Another major obstacle is the accelerating fragmentation of Dutch politics. The 150 MPs elected in 2012 represented 11 different parties. That number has since swollen to 17 as a result of further splintering: an oddity of the system is that although MPs are selected from party lists, once sworn in their seats belong to them, so there is nothing to stop them defecting to another party or setting up their own. The PVV itself has shrunk from 15 members to 12 since the election after two of Wilders’s colleagues broke away to form a rival party (Voor Nederland) and another resigned to become an independent MP.
Finally, there is the fact that several potential coalition partners have, either explicitly or effectively, ruled out working with the PVV. Rutte has said several times that the VVD will not do any deals as long as Wilders refuses to withdraw his infamous “fewer Moroccans” comments, which earned him a criminal conviction. But Wilders’s response – a vitriolic denouncement of the “raving mad” judges who convicted him of inciting discrimination and the wider political establishment, Rutte included – suggests that an apology will be a long time coming. Moreover, the bitter fall-out from Rutte’s first government, which collapsed when Wilders refused to sign up to a budget cuts package, appears to have destroyed any trust that might have existed between the two men. On the other hand, Wilders seems unlikely to find much common ground with the parties on the left: the populist Socialist Party (whose leader, Emile Roemer, has called Wilders a ‘radicalised Liberal’), the progressive liberal D66 group (too elitist), GreenLeft (Wilders has a Trump-like hatred of wind farms) or Labour (the embodiment of the ‘old left’ and routinely condemned by the PVV’s Twitter reaction force as ‘traitors’). Those groups are likely to claim around 50-60 parliamentary seats between them, even if Labour’s cohort shrinks to 10 MPs.
So first of all Wilders needs not just to win, but to win big – more than the 30 to 35 seats that the latest polls predict. Something between 35 seats and the ceiling of 40 would be needed to give him any chance of a working coalition. The question then becomes the prevailing one in Dutch politics: how far is Wilders prepared to compromise his policy platform for the sake of forming a government? On the face of it his hardline, emotionally charged rhetoric is incompatible with the contortions and whispered promises that characterise Dutch political horse trading – in that sense Wilders isn’t really a Dutch politician at all, but a tub-thumping American-style demagogue catapulted onto the European scene.
If Wilders is astute, he’ll put off the difficult work and start by by reeling in the parties that will demand the smallest concessions. The 50Plus group, which represents the interests of pensioners and those approaching retirement age, is set to become one of the success stories of the election and could well pick up around 10 seats. Wilders has already embraced its core aim of bringing the retirement age back down to 65 (at the moment it’s being gradually extended to 67), and 50Plus voters are not particularly agitated about his views on migrants. So if both PVV and 50Plus poll strongly, a visit to Henk Krol’s office seems a logical first step. Next he might look to the Animal Rights Party (PvdD) – unlikely as it may seem, Marianne Thieme’s group is projected to win four seats and could scrape a fifth. The VNL group, which split from the PVV, could also claim one or two MPs and Wilders could probably offer the orthodox Protestant SGP, which typically wins two or three seats, enough sweeteners to bring them into the fold. Even better would be some kind of pact with the ChristenUnie (CU), which could win six to eight seats, but Gert-Jan Segers is likely to demand some tougher concessions.
Depending on the electoral arithmetic, this kind of ‘minor coalition’ could give Wilders a basis of between 55 and 60 seats, which will probably mean he needs one major party to hit the target figure of 76. But this is where things get tricky. Rutte has drawn a line in the sand on Wilders’s comments about Moroccans, but it is unthinkable that Wilders will cross it when his recent surge in popularity is, at least in part, a hardening of support in response to his court conviction. If the VVD wants to do business with Wilders it will almost certainly mean Rutte stepping aside as leader, as Wilders has repeatedly demanded. But other leading party figures are equally sceptical, such as Parliamentary group leader Halbe Zijlstra, who has accused Wilders of ‘outflanking the Socialists on the left‘ with his public spending plans.
If the Liberals can’t be brought to the table, that leaves the Christian Democrats (CDA) as the only viable alternative. But the CDA, as the junior partner in Rutte’s first government, has few fond memories the experience of working with the PVV. Wilders had agreed to support the minority centre-right coalition in return for guarantees in policy areas such as immigration, but the burden of honouring those pledges fell mainly on the CDA. One of its most experienced political operators, Gerd Leers, was appointed minister for immigration, integration and asylum, a portfolio created specifically to keep Wilders sweet. Leers was bruised by the experience, the CDA’s rural conservative membership trembled with indignation, and at the 2012 election the party which had so long been the dominant force in Dutch politics was reduced to a rump of 13 members. Its current leader, Sybrand Buma, will not want to risk a repeat performance.
In short, the person most likely to scupper Geert Wilders’s chances of becoming prime minister of the Netherlands is Geert Wilders. His longstanding contempt for the political process means he has to perform a difficult juggling act: how does he secure the co-operation of his colleagues while maintaining credibility among his supporters? At the back of his mind will surely be the nagging thought that 2017 may be his best chance to get his hands on the levers of power – and if he fluffs it, his only one. But he will only achieve it if he is prepared to do the one thing that his political career to date has been a living repudiation of: compromise.