If you’re not a fan of Geert Wilders – and it’s worth remembering that more than 80% of Dutch voters are not – then you’ll be cheered by the opinion polls of the last few weeks. Three polls in the week of Valentine’s Day suggested voters were falling out of love with the PVV, recording drops of between five and eight seats. On the aggregate poll compiled by Tom Louwerse Wilders’s projected lead is now a wafer-thin 0.3 percentage points, and narrowing. Until now his saving grace has been the inability of Mark Rutte’s Liberal party to make inroads, but in the last week the VVD has started to edge upwards and some polls now put it in the lead.
You might expect a potential prime minister on the brink of surrendering his advantage to come out fighting, particularly one who relishes the campaign trail as much as Wilders. If so, you would be disappointed. Foreign journalists who have begun piling into the Netherlands have been exasperated by the PVV leader’s unavailability, NRC’s veteran political commentator Tom-Jan Meeus reported last week. Their Dutch counterparts know that this is a routine feature of day-to-day life in The Hague, but his reclusiveness at election time is more puzzling. Wilders cancelled a planned walkabout in Volendam this weekend after it emerged that a member of his security detail had ties to Dutch Moroccan gangsters. But even before that development his diary was strikingly empty. He skipped the leaders’ radio debate on Friday afternoon and pulled out of the opening TV debate on RTL on Sunday, together with Rutte, in protest at the broadcaster’s decision to include five parties rather than four. Wilders was also absent from the first public debate in Groningen and will not take part in the regional TV debate on March 11. And last week he withdrew from another debate, in Amsterdam’s Carré theatre on March 5, after one of the organisers, RTL News, ran an interview with his brother.
Voters will now not see Wilders in action until two days before polling day, when he goes head to head with Rutte on March 13. While the PVV was enjoying a healthy lead in the polls it made sense to let his rivals throw as few punches as possible and focus his energies on Rutte, particularly as the media coverage was dominated by the question of how they would respond to a Wilders victory. Now that that scenario is looking doubtful he risks sacrificing the initiative. Dutch election campaigns are short and intensely media-driven; there is little of the ‘stump’ campaigning seen in countries like the UK or America. The debates matter. They can trigger seismic shifts in voting intention – witness the contrasting fortunes of Emile Roemer and Diederik Samsom last time around. Wilders will claim he is bypassing the mass media and speaking directly to the people via Twitter, in the style of Donald Trump, but it’s hard to rouse a crowd from an empty chair.
The PVV leader’s disdain for the mainstream media is at once a strength and a weakness. Nobody else is as adept at playing the social media game; newspapers and broadcasters regularly fall into the trap of mistaking Wilders’s Twitter musings for news. But one cannot fight an election with tweets alone. At the launch of Wilders’s campaign in Spijkenisse last weekend, the crowd of around 300 people was dominated by journalists, police and security personnel. Trump spent months staging gaudy, triumphalist rallies that drew thousands of flag-waving fans. In the Netherlands the country’s most popular leader was unable to marshal more than a few dozen supporters in a town that is supposed to be in his heartland.
On the face of it conditions have never been as ripe for a Geert Wilders victory. The election of Trump, the Brexit vote in the UK and the popularity of his ally Marine Le Pen in France have created a populist climate in which the PVV should thrive. The carnage in Syria has lengthened the shadow of his two favourite bogeymen, terrorists and refugees. Domestically, traditional Labour voters are punishing the party for engineering an economic recovery that has brought them no relief. The old are anxious about their pensions, the middle-aged about their jobs, the young about their debts. Identity politics has broken open the cosy consensus of Dutch politics like a Groningen gas drill, promoting mutual distrust and a myopic view of culture as a fragile object that needs protecting rather than a living thing to be shared and celebrated. And yet Wilders’s gains have been rootless and ephemeral. His support tends to fall away as election day nears, when voters are given the power to choose a government rather than merely a chance to vent their rage. Wilders has been posting diminishing returns for seven years now. This election may be his last chance to seize the initiative. Given how much is at stake, his passive-aggressive campaign strategy looks like a huge tactical gamble.
Trump’s rallies created a sense of momentum, a feeling that he was reaching out to people alienated by politics and making them feel they belonged to something. Despite being the most recognisable figure in Dutch politics for a decade and purporting to stand for ordinary people, Wilders has failed to build anything resembling a popular movement. His one-man party has no members, holds no public meetings and has a manifesto contained on a single page of A4. Compounding his problems is the fact that Wilders has a far smaller seam of disaffection to exploit. Turnout at Dutch elections is among the highest in the western world, with nearly 75% participating in 2012. Though inequality, insecurity and the impact of austerity are real concerns, no community in the Netherlands is anywhere like as desperate as America’s rust belt. Similarly, Trump’s off-the-cuff, out-of-the-box rhetoric was never going to play as well in a country with a culture of rigorous, informed debate. “Drain the swamp” has a different resonance in a country whose political infrastructure was literally established to drain swamps. Only a fool would write off Geert Wilders’s chances, but failure would be a historic missed opportunity.