As Dutch voters head to the polls Wednesday to elect members of their 150-member House of Representatives, they do so in an environment of perhaps unprecedented international attention. While many in the Netherlands pride themselves on their renowned tradition of tolerance, the country faces a rising tide of discontent and xenophobia, with the far right candidate Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) narrowly trailing the ruling conservative party in most polls. For many observers, Wednesday’s elections are a harbinger of how European electorates will respond to surging movements led by radical right, nationalist, and xenophobic politicians in 2017.
Wilders, whose PVV went from being a largely marginal (if well-known) presence in Dutch politics a little over a decade ago to being one of the front-runners in this election, has campaigned on a platform explicitly targeting immigrants and Muslims: the first point on his campaign platform promises to “de-Islamize the Netherlands.” His rhetoric during campaigns is even more extreme: at a 2014 rally, he asked a crowd whether they wanted more or fewer Moroccans in the country. When the crowd answered “Fewer!” Wilders promised to “take care of that.” While this exchange earned Wilders a conviction from a Dutch court for “inciting discrimination” last December, he received no fine or sentence, and the verdict has seemingly had little effect on his popularity.
Due to the Netherlands’ system of proportional representation and government by coalition, Wilders himself is unlikely to become Prime Minister or be able to form a coalition with other parties, even if his party receives a plurality of votes. While polling shows the traditional ruling parties (the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and the Conservatives) are likely to win substantially fewer seats than in years past, they will likely be able to piece together a governing coalition of five or six parties to exclude the PVV.
Regardless of whether Wilders joins the government, however, this election will be significant in terms of the future role of the Netherlands–and indeed Europe–in the world. The forces of dissatisfaction with the political elite and outright xenophobia that have fueled Wilders’ rise are not confined to the Netherlands; nor will they dissipate after the election.
The election in the Netherlands comes at a crucial time for Europe, occurring in the aftermath of last year’s Brexit vote and with the UK likely to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to begin its withdrawal from the EU imminently. How Wilders’ adamantly Eurosceptic PVV performs Wednesday will offer insight into the depth of dissatisfaction with the EU, and how a prospective Dutch exit from the EU might fare.
Furthermore, observers will be watching the outcome of the Dutch elections closely as a precursor to other elections across Europe this year where far right populist movements might play a large role. This is particularly the case in France, where a volatile campaign leading up to their Presidential election–whose second and decisive round occurs in less than two months–has propelled Wilders’ ally Marine le Pen and her Front National to the front of the polls in France.
If Wilders were to win a plurality but be excluded from governing, such an outcome would nonetheless be more than symbolically significant. While the outcome may ultimately change little in terms of who holds power in the Netherlands, Wednesday’s vote could nonetheless reveal a great deal about what 2017 holds in store for Europe.