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20th Apr 2018

Focus

Autocratic Wilders preaches against 'undemocratic' EU

Although he has never held a position in government, Geert Wilders is probably more famous in Europe than his Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

And his plans to cooperate with other eurosceptic rightist politicians such as France's Marine Le Pen after the May EU elections, mean his fame – or notoriety, depending on your stance – in Europe is set to increase.

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His political longevity – he has been involved in Dutch politics for almost a quarter of a century – has meant he and his Freedom Party (PVV) have been the subject of several books and countless newspaper articles.

Wilders has “an enormous passion for parliamentary politics”, notes Koen Vossen in a well-written book about the right-wing politician.

Above all else, Wilders loves parliamentary debate, which takes place within a square kilometre of The Hague known as the Binnenhof. “Neither in the cabinet, the Senate nor the House of Representatives will you find a politician who has worked in the Binnenhof as long as the leader of the PVV”, writes Vossen.

Wilders became a parliamentary assistant for the centre-right Liberal party in 1990 at the age of 26. He worked hard and was rewarded in 1998 with a place on the Liberal list. He was subsequently elected to Dutch parliament.

He was more right-wing than most of his colleagues in the party, which since 1994 had been in coalition with its erstwhile rivals – the centre-left Labour party and liberal-democratic D66.

In his biography of Wilders, Meindert Fennema notes that the coalition pulled the Liberals closer to the political centre. Wilders, meanwhile, warned that there was an increasing electoral gap to the right of the Liberals, but one that was not being heard by political leaders.

The 2002 national elections proved Wilders' analysis to be correct. That year the electorate awarded 26 of parliament's 150 seats to the LPF, the party of the populist Pim Fortuyn, who was shot nine days before the elections.

The Liberals lost 14 seats in that election; one of them was Wilders'. But after a few months he returned to parliament as some MPs became ministers when the Liberals entered a right-wing government with the LPF and the Christian Democrat party of prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

Wilders left the Liberal party in 2004 after several disagreements, including whether Turkey could ever be a member of the European Union. That question combines the two political issues that he has become most famous for: his strong anti-islamic views and his euroscepticism.

A decade of police protection

Vossen points out that Wilders’ held his views on Islam before 2001, but that they became more radical after the Al Qaeda attacks on 11 September. In 2004, Wilders’ battle against Islam became personal. He had received death threats because of his views before, but the danger became very real when a Muslim extremist killed Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh in November that year.

To understand Wilders, it is important to take into account that he is now in his tenth year of living under permanent police protection. “There were even security personnel present at his father's funeral in 2005,” writes Vossen.

In 2005, Wilders was one of a minority of MPs that campaigned against the ratification of the European constitution. The Netherlands was set to become “a province in Europe”, Wilders warned.

The hyperbole would become his trademark, writes Fennema.

In a referendum, 61.6 percent of Dutch voters rejected the constitution. It was a boost for Wilders' confidence, although there were other parties that also campaigned against the constitution.

A year later, Wilders' newly-founded Party for Freedom (PVV) gained nine seats in the national parliament. He tried to vet his new colleagues thoroughly, mindful of the fact that the previous right-wing party that received sudden success, the LPF, had imploded because of in-fighting.

“It is extremely important to prevent the mistakes LPF made,” Wilders wrote in a pamphlet/autobiography published in 2005.

However, the Party for Freedom grew fast. In 2009, it gained four of the Netherlands' then 25 seats in the European Parliament. And the following year it won 24 of the 150 seats in the national parliament.

That election victory brought the party political influence.

Copying a model used in Denmark from 2001 to 2011, the PVV provided the right-wing minority government of Mark Rutte with the necessary support in parliament.

And his party’s influence extended further than might be expected of an unofficial coalition partner. A recent investigation by the Dutch newspaper, De Volkskrant, concluded that Wilders was involved in the day-to-day running of the government.

However, with the larger number of PVV representatives also came an increased chance of 'bad apples'. Journalists revealed that one of the new members had threatened his neighbours and had urinated in their mailbox. Another PVV member of parliament was revealed to have lied about his resumé, a third was found to have been drunk driving.

Just one member

The PVV is different from other political parties in the Netherlands because officially, it has only one member; Wilders himself. PVV members of parliament are delegates of the party but are not members of it. Criticism of this structure has mostly come from former MPs, two of whom wrote books about their experience, so they can hardly be read as objective.

Jhim van Bhemmel’s book, in particular, is full of rancour. Perhaps his qualification of Wilders as “fearful, suspicious, mistrustful and at the same time dictatorial” could be accurate, but the aggrieved tone of the book – Van Bhemmel at one point complains that his birthday was not mentioned in the minutes – makes it difficult to take seriously.

Former MP Marcial Hernandez also wrote a book after leaving the PVV. While this too contains opinions that seem to derive from personal feuds, it does provide an interesting analysis. Hernandez believes that because Wilders has been trying to prevent “LPF-like” situations by deciding everything on his own, he actually creates unrest within the party.

The numerous internal conflicts, also at the provincial and local levels, make it hard to view them as just isolated incidents, remarks Vossen. He notes that 21 PVV representatives – 14 percent – have left the party following a conflict.

But that’s not counting Louis Bontes, who was forced to quit the PVV in October last year. His departure followed an interview in NRC Handelsblad in which he criticized the undemocratic structure of the party.

“In the end, Geert decides everything”, said Bontes. “People are afraid to say what they think, because they are dependent on one man,” he added of his former fellow party MPs.

Wilders has not ruled out “opening up” the PVV to more members than himself, and has accepted a debate on the option as a “legitimate discussion”. However, he has so far neglected to say when this will happen.

Of course, it would be fodder for additional criticism if Wilders never 'democratised' his party, particularly as it is now heading the polls for the May EU election. In an article published in The Wall Street Journal late last year, Wilders rejected the “the supranational experiment of the European Union” because it is too undemocratic.

Books: Rondom Wilders: Portret van de PVV (2013) by Koen Vossen, Wilders' Ring van Discipelen: Angst en wantrouwen als bouwstenen van een politieke partij (2012) by Jhim van Bhemmel Geert Wilders Ontmaskerd: van messias tot politieke klaploper (2012) by Marcial Hernandez, Geert Wilders, tovenaarsleerling (2010), by Meindert Fennema, Kies voor Vrijheid (2005) by Geert Wilders

Dutch election: EU's most unpredictable vote

Polls suggest that four or five parties will be needed to form a majority after the 15 March vote. The shrunk size of the establishment parties means that smaller parties may play a role of kingmaker.

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