The Netherlands’ racist Party for Freedom (PVV) has seen its poll rating slump and senior figures quit after party leader Geert Wilders was filmed leading anti-Moroccan chanting at a rally after last week’s local elections.
But the statistics from Dutch pollster Maurice De Hond still show the PVV’s support to be well ahead of its 2012 general election vote as the European elections in May draw closer.
The PVV stood in just two municipalities – The Hague and Almere – in Wednesday’s local elections, with Wilders’ strategy focused on the European vote in May.
It failed to take first place in The Hague, coming second with seven councillors. Its vote there fell slightly from 16.7% in the previous local poll to 15.4%. In Almere, a new town built in the 1970s, the PVV retained its place as the largest party with nine councillors, although with a marginally smaller vote.
But the local polls do not represent the PVVs’ true strength across the country. It came top of a national opinion poll on 16 March just before the municipal vote.
The poll, which shows voters’ intentions expressed as the number of seats each party would win in the Dutch parliament, put Wilders’ party on 27 seats, well ahead of the left-liberal Socialist Party on 23 seats.
During the election campaign, Wilders repeatedly suggested that the Netherlands would be better off with “fewer Moroccans”.
And in a post-election rally, the PVV leader was filmed asking his followers if they would like to see more Moroccans in the Netherlands or fewer. His audience chanted, “Minder, minder” – “Fewer, fewer”, to which Wilders responded, “We’ll organise that.”
After Wilders’ anti-Moroccan blast, a new poll on 23 March put the party on 22 seats, a substantial drop.
Inside the PVV, Wilders’ remarks – for which he has refused to apologise – provoked turmoil. Two PVV MPs, Joram van Klaveren and Roland van Vliet, resigned in response to Wilders’ attack on Moroccans. Laurence Stassen, leader of the PVV’s group of MEPs, also quit, along with eight of the nine councillors just elected in Almere.
Wilders is the poster boy of the international Islamophobic far right. Across Europe, racists have been inspired by the success of the PVV, whose platform has been nakedly based on anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant racism.
In 2010 when UKIP peer Lord Pearson invited Wilders to show the anti-Muslim film Fitna in Britain’s Houses of Parliament, the racist and fascist thugs of the English Defence League demonstrated outside in his support.
Wilders’ prominence as an anti-Muslim ideologue has made him a central figure for racists across Europe – and beyond. He has received funding from US far right Islamophobic organisations, including the Middle East Forum run by Daniel Pipes. David Horowitz, who runs a network right-wing groups in Los Angeles has also paid Wilders to speak in the US.
Wilders and the PVV have also targeted immigrants. In 2012 the party launched a “helpline” soliciting complaints about Eastern European migrants, asking, “Do you have problems with people from Central and Eastern Europe?”
But the attack on the Netherlands’ Moroccan minority, targeting a specific ethnic group, has been seen as a step too far even for many who consider anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant racism to be acceptable.
In 2011, the Netherlands courts cleared Wilders of hate speech, ruling that his targeting of a religion was allowed under free speech laws. There is no such legal cloak for Wilders’ latest outburst, which has prompted a backlash against him among the public.
It would be wrong to overstate Wilders’ fall, however.
The 22 Dutch parliamentary seats projected for the PVV in the latest poll is down from the high point projected a week ago. But it is still nearly 50% up on the 15 PVV MPs who were actually voted into office in the 2012 general election.
The new opinion poll also showed that nearly a quarter of the electorate (23%) thought Wilders’ call for “fewer” Moroccans in the Netherlands was acceptable.
Wilders’ ever more provocative statements give confidence to hardcore racists everywhere.
Before his anti-Moroccan tirade, Wilders gained in the polls this year as support has plummeted for the mainstream conservative VVD and social democratic PvdA parties, which are in a coalition government.
But it is important to note that the PVVs’ rise has come despite a recent significant shift further to the right.
The PVV is a racist, populist party. It does not have fascist roots, and Wilders himself was formerly a local councillor and MP for the VVD.
As leader of the PVV, Wilders had previously distanced himself from fascist organisations, including the Front National in France and the EDL’s street fighters, saying, “We’ll never join up with the fascists.”
But last year he broke new ground by doing exactly that, announcing a tie-up with the FN in a bid to create a new fascist and far-right bloc in Europe.
After meeting FN leader Marine Le Pen last year, Wilders announced, “We think the same about 90% of things, perhaps more. We also have a lot of points of agreement in terms of immigration.”
Now the fascist Vlaams Belang party in Belgium, formerly the Vlaams Blok, has seized on Wilders’ attack on the Moroccan minority. Wilders had been due to speak at the party’s conference in Antwerp this weekend but pulled out amid the Netherlands backlash.
But VB leader Filip Dewinter announced that if Wilders could not call for fewer Moroccans, “We should do it in his place.” The conference delegates then began to chant “Minder, minder”, echoing Wilders’ infamous rally.
Wilders and the PVV have also succeeded in pulling mainstream politics further towards the racist right.In Rotterdam, where the PVV did not stand in the local elections, the conservative VVD party put up posters declaring, “In Rotterdam, we speak Dutch,” – a clear attempt to attract a racist vote.
This shift towards the PVV’s racist arguments can only give succour to Wilders and his party.
It is not clear how far the backlash against Wilders will go, and how much the defection of leading figures will damage the PVV.
But at the moment, the PVV’s standing is still far higher than it was just two years ago. The prospect of Wilders and the PVV making gains in the European elections – despite stepping up their blatantly racist rhetoric – remains a threat.