The importance of not courting Wilders

Geert Wilders in Dutch parliament.
By Herman Staal and Derk Stokmans in The Hague

A number of parties have recently said they will refuse to share power with Geert Wilder's Party for Freedom. Why now?

Geert Wilders had his soundbite all ready: a "leftist cordon sanitaire" was in the making to keep his populist Party for Freedom (PVV) from power. These are loaded words because in using them he is linking his party to people like Pim Fortuyn, the populist politician who was murdered in 2002, Hans Janmaat, the leader of the small extreme-right Centrumpartij in the 1980s, and the Belgian anti-immigrant party Vlaams Belang. All of them have at some point been cordoned off by traditional political parties - with varying degrees of success.

The Labour party on Monday joined the ranks of parties that have ruled out entering into a coalition government with the PVV, which has an outspoken anti-Islam platform. The left-wing liberal party D66, the orthodox Christian party ChristenUnie and the left-wing Socialist Party did the same on Monday. This leaves very few possibilities for the PVV to translate a possible victory at the polls into a role in government.

But is it a cordon sanitaire? That implies that the PVV is systematically excluded from all political collaboration. And even though Wilders likes to pretend otherwise, this is not the case.

Collaboration is cautiously growing

In fact, the PVV operates in the Dutch parliament much like any other party. The other parties routinely enter into debate with the PVV. After two years of parliamentary experience, collaboration with political opponents is cautiously growing. Joint motions are entered, joint demands for parliamentary debates are made. Lobbyists are frequent guests in the heavily secured corridor where the PVV parliamentary group has its offices. And at informal occassions, politicians from the PVV and the other parties laugh, drink and even dance together.

This not the image that Wilders likes to promote. His party's derives its strength from its opposition to 'politics as usual'. Looking for consensus or compromise on important issues is not in the PVV's interest. In high-profile public debates Wilders will always choose the confrontational approach. Collaboration with other parties only happens away from the spotlights, and only when the PVV has to make few concessions.

Wilders now says it is undemocratic that other parties refuse to form a government with him in it. He calls it an insult to the voter. Wilders: "This is unacceptable." It has all the hallmarks of an argument of convenience. For Wilders himself has already "insulted" the voter by ruling out any coalition government with the left-wing green party GroenLinks in it.

So why are the other parties excluding the PVV? Wilders himself says it is because they are afraid of the PVV's electoral score in opinion polls ahead of the June 4 European election. The parties themselves say that their leaders quite simply have been asked the question, and that they owed the voters an answer.

Unrest in Christian democrats ranks

It is the same with the Labour party. A student asked party leader Wouter Bos the question during a Q&A session, and Bos gave him an honest answer. His party simply disagrees with the PVV on so many issues - particularly on immigrants and Islam - that governing together would be impossible.

Close to an election, parties often get the reproach that they are evasive about possible coalition agreements. As a result, many voters feel that they have no way of knowing what kind of government they are voting for. Voters on the left and those supporting the ChristenUnie now know that they're in any case not voting for a government with the PVV in it.

But Bos and his colleagues also have a strategic interest in excluing the PVV. Not answering the question is offputting to voters. D66's Alexander Pechtold has always been very clear on the issue of the PVV, and he has gained in the polls as a result. After the Socialist Party followed Pechtold's lead on Monday, Bos could not afford to stay behind.

Something similar is happening on the right. By ruling out a coalition with the PVV, the ChristenUnie is distancing itself from the Christian democrats, who have said they will rule out no one, including the PVV. The latter has caused unrest in Christian democrats ranks, and even convinced the sociologist Anton Zijderveld to leave the party.

Little real power

Parliamentary election are still far away, and in the heat of an election campaign even the firmest positions are sometimes abandoned. But if the polls are right, the PVV is set to become one of the biggest parties in the Netherlands, if national elections were held today. As things stand, the only way for the PVV to cash in on an electoral victory is to form a coalition government with the Christian democrats and the right-wing liberal party VVD - the party Wilders broke away from in 2004.

But such a coalition is far from easy. CDA and VVD will never be able to agree to Wilders' core demands: outlawing the Koran and deporting criminals of foreign origin. So chances that Wilders and his PVV will be part of any government coalition are slim at best. This will make it easier for Wilders: he will not have to make compromises or prove that he has realistic solutions for the problems faced by society. Wilders will then remain who he is today: isolated, with a much larger group in parliament, but still with little real power.

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