Anti-immigration Wilders runs a muted campaign

Wilders' PVV is less active than competing parties in campaigning around the country.
By Barbara Rijlaarsdam and Herman Staal

As the Dutch election campaign centres on the economy, the populist Islam-basher Geert Wilders has lost momentum.

Geert Wilders makes clear choices about which media he talks to. He refuses to be interviewed by NRC Handelsblad, for example, and to give reasons for his refusal. Interviews with media that are, apparently, unacceptable to him don’t seem to fit into his campaign strategy. He also denied daily Trouw an interview and generally avoids public television, though he participates in their prime ministerial debates in the run-up to the June 9 election.

When he does appear in the media, Wilders tries to send a clear message: Islam is a huge danger, mass immigration costs billions, and the average Dutch voter is best served by the left socio-economic programme of his PVV. Wilders, who until 2004 sat in parliament for the right-wing liberal VVD, promises the state pension age will not be raised, tax benefits on mortgages will remain intact, and there will be no cuts in unemployment benefit. But he turns every political debate to his core business. “Other parties want to slash unemployment benefits while seven billion euros are spent each year on mass immigration,” was one of his first contributions to last Wednesday’s TV debate on the economy.

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The remark was his attempt to regain lost ground in the final weeks of the election campaign. Six months ago, his party was leading some of the polls, but it has been overtaken by the right-wing liberals, Labour and the Christian democrats. When the government fell in February, Wilders proclaimed that the election battle would be between his party and Labour. But the real fight is now between the traditional left and right. Primary combatants are Job Cohen, the labour party leader, Mark Rutte, head of the right-wing liberal party VVD, and Jan Peter Balkenende of the Christian democrats. Wilders has been edged to the sidelines now the principal electoral issue is the economy rather than immigration.

Changed his tone

Wilders’ campaign has become remarkably muted. While Rutte, Cohen and Balkenende slug it out in the media, Wilders is ignored, making little impression with his usual one-liners such as, “prison inmates have it better than the aged in our care facilities”.

The PVV is also less active in campaigning around the country. Wilders and his party candidates have only organised voter events about ten times. That is very little in comparison with the competition. Apart from the large, organised debates, they hardly appear in the media. This seems to be a result of Wilders’ tight control over the party. Candidates who speak publicly could make mistakes, seems to be his reasoning.

The only visible PVV candidate is Hero Brinkman, who is pursuing his own campaign. As soon as he was assured of his position as a parliamentary contender, Brinkman launched a public battle for more democracy within Wilders’ party, calling on supporters to cast a vote for him personally. Brinkman wants a more democratic party with a youth wing, and an end to the single-issue focus. Unlike other political party’s, the PVV has no members, except for Wilders himself and all decisions are made by him.

In recent years, Wilders rose to prominence with his condemnation of Islam. But after making his short film, Fitna, he seemed to have realised that he had to change his tone. He announced that he would broaden the party’s focus, adopted a left socio-economic programme, and trained his sights on defeating the traditional left-wing, particularly in the person of Job Cohen, the Labour party leader.

Does he want to be in government?

Recently, however, he has been adjusting his strategy, attacking the right as well. “Left up to the VVD, thousands more mosques will appear,” he warned his supporters last Tuesday. “Before the elections, the VVD copies a couple of our issues, but once the elections are over, the borders will be flung open.”

The strategy shift makes it clear that Wilders is flailing. His proposal to impose a tax on headscarves didn’t go down well with all everyone in his party, insiders say. Two of his candidates, in whose training he had invested heavily, withdrew after some media furore. In Almere and Den Haag, PVV victories in local government elections did not lead to actual council responsibility.

His opponents claim Wilders doesn’t really want to be in government. He has declared that he will not form a coalition with any party that intends to raise the pensionable age. That means he can only get together with the socialist SP. When presenting his election programme, Wilders stressed he was ready to rule the country, but he soon announced a secondary option, support for a minority government comprised of the right-liberals and Christian democrats. He seemed to be consciously courting a position like that of the Danish People’s Party, which has acquired considerable influence on immigration policy via supporting a centre-right minority government.

If the election results permit, and the CDA and VVD can’t resist the temptation, Wilders could still exercise great influence and quietly work on developing his PVV. But with fewer people in parliament than he anticipated a couple of months ago.

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Election 2010
International