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Far-right Dutch victory puts European liberal democracy on defensive

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For supporters of Geert Wilders and his misleadingly named far-right Freedom party (PVV), it is like Christmas has come early.

There have been several political upheavals in the Netherlands over the past 25 years but none to match the PVV’s emphatic triumph in parliamentary elections held on Wednesday.

After electoral successes in 2022 for hard-right parties in Italy and to a lesser extent Sweden, the Dutch result puts mainstream liberal democrats in western Europe on the back foot. “The Dutchman will be back in first place,” Wilders said, striking a nationalist note as he celebrated his victory.

The victory of Wilders will give heart to like-minded politicians in countries such as Austria — where the far right tops opinion polls ahead of elections due next year — France and Germany. Wilders takes a particularly hard line on the place of Islam in Dutch life and was once convicted of collectively insulting Moroccans at a campaign rally — a verdict upheld in 2021 by the Dutch supreme court.

His victory will probably intensify the EU’s difficulties in formulating common migration and asylum policies, maintaining a united front in support of Ukraine and embarking on financial and institutional reforms needed to prepare for the 27-nation bloc’s proposed enlargement into eastern Europe.

The Dutch result also serves as a reminder of the potentially dire consequences for Europe if Donald Trump, who resembles Wilders in politics and hairstyle, were to return to the White House after next year’s US presidential elections.

With most votes counted, the PVV is on course to win some 37 seats in the 150-seat Dutch legislature, a victory that would afford Wilders more influence over his nation’s politics than he has enjoyed since he set up the PVV in 2006.

Until the results came in, most mainstream parties expressed reluctance to form a government under or even with Wilders, so it remains uncertain if he will become prime minister or take a formal role in government.

However, parties such as the liberal-conservative VVD and the upstart centrist New Social Contract may conclude that it is worth taking a chance with Wilders if they secure firm commitments from him to uphold the Dutch democratic and constitutional order.

Dutch governments are invariably multi-party coalitions and the process of forming the next one is sure to take months and involve much difficult bargaining.

If Wilders were to take power, his authority would be more limited than that of a US or French president, because the Netherlands has a parliamentary system and he would have to take into account the wishes of the PVV’s coalition partners.

Conceivably, he might follow the example of Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, who has governed in most respects as a conservative rather than an extreme rightist and has not upset the apple cart in either the EU or Nato.

However, Wilder is a less enthusiastic supporter than Meloni of western support for Ukraine. He also has a long record of denigrating the EU, although his election campaign played down the calls he once made for “Nexit” — Dutch withdrawal from the bloc.

The main factors accounting for the PVV’s success were a flurry of scandals involving the outgoing coalition, a desire for more accountability in government, public unease over the cost of living and bestaanszekerheid, or “livelihood security”, and controversies over immigration, national identity and the integration of non-Europeans into Dutch society.

Immigration and the defence of Dutch identity and values lay at the heart of the nation’s first political earthquake of the 21st century, when the party of Pim Fortuyn, an anti-establishment outsider, came from nowhere to finish second in the 2002 elections. Fortuyn was assassinated on the eve of the vote.

Fortuyn’s party sank into a rapid decline and was dissolved in 2008. By contrast, Wilders and the PVV appear to be on the crest of a wave.

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