Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, who suffered spectacular losses in Wednesday’s election after turning his guns on Brussels, precipitated his own defeat by collapsing the previous government.
Preliminary results early on Thursday morning gave caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right Liberals a slender two-seat lead over the centre-left Labour Party, with over 80 per cent of votes counted.
The far-right anti-immigration Freedom Party of Mr. Wilders, who campaigned to leave the euro and the European Union, slumped and was set to lose about a third of its 24 seats.
Mr. Wilders – the Netherlands’ “best known politician outside the country,” thanks to his hard-line anti-Muslim stance – appealed to local voters on a populist platform taking aim at the “bureaucrats in Brussels.”
But Dutch voters handed pro-European parties a sweeping election victory, shunning the radical fringes and dispelling concerns that euroskeptics could gain sway in a core euro-zone country. The hard-left Socialists, who oppose austerity and euro zone bailouts, finished a distant third and gained no ground.
The Socialists and the Freedom Party had dominated early stages of the campaign, raising the prospect of a massive protest vote that might paralyze government and make Dutch support for further euro zone bailouts impossible.
The unexpectedly clear result removed a potential obstacle to efforts to stabilize Europe’s single currency after Germany’s constitutional court gave the green light for the euro zone’s permanent bailout fund to go ahead.
However, the Netherlands is likely to remain an awkward, tough-talking member of the single currency area, strongly resisting transfers to euro zone debtors, even if the two main parties end up forming a coalition.
Mr. Wilders’ Freedom Party’s program ran on a double negative – it promised voters it would not pay “one more cent to Brussels” and curb immigration, particularly from Muslim and eastern European countries.
Reviled and adored alike for his anti-Islamic rhetoric, the 49-year-old firebrand nevertheless made deep cracks in a long tradition of Dutch consensus politics.
“We dare to talk about sensitive subjects like Islamisation and we use plain and simple words that the voter can understand,” is how Mr. Wilders, creator of the 2008 anti-Islam film Fitna, explains his election program.
His 17-minute commentary, featuring shocking imagery of attacks in New York in 2001 and Madrid in 2004 combined with quotes from the Koran, has drawn outrage in several Muslim countries.
Last year, he was acquitted on hate speech charges by a Dutch court, accused of spreading racial animosity and discrimination against Muslims.
Nicknamed “Mozart” for his platinum-dyed mop of hair, Mr. Wilders describes his far-right label as “nonsense” but displays no hesitation in branding the Koran a “fascist” book.
“My supporters say: ‘At last there is someone who dares to say what millions of people think.’ That is what I do,” Mr. Wilders has told AFP.
He has been living under 24-hour protection for the past eight years due to death threats and is now regarded as the best protected man in the country.
Mr. Wilders started his political career in the Dutch liberal VVD party which he quit after 14 years in 2004, partly over its support at the time for Turkey’s EU membership bid.
Having started off as a policy adviser and speech writer for the VVD, Mr. Wilders was elected a municipal councillor in 1997 and a lawmaker the following year, becoming an independent member of parliament when leaving the party in 2004.
He created the Freedom Party for parliamentary elections in 2006, campaigning to “limit the growth of Muslim numbers” in the Netherlands, and taking nine out of 150 seats. This number jumped to 24 after the 2010 elections.
But Mr. Wilders lost some of his shine after walking out of talks with Mr. Rutte’s governing coalition, which Mr. Wilders’s party had until April backed at arms’ length, giving it a slender majority.
The move led to the collapse of Mr. Rutte’s coalition with the Christian Democrats, which in turn led to Wednesday’s election.