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The political center collapses in the Netherlands

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WORLD Radio - The political center collapses in the Netherlands

Dutch voters repudiate the ruling parties in favor of the Party for Freedom


Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders Associated Press/Photo by Phil Nijhuis

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Surprising election results in the Netherlands.

This small northern European country is famous for its progressive values. But on November 22nd, Dutch voters went to the polls and picked an anti-Islam, anti-immigration contender for prime minister. His name is Geert Wilders and he leads the Party for Freedom which is now the biggest political party in the Dutch parliament.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: WORLD Senior Writer Emma Freire used to live in the Netherlands and has been following this story for us. Good morning, Emma.

EICHER: Let’s start with a primer. How do Dutch elections work and what exactly did voters cast their ballots for?

EMMA FREIRE, REPORTER: The Netherlands has a multi-party system and there's 150 seats for 17 and a half million people. So a lot of parties tend to get into parliament. It's clear that Dutch voters wanted a big change. The parties that lost the most in this election cycle were the ones that were part of the previous governing coalition. This vote was a repudiation of the previous government. At the very beginning of the campaign, there was a very promising anti-establishment candidate named Pieter Omtzigt. But he dropped the baton with a weak campaign and Wilders just jumped right in there and picked it up. In the days right before the election, polls show that there were four parties that were roughly tied to become the biggest. One of them was Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom. So he was expected to do well. But then when the results came in, he was the biggest party by a huge margin. He had 37 seats, and the next biggest party had 25.

REICHARD: Tell us a bit about Geert Wilders. Who is he? What does he stand for?

FREIRE: Well, Wilders has actually been a mainstay of Dutch politics for a very long time. He comes from a humble background, he was born into a blue-collar family in an economically depressed area in the south of the Netherlands. When he was a teenager, Wilders traveled to Israel and lived and worked there for about a year. He likes to say in interviews that this experience shaped his worldview. Because he observed that in Israel, people had freedom and prosperity due to democracy, but he saw that in some of the neighboring countries in the Middle East, they were poor and oppressed. And he believes that's because of Islam. So he's a strong critic of Islam, and he is to this day, a very strong supporter of the State of Israel.

He was elected to Parliament in 1998 with one of the biggest parties, but then he had a falling out with them. And in 2006, he started his own party, the Party for Freedom. So he has actually been a Member of Parliament for 25 years. He's always been very outspoken in his criticism of Islam. He called for a ban on sales of the Qu'ran, and he says it should be treated like the book Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. And he has also called for the closing of mosques, which he calls palaces of hate. He's been prosecuted in the Netherlands for things like discrimination and inciting hatred for some of the things that he has said over the years. Now, it's also important to point out that Wilders is not a social conservative in any way, shape or form. He is pro-euthanasia and pro-abortion.

REICHARD: What were some other big issues at play in the election?

FREIRE: Well, Dutch voters are struggling with a feeling that their government is broken. There was a big scandal involving parents who were falsely accused by the government of child care benefits fraud. They were ordered to repay the benefits, which often amounted to 10s of 1000s of dollars. This was very devastating for them. And to understand the context here, Dutch people are used to good governance. In America, unfortunately, we are familiar with government messing up. But to Dutch people this scandal really shook their faith in the government.

The Dutch government is also working on plans for the forced sales of farms to reduce nitrogen emissions to meet European Union guidelines. Farmers have been engaging in mass protests. Many Dutch people are very sympathetic to the farmers and very unhappy about these plans to close the farms. So that was a big issue as well.

FREIRE: Well, Dutch voters are struggling with a feeling that their government is broken. There was a big scandal involving parents who were falsely accused by the government of child care benefits fraud. They were ordered to repay the benefits, which often amounted to 10s of 1000s of dollars. This was very devastating for them. And to understand the context here, Dutch people are used to good governance. In America, unfortunately, we are familiar with government messing up. But to Dutch people this scandal really shook their faith in the government.

The Dutch government is also working on plans for the forced sales of farms to reduce nitrogen emissions to meet European Union guidelines. Farmers have been engaging in mass protests. Many Dutch people are very sympathetic to the farmers and very unhappy about these plans to close the farms. So that was a big issue as well. And also Dutch people are just feeling very insecure. There's been inflation. Cost of health care is going up. A longtime housing shortage just keeps getting worse. And high levels of immigration, have been feeding into all these concerns, particularly the housing shortage. Dutch people are concerned if there aren't enough houses for them, where are Dutch people going to live?

REICHARD: Back in September, Italy elected a so-called “far-right” prime minister, and now the Netherlands follows a similar pattern. What political trends do you see spreading to other European countries?

FREIRE: Well, political scientists have invented the term Dutchification of the vote to describe trends where the traditional political center in a country collapses. So we see that very clearly in the Netherlands, the traditional large parties are doing very poorly in elections and fringe parties are rising up, and to some extent, this is a result of the structure of the Dutch government. It's quite easy for a small new party to get at least one seat. Other country’s governmental structures make it harder for fringe parties to rise, but we are seeing in other countries, particularly Germany and France, that the traditional large parties have collapsed and fringe parties, while perhaps not getting the top jobs, are taking more seats in parliament and in local government and getting a bigger say in policymaking.

REICHARD: Emma Freire is a Senior Writer for World Magazine. Thanks for covering this story!

FREIRE: Oh, sure. Thanks.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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