While Geert Wilders enjoys presenting himself as the next prime minister, in reality he is playing a longer game.
International media outlets tend to see Geert Wilders as the next Donald Trump, continuing the domino run of populist victories in recent elections and referendums. But they have not taken into account the overwhelming need for compromise and co-operation in the Dutch political system. Indeed, while Wilders has been leading the polls until this week, and enjoys presenting himself as the next prime minister of the Netherlands, in reality he is playing a longer game.
Phase 1: The election campaign
Leading up to election day on the 15th of March, Wilders has emphasised the difference between himself and other parties. Where traditional parties present their programmes with detailed plans and budgets (D66’s plan is novel-sized with 242 pages), Wilders presented one page with 10 bullet points on Facebook. He has also literally put distance between himself and other candidates by pulling out of a number of TV debates. This allows him to continue criticising the Dutch media as biased and avoid putting his positions to the test in a debate.
This ‘us against them' mentality is amplified by his security and legal problems. In a country where the prime minister cycles to work without protection, Wilders has been under 24 hour police protection for twelve years because of severe death threats. In 2011 he was prosecuted for inciting discrimination – an event Wilders presented as the “trial of the century” with himself in the starring role as defender of free speech. On that occasion, he was found not guilty, but last year leading his supporters in a chant for ‘fewer Moroccans' resulted in a conviction, albeit without punishment. While for most politicians criminal prosecution would be a disaster, for Wilders it is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate his victimisation by the establishment.
Phase 2: The formation
In the Netherlands, the system of direct representation and the increasingly split vote means that election night is only the start of the process of forming a government. A record number of parties have signed up for the elections this year, revealing an epidemic of identity politics: voters can choose between the entrepreneur party, the 50 Plus party, the non-voter party, a party for minorities, and three different parties from the group that launched the Ukraine referendum. Forming a coalition government is the norm in the Netherlands, but in most years these consist of two or three parties. The way the polls look at the moment, a government will likely have to comprise four or even five parties.
The formation is like the Dutch version of a cricket world cup: a drawn-out, mildly suspenseful quadrennial event, that you can tune in and out of without missing too much.
Party leaders start discussing coalitions, divide up ministries and policy points, and give cryptic messages to the journalists enjoying the sunshine on the Binnenhof. In 2010, negotiators went back and forth over five possible coalitions across the political spectrum through June, July, August, and September. All of which means that attaining power in the Dutch system requires a huge amount of compromise.
If the PVV wins the most votes, Geert Wilders would start off this process. But it seems highly unlikely that he will be able to form a government. For one, compromise is not his forte. Not only that, but most of the other major parties are staunchly opposed to entering a coalition with the PVV. One reason the 2010 formation process took 127 days was that the supporters of some parties protested their leaders even being in a negotiating room with the PVV. Party leaders have likely learned from this experience. They will also have learned that Wilders is not a reliable partner. In 2010 he agreed to give electoral support to a minority coalition, only for the government to collapse less than two years later when Wilders withdrew his support.
Phase 3: Opposition
If the formation fails to get Wilders in the Prime Ministers’ seat, he will go back to opposition. With a larger group of MPs behind him, and a new narrative of an election stolen from the people, he will have even more ammunition to attack from the side lines.
One of his favourite tools in parliament is the ‘motion of distrust’, a motion that leads to the resignation of a minister or even the whole cabinet if supported by a majority. Being the most powerful tool a member of parliament has, it is used sparingly by most. But in some years, the PVV has used them more often than all other parties put together. These motions do not appear to be drafted with the intent to gain support (one started with ‘Concluding that mister Rutte has weak knees and no spine...’) but are always good for headlines.
Voting patterns, too, show the PVV to be an obstructionist force. The ten other parties currently in Parliament tend to agree on each other's proposals most of the time. The PVV, by contrast, disagrees more often than not with six out of those ten parties. Interestingly, the PVV has a relatively low percentage of proposals put forward on migration and integration, but is in the leading group for proposals on international issues.
Phase 4: Wait for your moment
Repeating phase 1-3 over a number of election cycles is a great way to steadily grow your following without having to take responsibility for any real policy. Wilders can stay compromise-free until the moment where something fundamentally changes in the Netherlands.
A serious terrorist attack on Dutch soil, or an economic crisis, could yet tilt public opinion further towards the PVV. Were this to happen, the party could potentially expand its vote-share, and reduce the necessary compromise to form a government. But until then, Wilders will have to cheer on Trump and le Pen from the side lines.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.