Could Geert Wilders win the Dutch elections?
In 1982, a man called Tom Bradley ran for Governor of California. He was a strong candidate: a pro-business Democrat who used to be a police officer and was now a successful Mayor of Los Angeles. In the weeks leading up to the vote, most polls showed Bradley on course to win a comfortable victory over his Republican opponent, a lawyer called George Deukmejian. On the day of the election itself, exit polls also confirmed Bradley would win; the San Francisco Chronicle began printing papers with headlines declaring he’d be Governor. Yet as the votes were counted, the Bradley campaign’s victory celebrations were abruptly put on hold. After hours of waiting, the shock final result was called: 49% for Deukmejian and 48% for Bradley. California would not get its first black Governor after all.
In the wake of Bradley’s defeat, most experts agreed
what had happened: when interviewed by pollsters, a significant number of voters effectively had lied about who they planned to vote for. Nine out ten people who’d told pollsters they were ‘undecided’ ended up voting against Bradley. The implication was clear: afraid of being thought racist, white voters had implied they’d be happy to vote for the black candidate, when actually they were unwilling to do so.
Thirty-five years after Bradley’s shock defeat, Dutch voters are slowly gearing up to go to the polls in March. Currently, all eyes are on the wild card: Geert Wilders, the bouffant-haired far-right leader who promises to ‘Make the Netherlands Great Again’. Like Trump, Wilders makes a habit of grabbing headlines with outrageous statements: calling for headscarves to be banned, comparing the Koran with Mein Kampf, and blaming Angela Merkel for the recent attack in Berlin. Last month, in a fascinating example of the limits of Dutch tolerance, Wilders was convicted of hate speech after calling for Moroccans to be deported. Many find his views abhorrent, but they’re not unpopular: some polls say Wilders could win over 25% of the vote; more than any other party.
As with Trump, many people assume that Wilders won’t actually be able to translate this support into power; blocked by either a lack of votes of a lack of allies willing to form a coalition with him. Foreign observers in particular often seem to assume that while the sensible, down-to-earth Dutch might enjoy a bit of bellyaching about immigration and ISIS, and find Wilders’ antics amusing, they would never actually let him run the country. In that context, one can’t help but wonder: could we see some variation of the Bradley effect in the Netherlands? Like patients lying to a doctor about how much alcohol they drink, might Dutch voters who say they oppose Wilders actually end up supporting him?
Others are better qualified than me to haggle over the technical details of polls, sampling errors and late swings. However, there are plenty of reasons to think that Wilders’ prospects might be under-rated. The current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte is seen as competent but rather uninspiring, and many voters are understandably sympathetic to the idea of a more colourful leader who says what he thinks and does what he says. The Dutch economy has had a bumpy ride over the past few years, and concern about issues like immigration has been growing. Against that backdrop, Wilders has positioned himself as the only man who can break the cosy consensus and turn the country around; trying to build a coalition which includes both working-class voters who feel threatened economically, and traditional conservatives nostalgic for the Netherlands of old. Some of his rhetoric is toxic, but in other ways, he’s been careful to appeal to values which Dutch liberals hold dear – arguing, for example, that Islam is wrong because of the way it oppresses women.
It’s also worth remembering that Dutch nationalism isn’t a fleeting phenomenon. While Nigel Farage has tried and failed to win a seat in the British parliament seven times, Wilders has held a Dutch seat for years. Wilders’ popularity has varied from one election to another, but his Partij voor de Vrijheid (Freedom Party), which was only created a decade ago, now has fifteen seats in parliament – an achievement which UKIP can only dream of. Crucially, Wilders has also proved capable of mobilising voters who would otherwise stay at home: in previous elections, it’s been estimated that 40 percent of the people who voted for him usually wouldn’t have voted at all.
Mark Rutte has responded to Wilders by shifting his own rhetoric rightwards; saying that he “hated” the idea of a multicultural society, and that people who disagreed with democratic values should “get out of here [and] go back to Turkey”. This kind of talk seems to be popular these days, and the most likely outcome of the election is that Rutte keeps his job. But Wilders’ effect on the debate has already been profound. In a political system where votes are split across many parties, and where coalition governments are the norm, there’s a real chance that he could end up in power; if not as Prime Minister, then with a seat at the cabinet table. It’s also worth remembering that the Netherlands has a track record of disappointing pollsters – in 2005, for example, voting against the EU Constitution. As the editors of The Economist once lamented, after they’d guessed another election wrong, “The Dutch have developed an uncanny ability to surprise everyone with their political choices”.
Many analysts assume that even if people say they support Wilders now, they’ll ultimately balk at voting for him. I hope they’re right. But the experience of California in 1982, together with Brexit, Trump and the 2005 referendum, suggests the opposite may be true. There could be a hidden pool of people who secretly plan to vote for his party, but are embarrassed to admit it to pollsters. And with Wilders promising to push for a ‘Nexit’ to follow ‘Brexit’, the consequences of an electoral upset could be profound.