In new gamble, far-right Dutch MP Wilders eyes local polls

The Hague (AFP) –


Dutch voters are gearing up for new elections, with looming municipal polls seen as a gamble for far-right anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders and a test of the staying-power of populist politics.

A year ago, Wilders barrelled his way into second place in general elections, with his Freedom Party (PVV) winning 20 seats in parliament to become the country's main opposition to a new coalition government headed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberal VVD party.

Buoyed by the showing, Wilders is now hoping to snap up seats across local councils in the March 21 vote.

Currently the PVV is only present in The Hague and Almere, but Wilders has widened his horizons and is planning to put up candidates in about 30 municipalities.

Parties had until Monday to register candidates, and the municipalities will publish their lists on Friday.

Analysts believe however that support for Wilders is waning, with opinion polls showing backing for the PVV down 25 percent from last year.

"The PVV's populism has been halted," said Rudd Koole, Dutch politics professor at Leiden University.

- 'One-man band' -

Indeed, the PVV's list of candidates is thinly populated -- only nine are set to stand in The Hague, compared to about 50 hopefuls from each of the more traditional parties.

And winning new PVV recruits is proving hard.

The problem is not fear of being identified with extreme right-wing politics, which has "now become accepted, normalised," said Koole.

Rather, the issue is the absence of "any party machinery" as the PVV "remains a one-man show" entirely led by Wilders, said Kees Aarts, a political analyst from the University of Groningen.

Even Wilders has admitted that he has not had the widest choice of candidates.

"As a relatively young party we have to sometimes pick among people that we still don't know very well," he said, quoted by the daily Volkskrant which has called his fresh election bid "a gamble".

The result has been a chaotic selection process, and some candidates have swiftly left after being signed up, some put off by what is seen as the party's narrow and over-riding emphasis on its anti-Islam theme.

Others have been caught out by skeletons in their closets.

In December, Wilders withdrew his choice to head the PVV's list in Rotterdam after revelations about the man's links to British Holocaust revisionist David Irving.

Another candidate left after it emerged she had said she wanted to "hang" Rutte, a third from Utrecht suggested the local mosque should burn, and a fourth from western Zaanstad had apparently harassed his wife for three years.

"It shows how vulnerable the party is," said Aarts. "The party suffers somewhat from its lack of organisation, but so far that had not been held against it."

- A plethora of populists -

The PVV's biggest test will come in Rotterdam.

A majority of residents of Europe's biggest port have foreign roots, including its outgoing, Moroccan-born leader Ahmed Aboutaleb -- the country's first immigrant and Muslim mayor.

Here the PVV will confront the rightwing populist Leefbaar Rotterdam (Liveable Rotterdam) "one of the most stable political forces of the past years," said Aarts.

The party was led by the openly-gay and fervently anti-immigrant populist Pim Fortuyn, until he was assassinated in 2002.

And it holds the largest number of seats on the city council -- 13 out of the 45 up for grabs.

Another right-wing rival, who could erode Wilders's support, is the charismatic young Thierry Baudet, who burst onto the political scene last year with his Forum for Democracy (FVD), winning two seats in the lower house of parliament.

With its better internal structure, Baudet, who has said he would back Leefbaar in Rotterdam, could prove "a serious challenger to the PVV," said Aarts.

The FVD is only running in Amsterdam, where it hopes to win six seats, and where Wilders is not thought to be putting up any candidates.

But with its call to "reduce Islamisation," the FVD could drain support from the PVV, which is gradually losing its "monopoly" as the country's anti-immigration party, said political analyst Philip van Praag, from the University of Amsterdam.

More traditional parties, like Rutte's Liberals and the conservative Christian CDA, have also begun to adopt some of Wilders's rhetoric.

So the PVV may struggle to have as much impact in the municipal polls as it did in last year's general elections.

Wilders however is likely to play down any lacklustre results, already eyeing provincial elections and an indirect race for the upper house of parliament in 2019.

"For Wilders, it's really only the national level which counts," said Koole.