Geert Wilders (C), leader of the right-wing populist Party of Freedom PVV, gets ready to cast his vote at a polling station in Hague of the Netherlands, on Sept. 12, 2012. (Xinhua/Sylvia Lederer)
THE HAGUE, Sept. 17 (Xinhua) -- As political parties in the Netherlands started unveiling their program for parliamentary elections scheduled for next March, observers noted that the impact of the growing popularity of far-right populist Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) extends into sharply influencing the political debate and posing challenges for mainstream parties to keep their supporters on crucial European issues.
"PVV influences the issues on the political agenda, the framing of these issues, and the positions mainstream parties take on these issues. This effect is most notable on immigration and integration issues," associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) Sarah de Lange told Xinhua.
In PVV's electoral program, Wilders maintained his usual anti-refugee and anti-Islam rhetoric, calling for closure of Dutch borders, Islamic schools and mosques as well as ban on refugees from Islamic countries. He also called for recording the ethnicity of all Dutch citizens.
In the Low Lands known for its openness and tolerance, opinion polls have for months given Wilders' party the edge over the current coalition parties of the Labour Party (PvdA) and the center-right liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) led by prime minister Mark Rutte.
Earlier polls in September even foresaw the race for the biggest party a tie between VVD and PVV -- they would get 25 to 29 seats each in the 150-seat Tweede Kamer [the lower house of the bicameral parliament] if elections were held.
"The support for the PVV is first and foremost motivated by voters' attitudes towards issues such as asylum and refugees, integration of migrants and Islam," said de Lange. Her current research concerns the role of citizens, the media and parties in the politicisation of immigration and European integration.
Wilders split from the mainstream liberal VVD in 2004 to form his own anti-Islam platform PVV. PVV won nine seats in 2006, 24 in 2010 and 15 in 2012. It is now the third largest party in the Tweede Kamer. In its peak year of 2010, it got nearly one sixth of the votes, enough to give him a pivotal role in the Dutch traditionally fragmented political landscape.
The far-right populist saw his popularity grow further since 2015 when thousands of refugees arrived on the European Union's Mediterranean shores and traveled north. In September last year when Wilders called the wave of refugees pushing into Europe an "Islamic invasion", opinion polls showed PVV as potentially winning one of the country's biggest bloc of seats in parliament.
"It's an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity," Wilders told the parliament as divisions grew over how the Netherlands should respond to the crisis. He was firm in protesting any measure to offer sanctuary to refugees and sought to capitalize on a rise in anti-immigrant feeling in the Netherlands and across Europe.
In January this year Wilders'party registered its highest score ever in an opinion poll, which foresaw he would win 42 seats if elections were held. His success was not unique as xenophobic populist voices grew stronger across Europe from Austria to Nordic nations.
Events such as sexual assaults and robberies on New Year's Eve in the German town of Cologne led to even harder attitudes towards immigrants, not only in Germany with the rise of the anti-Islam Pegida group and of anti-immigration party the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), but also in the Netherlands and across Europe.
"Many of Wilders' supporters are less radical than Wilders but their reasoning is that by voting for his party, they move the political debate into the right direction. They feel left behind by the mainstream political parties which are perceived as being unresponsive and arrogant," said political sociologist at Utrecht University Matthijs Rooduijn.
"Mainstream parties particularly the right-wing VVD have moved into Wilders direction especially regarding the issue of immigration," he added.
What's more, "Wilders presents himself as an outsider, although he is one of the most experienced politicians in the Dutch parliament, becoming thus attractive to voters," said Rouduijn. "Though he gives only very few interviews, the Dutch media pay a lot of attention to everything he says."
Adriaan Schout, senior research fellow and coordinator Europe at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, known as Clingendael in Dutch, agreed that "Wilders filled the political void on the right side of the liberal party."
"The next elections will be about our identity. It will be about the position of the Muslim communities in the country, the position of the foreigners in the society and the Dutch national identity. Wilders is a wake-up call to the Dutch liberals," said Schout.
Observers noted that Wilders has also captured a wider spectrum of economic and cultural anxiety among Dutch voters, such as their frustration with the welfare state, distrust in politicians and political parties, euro scepticism, concerns about crime, law and order and terrorism.
When announcing the PVV's 11-point electoral manifesto in August, Wilders tweeted "millions of Dutch citizens have simply had enough of the Islamization of our country. Enough of mass immigration and asylum, terror, violence and insecurity. Here is our plan: instead of financing the entire world and people we don't want here, we'll spend the money on ordinary Dutch citizens." He pledged to quit the European Union, cut all foreign aid spending and boost funding for police and the security services.
"Wilders' PVV belongs to the group of radical right-wing populist parties that is most radical in orientation," said de Lange. "It is one of the prime examples of successful radical right-wing populist parties in Europe, together with France's National Front (FN) and Austria's Freedom Party (FPO)."
Prolonged economic stagnation, unprecedented refugee crisis and increasing terrorist threats have widened the influence of far-right parties across Europe. "These parties increasingly work together in the context of the European Union," said Rooduijn, "but they are still spread out over different fractions within the European Parliament."
In June last year PVV along with FN, FPO, Italy's Northern League, the Belgian Flemish Interest Party, Poland's Congress of the New Right, the United Romania Party as well as a former member of Britain's UKIP (Independence party) joined forces in the European Parliament under the so-called Europe of Nations and Freedoms (ENL) Group, which operates under the leadership of France's FN.
Earlier this month, Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was defeated by the right-wing, xenophobic AfD in elections in the German region of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
However, experts believe it is difficult for Wilders to achieve electoral success lived by far-right populist parties in a number of European nations, thanks to the fact that the Dutch political landscape has always been fragmented. Governments in the Netherlands are always coalitions. In the last parliamentary elections, 11 groups gained seats, making coalition building difficult. Early elections have been called four times in ten years.
"Winders' chances of governing are really slim," said de Lange. All mainstream parties have indicated that they are unwilling to govern with PVV or Wilders, a decision mainly prompted by the party's manifesto which in some respects is unconstitutional, she explained.
Moreover, Wilders is due to go on trial in October for allegedly inciting racial hatred. In June 2011 he was acquitted of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims, Moroccans and non-Western immigrants. The politician is convinced he will be acquitted again.
Wilders has enjoyed popular support before in polls, but not on election day. Several polls ahead of the 2012 elections had given the impression that the PVV would remain stable or suffer a slight loss, but in the end PVV secured 15 seats, down from 24 in the 2010 elections.