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ON NOVEMBER 22ND Geert Wilders’s anti-immigrant Party for Freedom (PVV) finished first in the Dutch general election, winning 37 of the 150 seats in parliament, or 23.6% of the vote. His victory was a huge surprise. But the beneficiary of this sudden turn to the hard right is no upstart. The 60-year-old Mr Wilders is the longest-serving MP in the Dutch parliament, having entered in 1998 as a member of the centre-right Liberals (VVD).  He quit that party in 2004 over what he considered its softness towards Islam, and founded the PVV in 2006. He has always had a solid base of voter support, but has spent his parliamentary career mostly on the sidelines, shut out of influence by other parties’ refusal to work with him. Now there is a good chance that this will change.

Mr Wilders comes from Venlo, a small city in the conservative, mostly Catholic province of Limburg. As with many Dutch, his background is in some ways cosmopolitan: he has Indonesian ancestry on his mother’s side; after high school he spent two years at an agricultural commune in Israel; his wife is a Hungarian immigrant. He entered politics in the late 1990s as an assistant to Frits Bolkestein, a VVD bigwig who was among the first Dutch politicians to turn against multiculturalism and immigration.

In 2002 Pim Fortuyn, an eccentric populist academic, exploited anti-Muslim sentiment that other politicians had not expressed, denouncing the supposed failure of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants to assimilate. But he was assassinated and his new party collapsed. That left a large bloc of anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic voters looking for a champion. Mr Wilders won their backing.

The PVV helped launch a wave of right-wing populism in Europe. Its chief issue was opposition to Islam, which Mr Wilders claims is not a religion but an ideology. That, he said, made it constitutional to ban mosques and the Koran and to tax Muslim women for wearing headscarves. Earlier populist parties such as Mr Fortuyn’s had come apart because of dissension among their members. Mr Wilders figured out a way around that: he is the only member of the PVV, and makes all its decisions. Mr Wilders relies on a close-knit group of advisers who have been with him from the start.

In 2010 the PVV won 15.5% of the vote and 24 seats in parliament, and struck a confidence-and-supply deal to back the government of the then leader of the VVD, Mark Rutte. When the euro crisis erupted in 2010-11 Mr Wilders shifted focus towards opposing EU monetary union, denouncing aid to Greece. After Mr Rutte began planning cuts to the Dutch budget, Mr Wilders withdrew his support from the government. Since then every other major party has shunned him, considering him not only radical but an unreliable partner. In 2016 he was convicted of inciting hatred by calling in a speech for “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands. The migrant crisis of 2015-16 gave his party a boost. Its vote share has remained substantial: it won 13% in 2017 and 11% in 2021.

Mr Wilders is a fast thinker and a skilled debater. Early on he invented an average Dutch couple, “Henk and Ingrid”, and is fond of asking rhetorically what they would think of policies he dislikes. One characteristic denunciation is “it’s the world upside-down”; he speaks constantly of “the average Dutch person” and “the people at home” whom the government is betraying. He can be savagely witty. In a debate in 2011 Jolande Sap, then the leader of the GreenLeft party, tried to goad him into bringing down Mr Rutte’s government by bringing an extension cord into parliament and showing him how to pull out the plug. “Ms Sap has never had the plug in,” Mr Wilders responded—a reference to the fact that GreenLeft had never been in government but with an unmistakable sexual overtone that even she had to laugh at. Her career never recovered.

Mr Rutte is an excellent debater as well, and during his 13-year tenure in power he held Mr Wilders in check. After he dissolved his government in July and announced he would not run again, the Netherlands lacked an elder statesman to play that role in the election campaign. Mr Wilders moderated his tone, saying that he would put his anti-Islam proposals “in the refrigerator” if he entered government. Dutch media began speaking of “Geert Milders”. Yet those proposals remain in his platform. He now says that, given the chance, he would be a prime minister “for all citizens of the Netherlands”. It is not certain he will get the chance. On November 24th the VVD’s leader said it would not participate in the next government; but that it would consider a confidence-and-supply deal to form a “centre-right” cabinet, which she seemed to think could include the PVV and New Social Contract, a new conservative party. If Mr Wilders does become prime minister, it is unclear how a politician who calls Islam a “totalitarian ideology” can be one for Dutch Muslims.

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