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'Dutch Trump' sings populist tune

The latest polls show Prime Minister Mark Rutte's party slightly ahead for Wednesday's general election. A supporter snapping a selfie with far-right populist Geert Wilders, who wants to take the Netherlands out of the EU, ban immigrants from Muslim
A supporter snapping a selfie with far-right populist Geert Wilders, who wants to take the Netherlands out of the EU, ban immigrants from Muslim countries and close mosques.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
The latest polls show Prime Minister Mark Rutte's party slightly ahead for Wednesday's general election. A supporter snapping a selfie with far-right populist Geert Wilders, who wants to take the Netherlands out of the EU, ban immigrants from Muslim
The latest polls show Prime Minister Mark Rutte's party slightly ahead for Wednesday's general election.PHOTO: REUTERS

When delegates from across the United States converged on Cleveland for the Republican National Convention (RNC) in July last year, they were joined by a guest from Europe as identifiable by his shock of dyed hair as their own presidential candidate - and a man with a similar agenda and ambitions.

Mr Geert Wilders, 53, hopes that voters in the Netherlands will follow America's lead and support him and his populist Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Dutch general election on Wednesday, on positions as controversial as those that US President Donald Trump campaigned on.

Surprisingly, given his country's reputation as a bastion of religious tolerance, polls in January showed Mr Wilders' party winning as many as 33 seats to 24 for incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in the 150-seat Parliament - more than any of the other 27 parties in the running.

Although the latest polls now show Mr Rutte's party slightly ahead, with 24 seats to 22 for the PVV, Mr Wilders has not changed the tune that he brought to the RNC, where he told Sky News: "If I become Prime Minister of the Netherlands, I would close the Dutch borders to immigrants from Islamic countries immediately."

The PVV's mission statement is even more provocative, promising to ban the Quran, close mosques and tax the hijab, which Mr Wilders has called "a useless piece of cloth".

For more than a decade, Mr Wilders has lived in state-provided and protected safe houses 24/7, wearing a bulletproof vest and venturing out in public only in armoured cars with a half-dozen bodyguards. Visits to his wife of 25 years, Krisztina, a former Hungarian diplomat, are limited to once or twice a week, out of security concerns.

It's a life that the politician has compared to a "a bad B-movie", one that he told reporters "I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy".

It all began in 2004, when police uncovered a plot to kill him, after arresting two terrorists who had staged an hour-long siege of a building in The Hague. That same year, a Dutch-Moroccan linked to the Islamist Hofstad Network murdered film-maker Theo Van Gogh, the grand-nephew of painter Vincent Van Gogh, for criticising Islam.

Besides its anti-Islam, anti-immigrant stance, the nationalist views of the PVV - like those of Mr Trump - extend to following Britain out of the European Union in what's known as a "Nexit".

Such positions have earned Mr Wilders the nickname the "Dutch Trump", but Britain's Guardian newspaper noted that the two leaders' similarities are "mainly in style: a taste for sharp suits, incandescent hair dye and inflammatory tweets".

Mr Wilders, who is now an agnostic, was born a Roman Catholic in the city of Venlo, near the Netherlands' border with Germany. His father worked at a printing company and he was the youngest of four siblings.

Ironically, his mother was born in the West Java city of Sukabumi when Indonesia was still a Dutch colony, and is part-Indonesian.

Last month, the Daily Mail quoted Mr Wilders' older brother Paul as saying: "I'm sure my mother has not and will never vote for my brother or his party."

After earning law certificates from the Dutch Open University, Mr Wilders travelled widely - mainly in the Middle East, from Egypt to Iran - spending most of his time in Israel. He entered politics in 1990 as a speech-writer for the party he now opposes, the ruling VVD. Then leader Frits Bolkestein, also a critic of Muslim immigration, called Mr Wilders his "sorcerer's apprentice".

Elected to Parliament in 1998, Mr Wilders did not make a splash until 2002, when he ramped up his criticism of Islam, leading the VVD to expel him from Parliament.

In 2006, he formed his own party, promising to incorporate the "dominance of the Judaeo-Christian tradition" in the Dutch Constitution.

Speaking to Fox News in 2008, he criticised Islamic culture as "retarded", following an uproar over his 17-minute film Fitna, which attempted to link Quranic verses to violence.

He said "99 per cent of the intolerance in the world comes back to the Islamic religion and the Quran".

Mr Wilders was prosecuted for hate speech in 2011 over his anti-Islam comments, but was acquitted.

Last year, he was convicted for inciting discrimination against Dutch-Moroccans over remarks at an election rally in March 2014, but a court let him off without penalty.

The New York Times recently dismissed Mr Wilders for seeming "to try to outdo himself more for shock value and to grab attention than for practical effect, particularly on immigration".

He has little chance of winning a leadership role in government, as mainstream parties have ruled out forming a coalition with his party.

Even so, as The New York Times noted, Mr Wilders has managed to push politics in the Netherlands "to the right and make possible a conversation about shutting out immigrants and dismantling the European Union that was unthinkable not long ago".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2017, with the headline ''Dutch Trump' sings populist tune'. Print Edition | Subscribe