Geert Wilders: Who is the far-right Dutch politician?

The anti-Islamic, anti-EU MP is riding high in the polls, but will his campaign of outrage end in success?

Geert Wilders speaks in German
Geert Wilders addresses a conference of European far-right parties last year in Germany
(Image credit: Thomas Lohnes / Stringer)

Few politicians are receiving as much media coverage - or stirring up as much controversy – in the Netherlands as Party for Freedom (PVV) leader and founder Geert Wilders.

The blond, bouffant-haired 53-year-old, who has compared the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, has become the latest face of anti-Islamic sentiment in Europe.

In the wake of what the Washington Post calls a "global wave of populism that turned 2016 upside down", Wilders's political stance has him neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Mark Rutte ahead of the country's general election on 15 March, according to the latest polls.

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But what else is there to know about Wilders - and what is the story behind his rise to prominence?

What is his background?

Hailing from the Dutch town of Venlo, Wilders went to Israel in 1981, when he was 18, and travelled around the Middle East for two years. He says his opposition to Islam stemmed from "contrasting Israel’s openness with its neighbours", says the Independent.

He was first voted into public office in 1997, when he was elected to the Utrecht city council as a member of the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).

The following year, he was elected to the Dutch House of Representatives and quickly earned a reputation as a "right-wing liberal".

However, his image soon morphed into that of "a controversial and outspoken member of parliament", according to Der Spiegel, and he "called fellow members of parliament 'cowards', and the prime minister a 'professional coward'".

Wilders quit the VVD in 2004, due to disagreements over Turkey joining the EU, and founded the PVV two years later. It immediately adopted a strong anti-Muslim stance.

What does he stand for?

Should Wilders win the general election, he has promised to walk in the UK's footsteps by removing the Netherlands from the EU. He has also vowed to halt public funding for "development aid, windmills, the arts, innovation and broadcasting", among other sectors, says the Daily Express.

However, it is his focus on immigration, and most notably his outspoken anti-Islam rhetoric, that has drawn both criticism and approval, with Wilders pledging to "de-Islamise" the country by closing borders.

He has also faced legal action for his particular focus on the Moroccan community living in the Netherlands. Last December, he was convicted of inciting discrimination in 2014 after asking a rally: "Do you want, in the Netherlands, more or less Moroccans?" When the crowd responded: "Less. Less," he told them: "Then we'll fix it."

Despite the controversy, Wilders has taken aim at Moroccans during his general election campaign. “Not all are scum, but there is a lot of Moroccan scum in Holland who makes the streets unsafe," he told a group of English-speaking reporters in February.

"If you want to regain your country, if you want to make the Netherlands for the people of the Netherlands, your own home again, then you can only vote for one party," he added.

Could he win?

In short; yes. The polls indicate the race for the premiership is a dead heat between Wilders and Rutte.

Traditionally a country of liberal ideals, the Netherlands has found itself torn at the prospect of electing a candidate as right-wing as Wilders and his rise has created deep divisions in the country, in a similar fashion to the emergence of Donald Trump as US president.

The BBC interviewed locals in Wilders's hometown of Venlo, where some said the politician was "way too racist" and others argued the Netherlands was "too full".

While the outcome of the election is uncertain, the BBC says the PVV generally performs well in pre-election opinion polls but suffers heavy defeats on polling days.

However, the Huffington Post suggests that by "surfing on Brexit, Trump and the good result of the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in the Austrian Presidential election last December", Wilders could see the party fortunes change.

How have politicians reacted to Wilders?

Domestic reaction from other Dutch parties has been controversial. After the 2014 Morocco speech that landed Wilders in hot water, many politicians in the Netherlands vowed they would not form a coalition with the PVV, no matter the outcome of the election.

However, the anti-immigration rhetoric has had an undeniable knock-on effect - in January, Rutte took out a full-page advert in several national newspapers and magazines that the Daily Telegraph described as "a sharp shift to the right".

Explicitly taking at immigrants in the Netherlands, the ad highlighted the importance of promoting the "significance of Dutch values", saying: "Discomfort will increase if people misuse our freedom, especially since they came to this country to enjoy those freedoms."

Rutte added: "I understand that people think: if you reject our country fundamentally, I’d rather see you go. I have the same feeling. Act normal or leave."

The advert "stunned members of the Dutch establishment", says the New York Times, and was seen as an attempt by Rutte to win over voters disenchanted by multiculturalism by mirroring Wilders' politics.

What would a Wilders leadership look like?

Due to the fragmented structure of the Dutch parliament, in which smaller parties are forced to form coalitions, Wilders would require the support of at least one other grouping to form a government

The country's approach to democracy also curtails the most extreme excesses of political rhetoric and the Huffington Post suggests forming a coalition with other parties "would force [Wilders] to moderate his stance on pretty much everything".

However, Rutte's surprisingly anti-immigration ad campaign hints the tide may be turning and that the PVV boss may be able to form a coalition - although it remains unlikely.

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