Dutch populist Wilders bets on anti-euro vote

Anti-immigration Dutch politician Geert Wilders pulled out of critical budget austerity talks with the government on Saturday, causing the government to fall on Monday. (Photo: Reuters)

April 24, 2012, Tuesday/ 15:48:00

Dutch populist Geert Wilders, who gained prominence denouncing Islam and railing against immigrants, is betting his political future on the anti-euro vote.

Geert Wilders opposes euro zone bailouts, wants overseas development aid slashed, is against Turkey's admission to the European Union and pushed to end Dutch missions in Afghanistan and Libya. He appealed to voters who felt the mainstream parties were out of touch with the problems of immigration, seen as unfairly tapping a generous welfare and health system that became unsustainable

Wilders pulled out of critical budget austerity talks with the government on Saturday, saying the Netherlands should not bow to Brussels' directives.

Wilders, 48, was kingmaker when the last government was formed in 2010; his Freedom Party is the third-largest in parliament and provided the coalition with a majority.

In withdrawing his support, he relinquished his position as the most influential politician outside the government and is set on going for real power in the next elections, which could be held as early as June.

The move threw a core euro zone member already struggling to deal with recession and EU demands for budget cuts into a political crisis, and is a huge gamble for Wilders given that his party has slipped in opinion polls. 

The most recent polls suggest that Wilders, who stands out in any political line-up thanks to his peroxide blonde bouffant hair, would probably not be able to join the cabinet.

But given Marine Le Pen's surprisingly strong showing in the French elections at the weekend, Wilders may be hoping his anti-euro agenda will catapult him up the polls.

In Athens, Wilders' rejection of austerity measures for the Dutch drew chuckles from business executives and politicians, who joked that they finally had an issue about which they agreed with the populist Dutchman.

Wilders has lobbied for emergency assistance to Greece to be cut off, and last year tried to deliver a 1.5-meter long replica of the Greek Drachma to the southern European country's embassy, recommending they leave the eurozone. 

Return to guilder

He wants to pull the Netherlands out of the single currency too and reintroduce the Dutch guilder and is seeking to turn any election into a referendum on the embattled common currency.

Prominent economists have disputed the findings of a report he commissioned arguing the costs of euro membership outweighed benefits, but public opinion is on his side when it comes to his opposition to austerity.

Surveys by Maurice de Hond showed a clear majority of Dutch people think the level of budget cuts demanded by the European Union is excessive, although only 32 percent favored quitting the euro.

By walking out of the budget negotiations, Wilders triggered the collapse of the government at a time of considerable economic uncertainty.

“These austerity measures would break the Netherlands,” Wilders told journalists, explaining why he walked away just as discussions were on the verge of a breakthrough.

“It is now in the hands of the Dutch voter. I will go into these elections full of confidence,” he said.

Enraged political rivals called Wilders an unreliable partner, saying he was “abandoning 16 million Dutch citizens” with the economy in recession.

But Saturday's dramatic political turn could work in his favor by bolstering his anti-establishment image, as the Dutch tire of euro zone bailouts and cuts to social services.

Even though Wilders is not a member of the ruling coalition and has no ministerial post, his hard-line stance on Islam and immigration has set the political agenda.

For decades the Netherlands welcomed foreigners and prided itself as a multi-cultural society. Now it has one of the strictest immigration policies in the 27-member European Union.

Halt immigration

Among Wilders' most radical ideas are halting Muslim immigration, banning face veils, and stopping the construction of mosques. His views on radical Islam, seen in the film “Fitna,” made him the target of death threats.

After Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh was murdered by a radical extremist in 2004 in Amsterdam, Wilders was taken into hiding by secret agents with machine guns.

Since then, he has lived with 24-hour protection, is chauffeured around in a bulletproof car, and had to don wigs and a false moustache to mask his identity. By contrast, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte rides a bicycle to meetings.

In a new book, “Marked for Death, Islam's War Against the West and Me,” which will be released in the United States in May, he once again calls Islam a religion of violence.

“We are facing a determined enemy who is striving through all means to destroy the West and snuff out traditions of free thought, free speech and freedom of religion. Make no mistake: if we fail, we will be enslaved,” he wrote.

In a small country punching above its weight in foreign affairs, Wilders stands out with his “Little Nederlander” views.

He opposes euro zone bailouts, wants overseas development aid slashed, is against Turkey's admission to the European Union and pushed to end Dutch missions in Afghanistan and Libya.

He appealed to voters who felt the mainstream parties were out of touch with the problems of immigration, seen as unfairly tapping a generous welfare and health system that became unsustainable.

Some of his political opponents suggested he strung out the budget talks for political gain. While that's unclear, it is certain he has once again stolen the political limelight.

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