In the week the Netherlands goes to the polls, the irruption of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into the Dutch election has wrenched the campaign out of its somnolence. At the weekend, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and the family minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, came to campaign among Netherlands-based Turks for next month’s plebiscite over extending President Erdoğan’s powers. The Dutch government banned Çavuşoğlu from entering the country and, after stopping Kaya entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam, kicked her out into Germany. Turkey has had a long-standing friendship with the Netherlands since Atatürk’s day. ‘Security’, that trusty standby for squelching political inconvenience, is cited as the reason for banning the ministers and their Rotterdam rally. Early on Sunday, police dispersed demonstrators with dogs and water cannon. Erdoğan has accused the Dutch government of Nazism.
Populist movements, until a charismatic demagogue comes along to coax inchoate silliness into full-throated idiocy, often start life as headless chickens. The Dutch far-right Partij Voor Vrijheid or Party for Freedom (PVV) is more like a chickenless head. Geert Wilders is its only member. With his perma-peroxided bouffant – maybe a 7.3 on the Trump trichological scale – Wilders cuts a faintly ludicrous if distinctive figure. Covering almost a whole side of A4, the PVV’s programme for freedom includes banning the Koran and banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves; as usual when people bang on about freedom, the question is whose freedom. These positions, and Wilders’s recent conviction for whipping up a mob of supporters (‘Do you want more or fewer Moroccans?’ – ‘Fewer!’ – ‘Then we’ll take care of that’) have led some parties, though not all, to reject working with the PVV after the election.
It is said that Wilders and his followers are a band of ‘weglopers’, a term that translates as ‘walkers-away’ but might be rendered by Thatcher’s old playground insult: ‘frit’. Suspicion grows that Wilders strikes these policy poses not despite their torpedoing of the possibility of coalition with other parties, but because of it. So far the PVV has run candidates in only a few of the 388 municipalities. When enough PVV-ers were elected to enter into coalition negotiations in Almere and The Hague, they managed to snatch opposition from the jaws of power by insisting on a headscarf ban for council workers, well aware that other parties wouldn’t swallow it.
Dutch electoral politics is a game designed so that no one can win. Elections for the Second Chamber treat the country as one super-sized PR constituency, and there is no minimum vote threshold, so minor parties can reckon on bagging one or two seats. The result is a fruit salad of single-issue parties, pressure groups, religious fanatics and self-promoters; the only question is how much banana you’ll get. When, as always, no single party gets a majority, mainstream party leaders have to haggle with the likes of the Fifty-Plussers, the Animals’ Party and the Pirate Party. Coalitions usually need at least three parties to get over the 76-seat majority threshold.
Foreign coverage has focused on Wilders’s chance of becoming prime minister. This is the square root of not much. In campaign polls, the PVV has alternated in the lead with the Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD), led by the incumbent prime minister, Mark Rutte. Each has been in the early twenties in the polls, which will translate into about 25 seats each. Wilders won’t have enough seats or coalition partners to govern. If the PVV is running the ‘wegloper’ strategy, what game is it playing? Polls suggest its supporters overwhelmingly want the PVV to be in government rather than outside it. Doubtless it’s more fun to piss into the tent than be stuck inside, unable to relieve oneself. Wilders also knows that his lease on popularity rests on opposing the establishment rather than joining it. He aims to pull other parties rightwards without having to ‘dilute the wine’, as the Dutch saying goes.
The ructions with Turkey suggest this strategy is working. News video of upset Muslims waving Turkish flags in Rotterdam are electoral gold for Wilders, as for Erdoğan, and precisely what Rutte wanted to avoid. In January, Rutte – a mild-mannered conservative in the John Major mould – placed newspaper ads with a stark message aimed at Muslims: ‘Doe normaal of ga weg.’ An obvious shift to stanch the outflow of VVD votes to the PVV, the slogan effectively says ‘Fit in or get out’ – fit in, that is, with Dutch values such as ‘tolerance’. Rutte’s expulsion of the Turkish ministers and cancelling of their rally is in keeping with this, to show voters flirting with the PVV how much more democratic than Turkey the Netherlands is.