How Geert Wilders Won

A country where depopulating rural areas are losing physicians, bus stops and elementary schools while urban areas thrive is fertile ground for a demagogue — say, a politician who crusades against Islam, immigrants and the forces of globalization.

It’s a familiar script and one that has just put Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom on the verge of leading the Netherlands House of Representatives, where the laws are written. Never mind that carrying out some of the ideas that Mr. Wilders sold voters on would be against Dutch or European Union law.

The Party for Freedom’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last week won quick praise from the vanguard of right-wing authoritarians who spread the “great replacement” conspiratorial lie that immigrants are being imported to undermine white society — leaders such as Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who immediately congratulated Mr. Wilders.

Mr. Wilders’s victory represents an altogether different replacement: that of the Dutch “polder model” with the American polar model.

In the Middle Ages, Netherlanders came together to reclaim areas under shallow water and turn them into farmland; the resulting islands are known as polders. The planning, labor and engineering required cooperation, and the farms that resulted were divided among those who’d helped. In this way the country largely escaped feudalism and evolved to support an economy with wealth to share.

The process shaped the country’s political culture. Even into the 21st century, long periods of consensus-building have preceded significant policy changes, with the method practiced in other arenas as well, such as labor negotiations. It’s slow, by nature, but since most people feel they have been heard, the new policies are generally supported.

Partly as a result of this tradition, Dutch politics for generations have been relatively cohesive. Though 15 parties will be represented in Parliament, many of those on the center-left and left agree on the need for, say, urgent climate action or rapid building of new housing, but disagree on the methods. One party might favor streamlining regulation to ease construction while another wants to bar corporations from the public housing sector. Even center-right parties, leaning toward market-based solutions, will agree on social principles such as reproductive freedom, and no one would suggest fighting crime with more guns on the street. The governing coalition now includes the center-right and center-left — akin to Mitt Romney serving in President Biden’s cabinet.

But the election last Wednesday showed that the Dutch are becoming more polarized. Mr. Wilders’s plurality seems to have come at the expense of the current leadership, the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The center-left D66 lost more than half its seats, and the left-wing alliance of Green Left and Labor rose to second.

A growing divide between urban and rural Dutch drives these divisions. Cities after World War II aimed to encourage urban-rural connections by, for example, building train stations at cities’ edges to ease travel to the countryside. Even today, within 10 minutes of leaving any Netherlands city by train or vehicle, you come upon fields of cows happily munching on grass, rather than expanses of suburbia.

Yet the connection seems to be dissolving. Since 1950, farmers have fallen by two-thirds as a share of population. Sudden, top-down changes to agricultural policy in the last few years have angered farmers, and early support of their protests from the cities soon fizzled out.

The map of election results makes this divide abundantly clear. Just as in the United States, where blue cities punctuate red states, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Leeuwarden and Arnhem, as well as the university towns Groningen and Nijmegen, voted for Green Left-Labor, headed by Frans Timmermans, the former European Union commissioner in charge of the union’s Green Deal. Rural areas on the map are a light-blue sea of Mr. Wilders’s Party for Freedom.

Rotterdam, with 38 percent of its population from a non-Western background as of 2019 — the highest proportion in the country — slightly favored the Party for Freedom over Green Left-Labor, as did The Hague, the seat of government. But perhaps if these urban voting districts hadn’t had some of the lowest turnout in the country — 64 percent in Rotterdam, 68 percent in The Hague — the urban-rural divide would have held up there as well.

Friends of mine, an entirely unrepresentative sample of overeducated white people in expensive sneakers, expressed dismay and consternation over Mr. Wilders’s win. “Deeply embarrassing,” said an advertising executive. “It’s a sad day,” said a documentary filmmaker. “This is our Trump moment,” a University of Amsterdam professor texted. “Soul searching on the side of the elite is required. Don’t know whether they are up to it.”

But a farmer I’d interviewed recently, while “very surprised” about the vote, told me “we cannot bring all of Africa here,” saying that “more and more foreigners arrive with often no real reason for asylum.” She said she understood her rural district to be “happy with the result” of the election.

It would be too simple to conclude that the Dutch have suddenly turned into right-wingers on all issues; 74 percent voted for parties other than Mr. Wilders’s and the two others on the far right. Still, even some younger urban people fell prey to his stigmatization of migrants. “He is a straight talker and tells it like it is,” a 23-year-old Rotterdam waitress told The Guardian. Others expressed concern over the cost of living. Mr. Wilders has promised to bring down housing prices by building more apartments (as has virtually every other party) and to prioritize Dutch citizens for public housing.

The country needs housing, but it also needs migrants. With a low fertility rate and 114 open jobs for every 100 unemployed people, Dutch people need to either throw away the birth control and wait 20 years or accept that some of these jobs are going to have to be filled by people born elsewhere.

But these policy decisions must first await the formation of a cabinet. Mr. Wilders does not have a record of working well with others; coalitions typically require smaller parties to shave off their more extreme positions, which Mr. Wilders has in the past refused to do. His Party for Freedom hasn’t been in government since 2012 — and the head of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius, announced Friday morning she would not join a cabinet with Mr. Wilders.

That means he needs to bring in more, smaller parties, which is tougher to negotiate, or to lead a minority cabinet, which requires going to other parties later when the coalition wants to pass particular legislation. Neither bodes well for his ability to govern. Should he fail to form a government, Mr. Timmermans of Green Left-Labor would be given a chance. Ms. Yesilgoz-Zegerius’s participation is more assured in that case, but D66 would probably need to join as well, and its leader, Rob Jetten, seems to have particular disdain for his counterpart in the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.

Though he was referring to agricultural policy specifically, words spoken to me by Harold Zoet, who sits in a provincial statehouse representing a new farmer-oriented party that hopes to join Mr. Wilders’s coalition, when I interviewed him last month, apply here as well. “We need to do it together,” he said. “We have to be more forward-thinking and listen to people everywhere.”

Perhaps there is hope yet for the polder model.

Paul Tullis is a freelance journalist.

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