Hungary's Orban: 'The winds of change are here!'

Far-right anti-Islamist Wilders wins Dutch election, sending shockwaves through Europe

Wilders will begin talks with right and center parties in order to form a coalition, which, if successful, will make him the Netherlands’ most right-wing prime minister ever

VVD party members watch on a screen Dutch politician and leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV) Geert Wilders addressing a speech after the announcement of the first exit polls of the general election, at the VVD party headquarters in The Hague, on November 22, 2023 (JOHN THYS / AFP)
VVD party members watch on a screen Dutch politician and leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV) Geert Wilders addressing a speech after the announcement of the first exit polls of the general election, at the VVD party headquarters in The Hague, on November 22, 2023 (JOHN THYS / AFP)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders won a huge victory in Dutch elections, according to a near complete count of the vote early Thursday, in a stunning lurch to the far right for a nation once famed as a beacon of tolerance.

The result will send shockwaves through Europe, where far-right ideology is on the rise, and puts Wilders in line to lead talks to form the next governing coalition and possibly become the first far-right prime minister of the Netherlands.

With nearly all votes counted, Wilders’ Party for Freedom was forecast to win 37 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, two more than predicted by an exit poll when voting finished Wednesday night and more than double the 17 he won in the last election.

“I had to pinch my arm,” a jubilant Wilders said.

Political parties were set to hold separate meetings Thursday to discuss the outcome before what is likely to be an arduous process of forming a new governing coalition begins Friday.

Despite his harsh rhetoric, Wilders has already begun courting other right and center parties by saying in a victory speech that whatever policies he pushes will be “within the law and constitution.”

Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, known as PVV, smiles after announcement of the first preliminary results of general elections in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, November 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Wilders is known as the “Dutch Trump,” partly for his swept-back dyed hairstyle that resembles that of the former US president, but also for his rants against immigrants and Muslims.

From calling Moroccans “scum” to holding competitions for cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, Wilders has built a career from his self-appointed mission to stop an “Islamic invasion” of the West.

During the campaign, he sought to tone down his message, saying he could put some of his more strident views on Islam “in the freezer.”

He stressed he would be prime minister for everyone “regardless of their religion, background, sex or whatever,” insisting the cost-of-living crisis was a bigger priority.

But, as his opponents never tired of pointing out, his PVV manifesto tells a different story.

With hallmark Wilders rhetoric, the manifesto says: “Asylum-seekers feast on delightful free cruise-ship buffets, while Dutch families have to cut back on groceries.”

The program proposes a ban on Islamic school, Qurans and mosques. Headscarves would be banned from government buildings. “The Netherlands is not an Islamic country,” it adds.

A “binding referendum” would be held on a “Nexit” — the idea of the Netherlands leaving the EU. The PVV also calls for an “immediate halt” to development aid.

On foreign policy, the parallels to Trump are clear. “Netherlands first,” trumpets the manifesto.

The PVV also promises to move the Dutch embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in a show of support for the Netherlands’ “close friend and the one true democracy in the Middle East.”

While Wilders has maintained that he wants no mosques or Islamic schools in the Netherlands, he has been milder about Islam throughout his campaign than he was in the past.

Instead, his victory seems based on his campaign to rein in migration — the issue that caused the last governing coalition to quit in July — and tackle issues such as the cost-of-living crisis and housing shortages.

“Voters said, ‘We are sick of it. Sick to our stomachs,’” he said, adding he is now on a mission to end the “asylum tsunami,” referring to the migration issue that came to dominate his campaign.

“The Dutch will be No. 1 again,” Wilders said. “The people must get their nation back.”

An election billboard for anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders is seen near the parliament building in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, November 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

But Wilders must first must form a coalition government before he can take the reins of power.

That will be tough as mainstream parties are reluctant to join forces with him and his party, but the size of his victory strengthens his hand in any negotiations.

Wilders called on other parties to constructively engage in coalition talks. Pieter Omtzigt, a former centrist Christian Democrat who built his own New Social Contract party in three months to take 20 seats, said he would always be open to talks.

The closest party to Wilders’ in the election was an alliance of the center-left Labor Party and Green Left, which was forecast to win 25 seats. But its leader, Frans Timmermans, made clear that Wilders should not count on a coalition with him.

“We will never form a coalition with parties that pretend that asylum seekers are the source of all misery,” Timmermans said, vowing to defend Dutch democracy.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, known as PVV, casts his ballot in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, November 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

The historic victory came one year after the win of Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy’s roots were steeped in nostalgia for fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Meloni has since mellowed her stance on several issues and has become the acceptable face of the hard right in the EU.

Wilders was long a firebrand lashing out at Islam, at the EU and migrants — a stance which brought him close to power but never in it, in a nation known for compromise politics.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who boasts of turning Hungary into an “illiberal” state and has similarly harsh stances on migration and EU institutions, was quick to congratulate Wilders. “The winds of change are here! Congratulations,” Orban said.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on March 27, 2023. (Denes Erdos/AP)

During the final weeks of his campaign, Wilders somewhat softened his stance and vowed that he would be a prime minister for all Dutch people, so much so that he gained the moniker Geert “Milders.”

The election was called after the fourth and final coalition of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte resigned in July after failing to agree to measures to rein in migration.

Rutte was replaced by Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, a former refugee from Turkey who could have become the country’s first female prime minister had her party won the most votes. Instead, it was forecast to lose 10 seats to end up with 24.

The result is the latest in a series of elections that is altering the European political landscape. From Slovakia and Spain, to Germany and Poland, populist and hard-right parties triumphed in some EU member nations and faltered in others.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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