Is this rise to power indicative of a larger growth in populist ideology?

By Ben Outar, News & Campus Life Staff Writer 

Right-wing PVV leader Geert Wilders. 
Image Source: Flickr

On November 23rd, the Dutch right-wing political party PVV (Party For Freedom), led by Geert Wilders, secured a victory in the general election. He surpassed the next most popular PvdA (Labour Party) by 12 parliament seats. Despite this result, “it’s unclear Wilders can actually cobble together a coalition that would let him take power,” according to the Washington Post

Wilders’s victory is representative of a growing change in global citizen sentiment towards right-wing populism, particularly in Europe and North America, with the Dutch leader taking advantage of growing xenophobia towards Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants to push a powerful right-wing campaign. Across Europe and the Americas, there has been a deep shift of political ideology towards nativism, with the election of leaders who promote closing borders, or general support for policies that would prevent immigration. With the newly widespread sentiment, it has been made clear that, as long as the hard right can continue to inspire fear amongst the population, the popularity of parties like the PVV will only continue to rise.

Geert Wilders is not new to politics, differentiating himself from the kind of “political outsider” model that rose with the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2016. He has appeared in court to defend similar remarks on numerous occasions. 

In his 25-year political career, Wilders has routinely taken aim at Moroccan immigrants in particular, and was tried for a chant he started in 2014 calling for fewer Moroccans in the nation. In the days following the conviction, he went on to say that, “while Moroccans who set our cities on fire usually get away with it and never see the inside of a court.” 

This Islamophobia is a key policy point of his current campaign, with him calling for banning sales of the Quran and previously attempting to ban Muslim schools and mosques. More recently, he has toned down the aggression of some of these statements but nonetheless maintains the generally nativist rhetoric. 

As New York Times guest essay journalist Paul Tullis highlights, “[t]he 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.” 

Wilders’s VVD saw massive growth since the 2021 election, increasing its control on the parliament by 12.8%, the largest jump in popularity of any Dutch political party since the previous election. 

In the days following his election, there has been public support for the newly powerful VVD from like-minded party leaders. In particular, from the Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, who wrote of the outcome:“[a]nother country has said a clear no to illegal migration. We hope that the Hague is close enough to Brussels that they hear it from there.”  

The VVD’s win is another in a slew of recent victories for right-wing parties in Europe, with the recent Italian election of Giorgia Meloni and the German AfD (Alternative for Germany) gaining power in the two previous elections. Belgium and Portugal are also riding this political wave, and the narrow loss by Marine Le Pen in France in 2022 highlights the continuity of the movement towards conservatism in Europe. Following a period of relatively high immigration into Europe from the Middle East, the social pendulum appears to be swinging back towards conservatism, even in places like Germany, which have been open to immigrants and progressive social values throughout the 21st century due to pressure from NATO. 

This phenomenon is echoed worldwide, being described as “soft populism” in reference to Canadian parliamentary representative Poilievre’s likely bid for the Prime Minister position fueled by a growing dislike for high rates of immigration and inflation. 

Furthermore, the Trump Administration, powered by the kind of nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric repeated by Wilders, placed one of the most powerful nations in the world firmly in the driver’s seat for propelling right-wing populism as a globally successful phenomenon. Given the “wave” of populist leaders, the line between traditional conservatism and modern right-wing populism has proven less and less clear–and because of this, the tendency for formerly “conservative” political parties to move towards populism is on the rise. The current rise of Poilievre mirrors the beginnings of the shift in the USA Republican Party from hardline conservatism to more populist rhetoric, rooted in nativism. 

The rise of these parties can be attributed in part to natural swings of the “political pendulum,” as a well-documented response to rising immigration is a move towards social conservatism within a country. As the world comes out of the pandemic with higher inflation rates and long-lasting incumbent governments, frustration is being harnessed by both ends of the political spectrum. In Brazil, President Lula rose to power following the destructive anti-COVID Bolsonaro, whose time as President saw nearly 700,000 COVID-19-attributed deaths. The general response of leaders in times when the population is frustrated with the current leadership has led to the kind of political pendulum swinging we are now seeing across the world. Consistently along this wave of new social conservatism is the blaming of immigrants for the current ills of a nation. 

The question for potential majority leaders like Poilievre will be whether or not they can manufacture or find the divisive issues for the population that can allow them to ride the wave. 

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