From local to European elections: more or less Wilders?

“Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!”

Supporters of Geert WildersParty for Freedom (PVV) made clear their views when, as the Dutch local election results filtered through last Wednesday, their leader asked them whether they want more or fewer Moroccans in the country.

“Good, we’ll arrange that”, promised Wilders. But what the PVV leader has actually seen since is fewer of his own elected representatives willing to stand by him following this controversial episode.

Laurence Stassen, the PVV delegation leader in the European Parliament, announced on Friday that she is leaving the party and will see out her term as an independent MEP (she is also giving up her seat in the provincial council of Limburg). Lucas Hartong takes over from Stassen as delegation leader but his tenure will be short-lived, as he will not be a candidate in the European Parliament election in May.

Other PVV politicians in the Netherlands are quitting the Wilders camp one by one. Daniël ter Haar, a provincial council member, recently joined the growing band of senior party members who disowned Wilders’ rabble-rousing. Meanwhile – as predicted by the PVV leader – the police have received many official complaints about use of discriminatory language.

The turbulence in the PVV has overshadowed the success in the municipal elections for many local parties (notably in Rotterdam) as well as the left-wing Socialist Party (SP), and the progressive liberal Democrats 66 (D66) party.

D66 made gains primarily in the bigger cities, notably Amsterdam, where it kicked the Labour Party (PvdA) off the top spot it had held for nearly seven decades. D66 is also the biggest party in Groningen, The Hague and Utrecht.

The party’s success should be partially seen as a sign of dissatisfaction with other parties – especially with the governing coalition parties, the PvdA and its senior partner, the conservative liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). D66 is for many a good alternative, but the number one choice for relatively few voters.

The Christian Democrats (CDA) – who still have not recovered from their heavy defeat in the last general election – lost again, but became the biggest nationwide party in town halls (mainly due to Labour’s losses).

Nationwide voting share – Dutch local elections, 19 March 2014

The results were a slap for both the VVD and the PvdA. Both parties are being punished for their tough economic approach or, in the words of PvdA leader Diederik Samsom, “because voters do not yet see the benefits of current policies”.

This is nothing new. Local elections are often seen as second-order elections and voters tend to make their choice based on national rather than local issues, evaluating the performance of the parties calling the shots at that moment.

We can expect a similar dynamic for the European elections. Indeed, the local election results may shed some light on what will happen in the Netherlands on 22 May: more woe for the VVD and PvdA, and a polarised vote, for the enthusiastically pro-European D66 on the one hand, and for left- and right-wing anti-EU forces on the other.

The big question probably is what PVV voters will do.

Until recently, the PVV led the national polls (and its decision only to put up local election candidates in two cities – Almere and The Hague – means there is no real election data to suggest these polls are wrong).

Wilders – advocating a Dutch departure from the EU (or ‘Nexit’) and tighter controls on immigration – is expected to lead the PVV to becoming the biggest party delegation from the Netherlands in the next parliament. He is also expected to link up with Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front and other far-right leaders to form a new political group. (The storm at home led Wilders to cancel a trip to Belgium to address the congress of Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang), which may also join such a group.)

Although founding member of the European Union, the Dutch have become progressively more eurosceptic. Many Dutch voters like the idea of less Europe. However, Wilders’ new rhetoric – a naked expression of fear and loathing of a particular group in Dutch society – may cause voters to follow the politicians in abandoning the PVV.

But Wilders thinks things through. A snap poll after the local elections (reported in English on EurActiv) found that the party would lose seats in a national election. 11% of respondents said they were less likely to vote for Wilders due to his remarks, but 56% said they would not vote for him anyway. His provocation could be calculated: support in the polls may dip, but in the privacy of the voting booth, it could help to shore up support.

Now the European Parliament election takes on an even bigger significance for Wilders and his party. The future of the PVV – and of a far-right group in Brussels and Strasbourg – may depend on whether he can return more or fewer MEPs in May.

Suzanne Schols - Burson-Marsteller Brussels
with Diederik Peereboom and David O’Leary