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Party of far-right populist set for stunning victory in Dutch election

Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, celebrates in his party office after his party's victory in Wednesday's general election, on Nov. 23, 2023 in The Hague, Netherlands.
Carl Court
Getty Images
Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, celebrates in his party office after his party's victory in Wednesday's general election, on Nov. 23, 2023 in The Hague, Netherlands.

BERLIN – He has called Islam a "backward religion," he's named the prophet Mohammad a "pedophile," he wants to ban mosques and now Geert Wilders and his party are poised to win the Dutch national election by a wide margin.

Wilders, a politician who has made a name for himself through his anti-Islam and anti-European Union rhetoric, appears to be in the lead in the Netherlands' election with the most parliamentary seats, according to early results. "The Dutch voter has spoken," said the 60-year-old in a victory speech Wednesday evening at a café in The Hague, "We will ensure that the Netherlands will return to the Dutch."

Early election results show Wilders' Party for Freedom winning 37 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, 12 seats ahead of its closest rival, the Labor-Green Alliance led by EU climate policy veteran Frans Timmerman.

Still, with fewer than a quarter of seats in the national parliament, Wilders will now have the first shot at approaching other parties to try and form a coalition government. It won't be easy. Most parties have vowed not to govern with Wilders due to his extremist views.

In addition to wanting to remove the Netherlands from the European Union, Wilders inflammatory views on Islam have prompted death threats and he has lived under police protection for years. His comments have led to protests in countries with large Muslim populations and in Pakistan a religious leader issued a Fatwa against him.

But a potential center-right partner has yet to rule out joining forces with Wilders' party to form the next Dutch government. The center-right party VVD's Dilan Yeşilgöz, who has replaced former Prime Minister Mark Rutte as party leader, indicated she'd be willing to enter coalition talks with Wilders, a signal that prompted Wilders to tone down much of his anti-immigrant rhetoric late in his campaign in the hopes of being part of the next government.

"I understand very well that parties do not want to be in a government with a party that wants unconstitutional measures," Wilders explained Wednesday night as election results were coming in, "We are not going to talk about mosques, Qurans, and Islamic schools."

Wilders' victory is the latest sign of the resurgence of anti-immigrant populist parties in Europe in the wake of high inflation and a rise in migrants arriving to Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Earlier this autumn, the party of left-wing populist Robert Fico won the Slovakia national election after campaigning against migration and European support for Ukraine.

Last year in Italy, Giorgia Meloni won the election for her Brothers of Italy party, campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform. In Germany, the far-right Alternativ für Deutschland Party is currently polling ahead of each of the three parties that make up the country's coalition government, alarming political observers.

In a post on X on Wednesday evening, Hungary's populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán congratulated Wilders, exclaiming "The winds of change are here!"

Despite his party's resounding victory, though, Wilders might not have the numbers to form a coalition government. Four other major centrist parties – Timmerman's Labor-Green Alliance, Yeşilgöz's VVD, the NSC of former Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt, and the liberal D66 Party – appear to have enough seats to unite to form a coalition government, but negotiations could last months.

The last time four centrist parties entered into coalition negotiations it took more than half a year to form a government.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.