Far-Right Party Surges in Dutch Parliament, While Voters Express Economic Concerns

BY Larisa Epatko  June 10, 2010 at 1:41 PM EST


Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders. Photo by Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty Images

Elections in the Netherlands on Wednesday showed significant growth in support for a far-right politician, who has taken a strong stance on immigration, and a pro-business party that backs cutting government spending, reflecting voters’ concerns over the European economic downturn.

The far-right Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, grew from nine to 24 seats in the 150-seat parliament following Wednesday’s vote. Wilders wants to ban Muslim face veils and the building of new mosques in the country of 16.6 million with a Muslim population of 1 million.

Paul Ames, GlobalPost’s Belgium-based regional correspondent, said Wilders built on people’s fears about the influence of Islam on the Netherlands.

“The Netherlands has a tradition of being a very tolerant society — tolerant of newcomers, but also tolerant in other ways, for example, on homosexuality. And [Wilders] built up this momentum suggesting that the increased influence of Islam in Dutch society was actually eroding that tradition of tolerance in the country,” said Ames. “I think he built very much on people’s fears of that, and also fears of crime. He linked crime in the inner cities to immigrant youths, Muslim youths in particular.”

At the same time, the center-left Labor Party — with its leader Job Cohen, who has reached out to immigrant populations including the Islamic minority in the Netherlands, Ames said — hung on to most of its seats in parliament, going from 33 in the previous parliament to 30 after Wednesday’s vote.

A strong showing for the pro-business People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or Liberal Party, under Mark Rutte, reflected the voters’ wishes to address the Netherlands’ large debt and deficit, after seeing the economic problems in Greece and other countries in southern Europe, said Ames. Rutte’s party went from 22 seats to 31.

Taking the largest hit was the Christian Democratic Party, which went from 41 to 21 seats in parliament, leading Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende to not only step down as prime minister but quit as a member of parliament as well.

In February, Balkenende’s centre-left coalition fell apart when parliament voted to withdraw the country’s 2,000 troops from Afghanistan, which Balkenende opposed, said Ames.

But Afghanistan was not much of an issue during Wednesday’s election because there’s a general consensus among the parties now that the troops will come home before the end of the year, he said.

Now, the parties are wrangling to form coalitions for a majority in parliament, which could take weeks.