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Wilder’s Gains Four EU Seats In Dutch Vote

June 5, 2009
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A6

Dutch voters gave a populist, anti-immigrant party its first four seats ever in the European Parliament, sending a warning to incumbent European governments, according to exit polls.

The triumph for the Party for Freedom and its leader Geert Wilders kicked off four days of European Union-wide elections involving more than 12,000 candidates competing for more than 730 seats.

Mr. Wilders’s party was expected to win four of the 25 seats allocated to the Netherlands, according to exit polls by Dutch news agency ANP.

EU leaders fear nationalist parties are gaining ground by exploiting anxieties over job losses brought on by the financial crisis. Nationalist fringe parties are expected to pick up seats in the U.K., France, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Austria and Belgium. Other groups fear they could form a disruptive alliance. Still, such parties are unlikely to tip the balance of power in Brussels.

U.K. voters also went to the polls Thursday to elect European and local representatives, but full results weren’t immediately available. The Czech Republic and Ireland vote Friday, and the rest of the 27-nation bloc goes to the polls this weekend.

The European Parliament has little power, and turnout is expected to be low. But mainstream politicians and analysts have cast these elections — the first since the onset of the recession — as a political bellwether.

[Geert Wilders]
Party for Freedom leader, Geert Wilders. AP

No politician exemplifies establishment fears more than Mr. Wilders, a charismatic orator whose platinum-blond hair has been compared to Mozart’s wig. He is a polarizing figure in European politics who has been banned from entering the U.K. under hate-speech laws. He travels with bodyguards and keeps where he sleeps a secret.

Mr. Wilders, 45 years old, has sat in the Dutch Parliament since 1998. In 2004, he left the conservative People’s Party over a dispute about whether Turkey should be allowed to join the EU. (It isn’t a member but has applied to join.) He founded the Party for Freedom and discovered a knack for tapping into Dutch xenophobia.

The Netherlands has 800,000 Muslims, mostly Turks and Moroccans, in a population of 17 million. Mr. Wilders has progressively ramped up his anti-Islamic rhetoric, calling the Koran a “fascist book” and making a movie depicting Islam as inherently violent. The British government cited the movie, “Fitna,” as grounds to ban Mr. Wilders from visiting the U.K. earlier this year.

Mr. Wilders added a strong anti-EU plank to his platform during a 2005 Dutch referendum on a new EU constitution. He helped defeat the measure, effectively scuttling the project.

His party, known by its Dutch acronym, the PVV, won nine of 150 seats in parliament in the 2006 national elections. Polls now show that roughly one-fifth of Dutch voters support Mr. Wilders, making the PVV the most popular political group in the country and its leader a long-shot candidate for prime minister. The next general election, however, isn’t until 2011.

Mr. Wilders favors a style straight from the populist playbook. “He’s like Ross Perot or George W. Bush in his ability to connect to ordinary people,” says Catherine de Vries, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam.

The party’s platform in this election promises to fight crime, deport illegal immigrants and dilute the power of EU institutions in Brussels.

“He’s been successful in taping into real fears about the economy and foreigners taking away jobs,” says Emine Bozkurt, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who is of Turkish origin.

Mr. Wilders is running but says he won’t take a seat in the European Parliament, which sits in Brussels and Strasbourg. He prefers to focus on building a coalition in national politics, says an aide. A deputy, Barry Madlener, will lead the party’s parliament delegation.

By JOHN W. MILLER

Write to John W. Miller at john.miller@dowjones.com

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