World

Geert Wilders, Reclusive Provocateur, Rises Before Dutch Vote

Geert Wilders, center, a far-right icon and one-man political party of the Netherlands, greeting supporters during a campaign stop in Spijkenisse this month. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

SPIJKENISSE, the Netherlands — He wants to end immigration from Muslim countries, tax head scarves and ban the Quran. He is partly of Indonesian heritage, and dyes his hair bright blond. He is omnipresent on social media but lives as a political phantom under police protection, rarely campaigning in person and reportedly sleeping in a different location every night.

He has structured his party so that he is the only official, giving him the liberty to remain, above all things, in complete control, and a provocateur and an uncompromising verbal bomb thrower.

Geert Wilders, far-right icon, is one of Europe’s unusual politicians, not least because he comes from the Netherlands, one of Europe’s most socially liberal countries, with a centuries-long tradition of promoting religious tolerance and welcoming immigrants.

How he and his party fare in the March 15 elections could well signal how the far right will do in pivotal elections in France, Germany and possibly Italy later this year, and ultimately determine the future of the European Union. Mr. Wilders (pronounced VIL-ders) has promised to demand a “Nexit” referendum on whether the Netherlands should follow Britain’s example and leave the union.

“The Netherlands is kind of a bellwether, a lot of trends manifest themselves here first,” said Hans Anker, a Dutch political strategist who has worked both in the Netherlands and the United States.

Remarkably, Mr. Wilders, 53, has managed to build a movement despite his infrequent public appearances. Living under threat since the police discovered plots against him in 2004 has turned him into a politician ahead of his time, using the internet and later social media to talk to voters without the filter of journalists.

It has proved a particularly effective means of reaching disillusioned citizens. Other politicians have followed his lead but almost none have done it as effectively, Dutch experts said.

Right now Mr. Wilders’s party looks set to win more seats than any other or to come in second. However, he has historically polled better before elections than he has performed in them. Still, after pollsters underestimated the likelihood of both Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump last year, no one is relying on predictions.

Mr. Wilders is close ideologically to Marine Le Pen of France, the far-right National Front leader who is set to make it to a runoff in presidential elections this spring. He was also close to Mr. Trump’s campaign, and is sometimes even called the “Dutch Trump,” though he has a far longer political history and as many differences as similarities.

Being a party of one also allows him to avoid campaign finance and disclosure rules, leaving the sources of his money murky, though he is thought to receive funding from at least one American conservative group.

Leave a Comment