As many of us are well aware; there are elections in the Netherlands on March 15. Unlike previous Dutch elections, however, these ones are huge international news. I’ll be honest, aside from the cliches (Venus by Shocking Blue, clogs, windmills, pot), we don’t know a huge amount about the Netherlands here in Australia. This is the first Dutch election which (in my memory anyway) has even made the Australian news. This isn’t your standard Dutch election though. This one could be won by an eccentric right wing populist.

*Cue interest*

Of course this eccentric populist is the Party For Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders. A man known as much for his anti-islamic rhetoric as his Christopher Walken in A View To A Kill look. He’s often called a ‘Dutch Trump’ (yeah, yeah, I know that sounds like a euphemism). The Dutch contestant in a seemingly Eurovision-esque populist pageant. He speaks of ‘Moroccan scum’ and taking the Netherlands out of the EU. Yes, Wilders knows all the hits.

Unlike Trump though, Wilders is in many ways a career politician. Starting out as a speechwriter, Wilders wrote a report for the Dutch parliament; Islamic Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East in 1999. This report predicted that extremism in the Middle East will cause a torrent of immigration which will force the Netherlands to deal with similar kinds of religious extremism domestically. The report was completely ignored by the Dutch political establishment. Wilders party at the time, the People’s Party For Freedom and Democracy (VVD), made Wilders Foreign Affairs Spokesman in 2002, around the same time Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali refugee and vocal critic of Islam, joined the party. By 2004 the VVD were in a coalition government and the pair declared a ‘Liberal Jihad’ on Islam which involved criticising party policy on things like Turkey joining the EU. This ended up with Wilders leaving the VVD to start his own political movement. By 2006 Wilders started the Party for Freedom (PVV) and remains the leader of the PVV to this day.

Prior to starting the PVV, Wilders politics would best be described as Neo-Conservative. He had been in contact with several US Neocon think tanks while a member of the VVD, however in the last decade Wilders has all but abandoned the ideology in favour of right wing populism. The more extreme his statements become, the more support he gets. A surprising and frankly incredible achievement in a country which values pluralism, liberalism and tolerance above pretty much everything else. However, it’s these Dutch values which are Wilders secret weapon. If you accuse him of racism he says he is defending Dutch liberal values from the scourge of Islamism. It’s a similar strategy Marine Le Pen is using in France. You either hate Islam or you hate liberalism but you have to hate one of them. Wilders supports women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, secualarism, embryo selection, euthanasia. Islam doesn’t. Whose side are you on?

We here in Australia have known about Wilders for a couple of years. The overly censorious Aussie left tried successfully to have him banned from doing a talk at the far right Q Society back in 2012. He was more successful in 2015 when he launched the Australian Liberty Alliance political party at a secret location in Perth. A public media conference held the following day attracted a small but vocal group of protestors. I do wonder how many of them thought they were chanting at potentially the next leader of the Netherlands..

Wilders has shot up the polls in the last couple of years. The nature of Dutch politics means in order for him to become the next PM he will almost certainly have to form a coalition government. Incumbent PM Mark Rutte (VVD) is currently trailing Wilders in the polls. The issue for Wilders is that as he plans to do things like ban the Koran, leave the EU and put a hold on all Muslim immigration into the Netherlands there’s a good chance no other party will want to form government with him. There are 28 parties running in this election so government will likely end up being formed by more than two parties.

As I have said previously in relation to the French elections; I’m not convinced polling is ever accurate, let alone favorable, towards populist candidates. We saw it with Brexit and Trump last year and I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see it again here. Wilders seems to have the edge right now but I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if his lead is bigger than the polling would have us believe. People see voting for a populist as an act of silent rebellion which they can indulge in while inside the polling booth, away from judging eyes. Just over a quarter of Dutch voters admit to wanting Wilders PVV to win the election now (more than any other party), but how many are keeping it to themselves? All will be revealed on March 15.

In a political climate where populism has empowered enormous sections of the population to activate against an establishment which has left them behind, it is always interesting to see what happens when this kind of populism is tested in a liberal democracy. The Netherlands is not the US but for us in Australia it is the first chance we’ve had to see an election like this in a country around about the same size as ours (Australia has roughly 23 million people to the Netherlands 17 million). This might be the first Dutch election we’ve really paid attention to but it’s one we could definitely learn from. This election is about many of the same issues occupying Australian political discourse at the moment. We’re a country of similar population, wealth and demographics to the Netherlands (as opposed to America who are much bigger with social and economic issues we rarely have to deal with in either Australia or the Netherlands). We should be paying attention to this.

Wilders might not win in March but populists like him are going nowhere. The 2017 Dutch elections are the first of three major elections in Europe this year, all with varying populist influences (the others being France in April and Germany in September). Wilders, however, could be the first big domino to fall in 2017, not only for the EU but for global establishment politics in general. With populism changing the face of politics in this country, any chance to gain some perspective into global political trends should be embraced. It seems, so far, the Netherlands has our attention.

By Jasper Clifford-Smith