In another victory for the populist right in Europe, the Netherlands’ anti-immigrant Party of Freedom, and its leader Geert Wilders, won the country’s general elections in late November. Meanwhile, Slovakia returned the populist-right Prime Minister Robert Fico to office in October; and in Italy, Prime Minister Georgia Meloni of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) has now been in power since September 2022. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party, a populist-right stalwart that had governed for eight years, was ousted to widespread surprise in October by a coalition of opposition parties—though not without winning more votes than any other party. And elsewhere in Europe—including France, Germany, Austria, and Belgium—polls show the far right is increasingly popular.

Still, Wilders’ victory in the Netherlands was a shock. No voter surveys predicted it. Now he’s trying to form a governing coalition with political parties that, for more than a decade, had all rejected including him in any government—not least for his extensive history of incendiary rhetoric: He’s notably said he hates Islam and considers the Prophet Muhammad to be the devil. Yet his strident nationalism and animosity toward immigrants have long resonated among a segment of the Dutch electorate; Wilders is the longest-tenured member of the Dutch Parliament, which he first joined in 1998. But his party had never won as much as the roughly 23.5 percent it got in November—more than double its total from just two years ago. So what does Wilders’ success say about voters’ feelings in the Netherlands—and in Europe more broadly?

Matthias Matthijs is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Matthijs says the Netherlands’ election results are both the result of tactical missteps by the country’s longtime ruling party and an example of rising support for the populist right across the continent—mostly among rural voters, as the political divide between them and their urban counterparts continues to expand.

As Matthijs sees it, rural Europeans’ sympathy for the populist right has two major sources: anxiety about immigrants, whose numbers have climbed to levels unseen since before the pandemic; and antipathy toward prevailing climate policies, which threaten the livelihoods of many farmers. And so, with populist-right parties standing to gain a significant number of seats in next year’s European Parliament elections, Matthijs says, Wilders’ election belongs to a pattern that could mean big changes on the continent—beginning with immigration and the transition to renewable energy.

Michael Bluhm: Geert Wilders has been in Dutch politics for more than 25 years—but for most of that time he’s been an outcast for his extreme, racist rhetoric. How did his party become the most popular in the Netherlands?

Fabien Barral

Matthias Matthijs: It’s a good question. Wilders has done well in the past, getting as much as 15 percent of the vote. But this time, he did much better than polls predicted—even polls done a week or two before the election predicted a maximum of 20 percent.

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