Immigration, Ukraine Treaty Boost Dutch Nationalists

The Freedom Party’s rise in the polls reveals widespread dissatisfaction in the Netherlands.

Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders poses for a photograph with his wife during the state opening of parliament in The Hague, September 16, 2014
Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders poses for a photograph with his wife during the state opening of parliament in The Hague, September 16, 2014 (Rijksoverheid/Phil Nijhuis)

The nationalist Freedom Party has overtaken both ruling parties in the Netherlands as public opinion appears to be turning decidedly against both immigration and a European Union treaty with Ukraine that will be put to voters in April.

An average of polls compiled by the national broadcaster NOS shows the Freedom Party leading with 36 out of 150 seats in parliament.

While the party, led by Geert Wilders, has often polled high between elections, it has never been this popular.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberals would come in second with 23 seats, down from forty.

Labor, the junior party in Rutte’s coalition, would suffer an historic blow and lose 24 of its 36 seats, being overtaken — for the first time — by the far-left Socialists.

Immigration

Wilders’ unabashed opposition to immigration, especially from Muslim countries, helps explain his rise in the polls.

Nearly 50,000 people applied for asylum in the Netherlands last year, double the number from the year before and up from 15,000 in 2013.

The government says it expects 58,000 more arrivals this year, which would surpass the record from 1994 when nearly as many people fled to the Netherlands from Yugoslavia.

Officials warn that the actual number for 2016 could reach 93,000.

While the civil war in Syria has boosted refugee flows into Europe, the majority of those seeking asylum in the Netherlands are from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Somalia.

The record influx of people threatens to overwhelm the Dutch asylum system, including local governments who must shelter refugees.

There have been protests in small cities and towns across the country against the placement of asylum seekers.

Wilders has called for a full immigration stop. Many voters appear to agree. The Netherlands Institute for Social Research has found that just 13 percent want the country to admit more refugees while 66 percent said in a Peil.nl survey (PDF) they wanted Rutte’s government voted out.

Ukraine referendum

Also working in Wilders’ favor is a referendum due to be held in April on the European Union’s associated treaty with Ukraine.

Although the Dutch parliament has already ratified the agreement and the plebiscite is not binding, the government would be under huge pressure to pull out if the vote went against it.

A survey conducted by the news program EenVandaag earlier this month revealed that nearly three out of four voters oppose the agreement.

Other polls have shown less skepticism, especially when voters are told that the treaty deals primarily with trade and is opposed by Russia.

Russia is widely blamed in the Netherlands for an airline crash in eastern Ukraine that killed 193 Dutch tourists two years ago. Russian-backed rebels are believed to have downed the jet.

Whatever the outcome, the referendum campaign can only raise Wilders’ standing with Euroskeptic voters. The Socialists are the only other party to oppose the treaty with Ukraine.

Coalition tinkering

If Wilders were to sustain his popularity going into the election next year, forming a government would be difficult. Nearly all other parties have outright refused to go into coalition with him.

Labor and Rutte’s liberals would need the support of at least the Christian Democrats and the smaller liberal Democrats to stay in power. Such a centrist coalition would only confirm Wilders’ claim that the entire political establishment is determined to keep him out of power.

The polls allow for a left-wing government, but it would need five parties, from the center-right Christian Democrats to the far-left Socialists. That seems unlikely.

The Freedom Party backed Rutte’s first coalition with the Christian Democrats from 2010 to 2012 without joining the government. The three-party deal broke down when Wilders refused to support deeper spending cuts.