Geert Wilders, the Dutch populist whose anti-Islam comments have led to death threats, could become the next leader of the Netherlands following an election upset for his Freedom Party (PVV) on Wednesday.
After 25 years in Dutch politics without holding office, Wilders was set to lead coalition government talks and has a good chance of becoming prime minister.
An exit poll on Wednesday evening showed the PVV in a clear lead, 10 seats ahead of its closest rival, the Labour/Green Left combination led by Hans Timmermans.
The poll appeared to take even 60-year-old political veteran Wilders by surprise.
In his first reaction, posted in a video on X, formerly Twitter, he spread his arms wide, put his face in his hands and said simply “35!” — the number of parliamentary seats an exit poll forecast for the PVV.
The latest count has the PVV with 37 seats in the 150-seat chamber.
“We will have to find ways to live up to the hopes of our voters, to put the Dutch back as No. 1,” Wilders said, adding that “the Netherlands will be returned to the Dutch, the asylum tsunami and migration will be curbed.”
Whether he can piece together a stable governing coalition with former political foes remains to be seen, given his long history of alienating mainstream politicians and his fiery anti-Islam rhetoric. He has been a member of the House of Representatives since 1998, first for the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, before forming the PVV.
The politician is one of the Netherlands’ most recognizable figures thanks to his dyed blond mane, but little is known about his private life, except that he is married to a Hungarian-born woman and has two cats who each have their own Instagram and X accounts.
Convicted for discrimination
Publicly, he has called the prophet Mohammad a “pedophile,” Islam a “fascist ideology” and “backward religion,” and wants to ban mosques and Qur’ans, the Muslim holy book, in the Netherlands.
In 2009, the British government refused to let him visit the country, saying he posed a threat to “community harmony and therefore public security.” Wilders had been invited to Britain by a member of Parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords, to show his 15-minute film about the Qur’an, Fitna.
The film sparked violent protests around the Muslim world just four years after Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed by an Islamist who didn’t like van Gogh’s depiction of Muslim women.
Wilders was convicted for discrimination against Moroccans after leading a chant at a campaign rally in 2014, when he asked the crowd whether they wanted more, or fewer Moroccans. After supporters chanted “Fewer!” he answered: “We’re going to take care of that.”
Wilders said in 2021, when the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, that he was the victim of a “witch hunt” and a broken legal system.
Critical of EU, Ukraine support
Having made strongly anti-EU comments in the past, he moderated his tone over the election campaign as he sought to get his party into government. He will have to work with pro-EU parties to form a coalition.
But he kept to his strict anti-immigration, Dutch-first approach, winning his PVV its largest support in its 17-year existence.
“It’s enough now. The Netherlands can’t take it anymore. We have to think about our own people first now. Borders closed. Zero asylum-seekers,” Wilders said in a television debate on the eve of the election.
“Wilders is by far the best campaigner. Even his political opponents will admit that,” author Willem Post of the Netherlands’ Clingendael Institute think-tank said.
A self-proclaimed fan of nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Wilders is explicitly anti-EU, urging the Netherlands to take back control of its borders, to significantly reduce its payments to the union, and to block the entrance of any new members.
Wilders has also repeatedly said the Netherlands should stop providing arms to Ukraine, as he says the country needs the weapons to be able to defend itself. However, none of the parties he could potentially form a government with share these ideas.