Geert Wilders: Pushing the envelope

He is one of the best-known Dutch politicians. His views about Islam have offended Muslims and non-Muslims alike, in the Netherlands and around the world. He’s the most famous bleach-blond since Marilyn Monroe. But just who is Geert Wilders, and what makes him tick?

Two young Dutch journalists experienced the many sides of Geert Wilders while writing a biography of the Dutch politician. It’s called ‘It can’t get much crazier’, a phrase Wilders himself often uses during debates.

Arthur Blok says they chose the title because Wilders’s opinions about Islam have been getting increasingly extreme, and can’t go much further.

Mr Blok and co-author Jonathan van Melle (see box ) were taken aback by Mr Wilders’ style. They initially enjoyed their subject’s cooperation in writing the book. But after Mr Blok published a web-log critical of Mr Wilders, he withdrew his cooperation, and went so far as to demand that they could not use anything he had already told them.

On the advice of their publisher, the two ignored Mr Wilders’  demands and went ahead with the biography. So how much does Geert Wilders’ past help to explain the role he plays in the Dutch political landscape? Are his extreme views rooted in principled beliefs, or is he an opportunistic populist?

Unexprected gift

Geert Wilders grew up in the south of the Netherlands, and to this day retains traces of his southern accent. He was the last of four children, born five years after the next oldest child at time his parents didn’t think they could have any more children. His mother always told him he was “an unexpected gift” .

As a teenager, Wilders was a rebel. He wore his as yet un-bleached hair long, and often kept his leather jacket on during class. He even had a pair of leather pants. He and his friends liked to go out drinking, and occasionally smoked marijuana.

A turning point was when he went to Israel, where he worked for some months on a moshav, a collective farm. He was impressed by the Israeli people, and to this day maintains a strong bond with the country. But his wanderlust did not stop at Israel. He has also traveled extensively in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Back in the Netherlands, he won a seat in parliament for the conservative VVD in 1998, but it took him a few more years before he realized his ambition and became the party spokesperson on foreign policy. During those years, he impressed friend and foe alike with his enthusiasm and knowledge. He was known as being on the right wing of the party, but his extreme views, particularly his concern about the Islamification of the Netherlands, were not yet in evidence.

That began to change after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centre. Wilders had never stopped travelling, and in the months after the attacks, his colleagues were impressed by the breadth of his knowledge of the region. In one case, a correspondent recalls Mr Wilders warning of the threat posed by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shiite leader, long before he became well-known outside Iraq.

Breaking point
Wilders was unhappy with the moderate stances of the Conservative VVD leadership, and increasingly challenged the party line, especially after the attacks on the World Trade Centre. He accused the VVD leadership of embracing a multi-cultural worldview, and underestimating the threat posed by Muslims in the Netherlands. But in the end, it was his opposition to Turkey’s potential membership in the EU which was the breaking point. He left the VVD, and started the process of forming his own party.

The Freedom Party is more a movement than a political party. It has no members, only supporters. But Geert Wilders learned from the travesty of the List Pim Fortuyn, the right-wing party established by the flamboyant populist which floundered after Fortuyn’s murder. The LPF caucus was inexperienced and undisciplined, and quickly self-destructed due to internal bickering.

The Freedom Party is nothing if not disciplined. But Wilders was also careful in selecting his list of candidates for parliament, and trained them extensively. In his role as party leader, Mr Wilders is a micro-manager who likes to be in control.

Politician pur sang
Author Jonathan van Melle says Wilders is a politician pur sang“He loves politics, he can’t live without politics. So if the Freedom Party loses all its seats, then Wilders has no life anymore.”Both van Melle and Blok say Wilders fully operates based on a principled belief that what he’s advocating is the right thing to do. But they also agree that Wilders knows better than anyone how to communicate those beliefs to a broad audience. So far, Geert Wilders has played his cards very well. If a snap election was called, he would almost certainly get more votes than in the last election. But even for someone who likes pushing the envelope, it can’t get much crazier.

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Geert Wilders: Pushing the envelope
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