To the surprise of many, the results for Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) in last Thursday's European elections in the Netherlands were disappointing. Wilders blamed the low voter turnout and the fact that his voters were not interested in the elections for the European Parliament (EP). He may have a point. A poll taken on Thursday shows that the PVV would have done much better in national elections for the Dutch Parliament. But there are also indications of the opposite. Wilders did very well in the previous European elections five years ago. Voter turnout was equally low then, but Wilders' voters did show up despite their lack of interest in the European Union.
So the question remains: Why did the voters, while remaining loyal to Wilders, fail to turn out last Thursday?
Five years ago, Wilders promised his voters that he would not align himself with any foreign parties in the EP. This time, however, he went to the European elections in coalition with the French Front National [FN] of Marine Le Pen. Having met Ms Le Pen, Wilders says he is convinced that she wants to break with the anti-Semitic past of her party. Wilders, who is one of Israel's most outspoken supporters in Europe, said , "Marine Le Pen is not her father. She is not anti-Semitic. She cares about France, its identity and its sovereignty."
Wilders is also convinced that nothing much is to be expected anymore of the French establishment parties for the defense of France's identity. He sees the FN as the last chance the French have against the rising tide of Islamisation. Wilders, who is on a mission to halt the advance of Islam in the West, reckons that he will be able to influence the FN in a pro-Israeli direction by forging links to the younger Le Pen. Although the old guard is still present in the FN, and although some of Marine Le Pen's advisors hold dangerous geopolitical views, Wilders was willing to take the gamble of allying himself with the FN. He has never been the kind of politician who will sit idly by because he is afraid of taking risks.
Nevertheless, it seems that Wilders failed to convince his voters. The remarks by Marine's father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, on the eve of that very day proved toxic for Wilders. During a political debate in France, the elderly Le Pen gleefully suggested that the ebola virus will solve Europe's problem with immigration from Africa. The remark was widely publicized in the Dutch media, who devoted even more attention to it than the media in France. Dutch public opinion reacted with indignation. Even though Wilders immediately dismissed Jean-Marie Le Pen's remark as "reprehensible" and emphasized that "Marine Le Pen is in charge of the FN today," it cost him dearly in the election booths on the following day.
Nigel Farage, the leader of the British opposition party UKIP, has also met Marine Le Pen and was equally impressed with her. However, unlike Wilders, Farage is cautious. He does not want to ally himself with the FN. He has suggested that Ms Le Pen first disband her party and establish a new one without her 89-year old father and the old guard.
Perhaps Wilders should have waited to forge links to Marine Le Pen's party until her father's increasing years solved the problem of his presence. Wilders, however, seems a man in a hurry. He sees time running out for Europe. His haste may have led him to take rash decisions. He has also been living as a virtual prisoner for almost ten years now, under death threats from al-Qaeda and other Islamist organizations. He fails to understand that for some people, Islam does not seem to be a problem as overwhelming as it is for him. His rhetoric, though understandable in his circumstances, is apparently too harsh for many people, who might have been able to accept more reasoned evaluations.
Last year, Wilders distributed stickers of the Saudi flag with the text "Islam is a lie, Muhammad is a criminal, the Koran is poison" in place of the Islamic creed. At first, the Saudis did not react to the sticker. However, a few days before the European elections in the Netherlands, they declared an economic boycott against the Netherlands because of Wilders's sticker. The boycott, which violates the WTO agreements that Saudi Arabia is bound to respect under international law, will cost Dutch companies millions of euros.
Saudi Arabia, a country where apostates are executed, where Christians are forbidden to wear a cross, let alone build a church, where women are not allowed to drive a car, and where Jews are not allowed to enter, felt insulted by the action of one single Dutch opposition leader and retaliated against the entire Dutch nation.
Wilders' political opponents immediately blamed him for the possible loss of thousands of jobs in the Netherlands. Dutch companies, which shamelessly accept Saudi dictates that no Jewish employees may work with their Saudi partners, are threatening to sue Wilders for the loss of contracts. The Dutch government has distanced itself from Wilders. Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans traveled to Riyadh last weekend in an attempt to have the boycott lifted. "We have to make clear, and the outcome of the European elections will help in this regard, that the majority of the Dutch do not support Wilders' sticker initiative," the minister said.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that both he and the minister of Economic Affairs Henk Kamp are also prepared to go to Riyadh. He did not, however, mention Minister of Employment Lodewijk Asscher. Sending him to Riyadh might be perceived by the Saudis as adding insult to injury: Asscher is Jewish.
Needless to say, none of the European Union partners of the Netherlands stands by the Dutch when they are confronting an illegal boycott by Saudi Arabia. Common EU declarations criticizing Israel are so much easier to make -- and need less courage -- than risking the anger of the Saudis.