Wilders: Dutch far-right leader falls at last hurdle (again)

Jo Biddle
Netherlands' politician Geert Wilders (C) has been deceived by the polls in the past when expectations hit hard reality, and the 2017 general elections proved no exception

History repeated itself again for far-right MP Geert Wilders. After riding high in the polls, in the end he failed in his dream to beat the establishment.

During his two-decade career in politics, Wilders has been deceived by the polls in the past when expectations hit hard reality, and the 2017 general elections proved no exception.

For months he had been topping the opinion polls, but on Wednesday exit polls suggested he had been beaten into second place behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte with 19 seats like two other parties.

But the anti-Islam Wilders, 53, had reason to trumpet his Freedom Party's success as it boosted its number of MPs from the 12 seats it had in the outgoing parliament.

"We won seats. The first gains are made. And Rutte is not rid of me yet," Wilders said on Twitter.

Early Thursday he said he would be prepared to work with the new government -- even though most of the parties have vowed not to collaborate with him.

"I would still like to co-govern as the PVV, if possible. But if that doesn't work ... we'll support the cabinet, where needed, on the issues that are important to us," he told reporters.

Wilders has repeatedly said he believes he is on a mission to halt "the Islamisation" of the West.

- Fascination for politics -

The PVV's one-page manifesto promised to close the country's borders to Muslim immigrants, ban the Koran and close all mosques.

This uncompromising stance has won Wilders international notoriety, and death threats. He is on Al-Qaeda's hit list, and has lived for over a decade under 24-hour protection, in a government safe house, fitted with a panic room.

He has proved a divisive figure in The Netherlands, which long prided itself on its now-fading reputation of tolerance.

Born in 1963 in southern Venlo, close to the German border, Wilders grew up in a Catholic family with his brother and two sisters.

It was in the 1980s that he became interested in politics, his older brother Paul told Der Spiegel magazine recently.

"He was neither clearly on the left or the right at the time, nor was he xenophobic. But he was fascinated by the political game, the struggle for power and influence," Paul Wilders said.

His dislike for Islam appears to have developed slowly. He spent time in Israel on a kibbutz, witnessing first-hand tensions with the Palestinians.

He was also shocked by the assassinations of far-right leader Pim Fortuyn in 2002 and the radical anti-Islam filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004.

When he heard the news of Van Gogh's murder: "I remember my legs were shaking with shock and indignation," he wrote in a 2012 book. "I can honestly say that I felt anger, not fear."

- Discrimination -

Down the years, his tone has hardened. And he has vowed not to be silenced, despite being convicted of discrimination last year for remarks he made about Moroccan-Dutch citizens.

Indeed, the high-profile trial boosted his visibility only months after Brexit and just as Donald Trump won the US presidential race.

A savvy master of manipulating the media, Wilders has delighted in tweeting his thoughts direct to supporters.

Wilders was a guest at the Republican Party convention that nominated Trump last year, and his campaign donations have overwhelmingly come from the rightwing American activist David Horowitz, whose foundation donated about 130,000 euros ($137,000) to Wilders in 2015 and 2016.

Wilders entered politics in 1998 in the VVD, and although they were once quite close, there is now no love lost with Rutte.

In 2006 he quit the VVD to found his own party. It won nine seats that year, but then in 2010 scooped up 24 MPs -- the PVV's best showing to date.

Some observers see Wilders as an isolated figure. He is married to a Hungarian woman, but they have no children. His party consists of just one person: him. And his security means he has little contact with the outside world.

"Geert's world has become very small," his brother told Spiegel. "It consists of the parliament, public events and his apartment. He can hardly go anywhere else."