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5 min read

Geert Wilders: heir apparent to an anxious nation

The election of a populist has shocked The Netherlands. Wim Houtman unpacks the result and explores anxious attitudes among electors, particularly Christians.

Wim Houtman is a senior editor with Nederlands Dagblad, a Christian daily newspaper in the Netherlands.

A politician in a suit stands amid a scrum of reporters holding microphones
Geert Wilders is at the centre of media attention in The Netherlands.

Much has been made in recent years of the similarity in appearance - their hair dos especially - between Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Geert Wilders. All three sport this striking blond head of hair, invariably cut in the same style - be it with loosely non-conformist locks or carefully eccentric waves. 

It’s their trademark, it sets them apart - instantly recognizable. And it sends a message: Here is a leader who stands out, who doesn’t care what is ‘normal’ or ‘accepted’ or what others may think; he knows what he wants, he knows what you want and he will go for it. 

Until a fortnight ago, Dutch politician Geert Wilders was the leader of a relatively minor party on the far right, with a strong anti-Islam, anti-immigration agenda. His populist Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) had been around since 2006, hovering between 6 and 16 per cent of the vote. But suddenly, on November 22nd, he scored a whopping 24 per cent, becoming the largest party with 37 seats in the Lower House of the Dutch parliament, way ahead of the runner-up, the left-wing alliance of social democrats and greens at 25 seats. 

In the Dutch electoral system, this automatically gives Geert Wilders the lead in forming a new government. And here the problem starts. 

Now he wants to cash in on his victory to finally and decisively put his stamp on the country’s policies. At 60 years old, it may well be his last chance. 

So far, his party has been a wallflower in the political arena. Other parties have found his standpoints too extreme to bring on board. Today, however, looks very different. As the leader of the largest political party, Geert Wilders seems destined to become Prime Minister - at least he himself claims so. It would seem like going against the will of the people to stand in his way. But still, most other parties are reluctant to work with him.  

In its leader comment the morning after, the Dutch Christian daily newspaper Nederlands Dagblad recalled what kind of party and what kind of leader the country had just elected to be its next PM: 

‘Geert Wilders, who for years on end has branded democratically elected colleagues traitors to their country and a fake parliament. Who called the rule of law ‘corrupted’, after he had been persecuted and fined for collective insult. Who for years on end has hatefully offended entire sections of the population, because of their faith (Muslims) or their origin (Moroccan, Eastern European etc). Who wants to abolish religious freedom, leave the European Union, do away with the euro, end the military support to Ukraine, post soldiers along the nation’s borders, ban headscarves, disband climate policy and energy transition. Who wants to revert the apologies the King made last July for the nation’s slavery record. And so on, and so on.’ 

In the run-up to these latest elections, Mr Wilders ran a brilliant campaign in which he presented himself in a more moderate way, and pledged if he won, to be ‘the Prime Minister of all Dutch people’ - leaving aside the question what a person needs to qualify for being ‘Dutch’. Now he wants to cash in on his victory to finally and decisively put his stamp on the country’s policies. At 60 years old, it may well be his last chance. 

But if he is to lead the next government, and be successful at it, he will need to go through no less than a ‘deradicalisation programme’, the Nederlands Dagblad commentator wrote: ‘That’s the kind of test you can pass, but also fail.’ 

From Dutch Christians, you might say, the response to the first election victory of a populist party came in stages. 

At first, many of them were shocked, dismayed, and anxious. Their faith prompted them to strive for a government that will reach out to the poor, respect minority rights, care for the environment and welcome refugees. They had always known that Mr Wilders and his party had totally opposite ideas. But they had never expected him to gain any real political influence. Now, it felt as if they had woken up in a different country. 

But once some of the dust had settled down, there came room for other considerations, too. Surely not all 2.4 million PVV voters could be classified as extremists. The size of its electorate puts it rather in the range of a mainstream conservative party. Many people had voted for Mr Wilders out of disillusionment with the established parties who had governed the country for decades - and rightly so. 

It is one thing to say we must welcome asylum seekers, but it is another when you can’t find a place to live, because there is a shortage of affordable housing and refugees seem to get priority. It is one thing to say the government is there to support people who need help, but it is another when you experience you’re immediately suspected of fraud when you apply for a benefit. 

So Christian voters, like the general public, seem divided: some are shocked by the election result, others feel that their concerns have finally been heard. 

Up until 1967 Christian political parties had a majority in the Dutch parliament. Their support has shrunk steadily, but at this election it fell from 15 per cent in 2021 to no more than 7 per cent. And yes, some of their voters defected to the populist PVV.  

‘We have loved the stranger more than ourselves’, explained one of them in the Nederlands Dagblad newspaper. ‘It is better to begin at yourself; from there you can help the world. That’s what Mr Wilders stands for’.  

‘What decided it for me was the insight that this country needs real change’, commented another. ‘Not just some minor adjustments, but a firm pull to the right: a stronger policy on law and order, critical on the growing influence from Europe, battling poverty in our own country.’ Several Christians mentioned they had voted PVV because Mr Wilders is a keen supporter of Israel; they were worried about the anti-semitic tones in some quite noisy pro-Palestinian demonstrations because of the war in Gaza. 

So Christian voters, like the general public, seem divided: some are shocked by the election result, others feel that their concerns have finally been heard. 

The surprising election result seems to leave the country - and Christians in particular - with a couple of nagging questions. 

How to avoid stigmatizing PVV voters, and recognize that their problems are real and deserve solutions that are real? 

How to convince them that a party that has some anti-democratic tendencies and lives in denial of the big international and environmental crises cannot be the solution? And that care for the environment, refugees and the poor are authentic components of the Christian story, and not just after all of our own personal needs have been met? 

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War and peace
3 min read

Letter from Lviv

Loss, resilience, and a hope one day to count blessings not missile intercepts.

Iryna Dobrohorska is Christian Aid’s Country Response Director for Ukraine.

A woman stands at the back of an armoured military vehicle, the door of which is open.
Iryna stands by a displayed military vehicle.

Ukraine is only two years older than I am. My personal history is intertwined with Ukraine’s history. Instead of the carefree fun I should be having as a young Ukrainian woman, on Saturday I was reflecting that my last two years have been dominated by war since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Over those 730 days, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity.  

I was evacuated from Kyiv to the sounds of explosions nearby, fearing I would be raped or murdered by Russian soldiers if they entered the capital. I’ve wept over losing university friends in combat. I’ve despaired at how Ukrainian writers are being deliberately targeted by the Kremlin.  

But I also observed the speed that we Ukrainians built trust and social connections with unknown people. I was proud of the warmth of my hometown, Lviv, which welcomed people from the east of the country - it crushed the myths that Russia was trying to ooze into our national life that we were a divided country that didn’t have the right to exist except as part of Russia. 

Not just in Lviv but all over Ukraine. This month in Odesa I felt the same warmth extended to elderly displaced people when I hosted a visit to our local humanitarian partner Heritage Ukraine by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He saw for himself how the team, funded by the Scottish faith charity Blythswood, had opened their doors and their hearts to these traumatised strangers facing an uncertain future. 

One of those displaced people, Nadia, told me: “We want to go home, but our home is being shelled. At least here we stay with dignity.”  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face.

t’s a scene of resilience I’ve grown accustomed to as I’ve crisscrossed the country to play my small part in the astonishing humanitarian effort powered by the UK public’s incredibly generous donations.  

The Iryna I saw in the mirror in 2021 wouldn’t recognise the young woman I see looking back at me today.  

In Kherson, I was recording the stories of illegal detention of civilians to the sound of artillery fire. In Mykolaiv, my window view was an apartment block with the roof blown off and clay-coloured water was the only drinking option.  

I never thought that I would learn the types of weaponry used in modern warfare. Now I know the difference between the motorbike sound of a drone from the missile whistle above my head followed by the clank when it detonates nearby.  

Security awareness is an everyday reality in Ukraine. We often debate during an alert whether choosing to sleep in our own beds instead of going to a shelter may turn out to be our last night. A six-months pregnant teacher friend of mine in Kyiv was killed in her sleep from a drone strike.  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face. Yet I also sense the paradox that we’ve accepted the war becoming everyday normality and so has the rest of the world. 

Global attention today is not focused only on Ukraine. A host of other crises are taking precedence in the need for a humanitarian response. My biggest fear is that the long-term nature of our crisis reduces global actors to sympathizing observers.  

What I do know is that my generation of young Ukrainians who have lost so much will not allow that to happen. More than ever, I feel the need for a just and resolute peace for Ukraine. With the help of our international friends, the day will come when those who have suffered can go back to rebuild their homes and communities.  

As I move on to engage further in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, I feel privileged to have worked for Christian Aid as part of the humanitarian response. I’m most proud of our role in being a catalyst for local people to help themselves by setting their own community priorities in the kind of support they need, giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth.  

It’s that kind of world that I dream about - where one day I will count my country’s blessings instead of how many drones and missiles were intercepted the night before.