If Dutch far-right populist leader Geert Wilders is to be believed, the Netherlands is struggling to cope with existential threats to its way of life.
In the lead-up to the country’s election on Wednesday, Wilders has called for an end to “mass immigration and asylum” and vowed to launch the “de-Islamification” of the Netherlands. He has talked of rampant crime created by “Moroccan scum” and urged for closing borders to stop terror.
Polls show many Dutch voters ― including those whose support has put Wilders’ Party for Freedom in a close race to win the vote ― fear that Dutch society is in danger. Around half of the Dutch view non-Western immigration as threatening to their way of life, according to an Ipsos survey released last month.
Wilders has capitalized on these attitudes through appeals to “make the Netherlands ours again,” and calls to ban immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. His rhetoric has both played to voters’ fears and mainstreamed his far-right populist narrative that “we need to save Western civilization” from Islam ― moving other parties to adopt his rhetoric. In January, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte even wrote an open letter criticizing people who don’t adapt to Dutch customs and telling them to “act normal or go away.”
But Wilders and his ilk have created a public perception that doesn’t align with reality. The politician has described the refugee crisis in Europe as an “Islamic invasion.” In 2016, however, there were two-thirds fewer asylum claims in the Netherlands than the government expected ― 31,000 compared to initial estimates of over 90,000.
Polls also show that Dutch people believe they have a far greater Muslim population than they actually do, falsely assuming that around 19 percent of the country is Muslim. In fact, just 6 percent of the Netherlands’ population is Muslim ― despite years of guest worker programs from Turkey and Morocco that have created immigration ties.
The Netherlands breaks down its immigration statistics into different categories, one of which is non-Western immigrants, who as of 2015 make up about 12 percent of its population of 17 million people. Non-Western immigrants include those from Turkey, as well as all from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and a number of Asian nations.
Concerns around issues of integration and immigration in the Netherlands are not entirely baseless. But while non-Western immigrants are overrepresented in crime figures, according to a 2016 study from the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, these numbers are falling.
Unemployment for non-Western immigrants is also almost three times as high as for the native Dutch population, a gap the study says is partly caused by discrimination. The study shows, however, that education levels among non-Western immigrations have been on the rise since 2008, and language proficiency has increased as well.
Although issues of immigration and integration are prominent in the Dutch campaign, they are not the only reason that voters have turned away from establishment parties. Like many European nations, the Netherlands underwent a period of unpopular austerity measures after the global financial crisis. These policies hit lower and middle class workers the hardest, fueling resentment of the European Union and the Dutch political class.
While anti-EU and anti-elite sentiments remain, the economy is now doing better. Unemployment is at a five-year low, and the economy has a higher growth rate than both the EU average and the United States.
And despite all the talk of streets becoming unsafe, crime has been falling for years. Around a third of Dutch jail cells are empty, which has led to the government renting out the space to other states. Unlike France, Belgium and a host of other countries, the Netherlands has also not suffered any major terror attacks inspired or directed by the Islamic State.
Despite these trends, Wilders has been able to convince a significant portion of the electorate that the nation is under siege, threatened by immigration, Islam and the EU.
This is a stark change for the Netherlands, which has long promoted itself as an accepting and tolerant nation. Although debates around immigration, the economy and integration are normal for states, the Dutch election has shown how successful Wilders and the far right have become in framing these discussions.
Due to the country’s multiparty system, Wilders has a slim chance of actually governing even if he does manage to win the Dutch election, and he has also seen his poll numbers fall in recent days. But some of his policies and his narrative of a nation in decline have already caught on, despite all facts that contradict them.