A flamboyant Dutch populist will lead the charge on Thursday (23 May) for eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties across the continent in European Parliament elections.
Classics-quoting climate sceptic Thierry Baudet founded the Forum for Democracy just two years ago, but his party is on course to beat Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals after the Netherlands open the continent-wide polls at 0530 GMT.
As the first country in the EU to vote, along with exit-bound Britain, Dutch exit polls will be closely watched for a populist surge ahead of official results for the whole bloc on Sunday.
Rutte and Baudet clashed on live television on the eve of the election in a debate called by the Dutch premier himself — a sign of how seriously he is taking the threat posed by the 36-year-old Baudet.
“The EU has become a super-state and that’s just the sort of thing we want to stop,” Baudet said this week, tapping into the populist railing against elites that has transformed Western politics in recent years.
‘Decline of Europe’
Once best known for naked Instagram selfies and controversial comments about women, the telegenic law professor stunned Europe in March when the Forum became the biggest party in the Dutch senate.
Despite a fresh row over comments he made this week about abortion and working Western women having fewer children and thus causing the “demographic decline of Europe”, Baudet’s popularity seems unimpeded.
He is now aiming for similar success on the European stage, with opinion polls showing the Forum snatching as many as five of the 26 European Parliament seats allotted to the Netherlands, similar to Rutte’s ruling VVD.
“What happens in the Netherlands is also happening elsewhere in Europe,” Claes de Vreese, politics professor at the University of Amsterdam, told AFP.
In the process he stole votes from Geert Wilders, the bleached-blonde anti-Islam leader who has long dented the Netherlands’ image abroad as a bastion of tolerant liberalism.
“Baudet is the new flavour of the year,” said de Vreese. “He does attract a certain audience of voters who may be disgruntled by the fact that Wilders’ style is very confrontational and not particularly intellectual.”
But while Baudet has toned down his support for a full “Nexit” from the EU after the chaos in Britain, his nativist, anti-immigration message is similar to the one that has swept Europe from Italy to Hungary.
His senate elections victory speech declaring that the “Owl of Minerva spreads his wings” — referring to the Roman goddess of wisdom — was typical of narrative that sees an ancient European civilisation under threat from immigration.
“For a long time, Europe has been a very technical story,” said Amy Verdun, European politics professor at Leiden University. “The populists made things simple. You may not agree with them, but they simplify things for the ordinary citizen.”
Intriguingly in a low-lying country that is one of the world’s most vulnerable to rising sea levels, the Netherlands’ Baudet is also notable for his strong denial of climate change.
This puts him at odds with the leftist greens such as the GroenLinks party, who also look set to make gains in the Netherlands on what is replacing the left-right divide as one of the most polarising issues of our age.
“Voters have become more extreme” on both sides, said Verdun, pointing to factors such as US President Donald Trump pulling out of the 2015 Paris accord.
But analysts urged against overplaying populist gains, pointing out that the fragmented Dutch political scene means parties can come first with only a small share of the national vote, and most voters will still back centrist parties.
“There are very few voters who want to abandon Europe completely,” said De Vreese.
The repeated failure of squabbling populist parties to unite could also reduce the chances of what EU leaders fear will be large group with blocking powers in the European Parliament, said Amy Verdun.
“The populists’ problem is that they can never agree on anything,” she said.