AMSTERDAM, March 23 (Reuters) - Anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders holds in his hands the fate of the Dutch government and of austerity measures meant to save the country from economic crisis. Immigrant groups fear, however, they could pay the price he demands for his support.
“It is threatening,” said Ahmet Azdural, director of Turkish lobby group IOT which was set up to promote minority issues. “In the last 10 years, the climate has really changed for immigrants and people who are different.”
Wilders has made very clear he wants the Netherlands to go further in curbing immigration if he’s to agree to up to 16 billion euros ($21.10 billion) of budget cuts.
“Wilders is a power player,” said Maurice de Hond, who runs a Dutch polling agency: “He can pull the plug on the cabinet.”
But opinion polls show no single party would win a majority if an election were held now, making this a less likely option.
Liberal Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, has plunged in popularity while Wilders’ Freedom Party has lost some ground since the 2010 election.
Wilders, in talks with the coalition, has abandoned his normally fluent manner in favour of a reticent discretion.
“We want to come to an agreement but not at any price,” Wilders told reporters earlier this month.
A member of Wilders’ Freedom Party announced this week he would quit the party in a move that would further weaken the coalition’s hold on power. Hero Brinkman said he would not let Rutte’s government collapse, but stopped short of pledging unconditional support for new budget cuts.
Wilders’ price is likely to be an even tougher line on asylum-seekers and immigrants, particularly Muslims. He has previously called for a closed-door policy and opposes letting fellow members of the European Union work in the Netherlands.
A recent proposal by Wilders, inviting members of the public to post their complaints about central and eastern Europeans on a website, has also hurt the Netherlands’ image abroad and drawn strong criticism from the European Commission.
“Don’t underestimate the way he is pushing around (immigration minister) Gerd Leers. The anti-Polish website is an example of how he limits the government’s collaboration in Europe,” said Andre Krouwel, political analyst at VU University Amsterdam. “It’s symbolic, it impacts public opinion”.
Wilders won’t spell out his demands to the government, but could push for tougher citizenship criteria, cuts to benefits for immigrants and asylum-seekers, or a ban on new mosques.
“The Netherlands is now known as hardline when it comes to immigration and minorities in society,” Azdural told Reuters.
“Since Wilders supports the cabinet, all the ministers are careful to nuance their policies because they can feel Wilders breathing down their necks.”
The planned cuts are all the more vital given the state of the economy. A think tank warned this week that the Netherlands was in the same fiscal boat as the peripheral euro zone states it has criticised for missing budget targets.
In recession since July, it is among the euro zone’s worst performers, and expected to shrink 0.9 percent this year, while triple-A peers Germany, Finland and Luxembourg are seen growing.
Wilders, 48, is playing a game with high stakes. It is not in his interest to end his party’s pact of support for the minority government. If he did that, he would lose his influence over the Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition, possibly forcing it to find a new partner or to call early elections.
Since storming onto the political scene in 2004, Wilders has made a significant mark. He has influenced Dutch immigration policy and set the tone of public debate, whether on Muslims and burqas or bailouts and the euro, in what once would have been regarded as politically incorrect language.
His anti-Islam rhetoric, likening the Koran to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, has elicited death threats, and for many years he moved between various safe houses, and used disguises such as wigs and glasses when traveling.
In any public gathering, he stands out from the crowd with his instantly recognisable peroxide mane that earned him the moniker “the golden pompadour” in the Wikileaks cables, and his entourage of sniffer dogs and beefy bodyguards.
“We were influential in the past...on healthcare for the elderly, fighting crime in the Netherlands, reducing immigration numbers, asylum numbers. But I don’t want to talk about that because indirectly I would talk about my negotiation strategy.”
His pact with the minority coalition, signed in September 2010, sets out policies he wants this government to adopt.
Some could soon be implemented. For example, the cabinet recently proposed a law banning face-covering veils worn by some Muslim women, one of his demands, and recently agreed to a law which would ban dual nationality and set stricter conditions for obtaining Dutch citizenship.
Wilders opposes euro zone bailouts and says Greece should leave the euro: “We are paying for the Greeks’ beers and ouzo. That has to stop,” he told journalists recently.
The fact Wilders is sitting at the same table as the government to discuss cuts means the public increasingly sees him as part of the government, pollster De Hond said.
But he could alienate his supporters if he agrees to the government’s proposals unless he wins concessions in return, for example on immigration or on where budget cuts are made.
Wilders has said he wants the government to chop 4 billion euros from the overseas development aid budget of 4.6 billion euros rather than cut any health or unemployment benefits, or address reforms of the labour market or of housing subsidies.
“If Wilders sticks to his programme, the cabinet will fall,” said Ronald Plasterk, member of parliament for the opposition Labour Party: “If he concedes on what remains of it, maybe not.” ($1 = 0.7582 euros) (Editing by Ralph Boulton)