AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A popular video on YouTube shows a dark-skinned young man trailing a suitcase through Dutch streets.
“I‘m going back to Morocco because they say we’re not welcome any more,” he tells people. “I want to say thanks for the 20 years that I’ve been allowed to stay in the Netherlands.”
The clip, watched almost half a million times in the month since it was posted, is a TV satirist’s response to a remark by Geert Wilders. The outspoken bleach-blond leader of the anti-immigration Dutch Freedom Party is one of leading anti-EU populists running in this month’s European Parliament elections.
In a March speech in The Hague, Wilders - who has attracted supporters as far afield as the United States and Australia - asked the crowd if they wanted more or fewer Moroccans.
“Fewer! Fewer!” they chanted.
“Good. We’ll arrange that,” he said, smiling.
Criticized by some as invoking Nazi deportations of Jews during World War Two, the comment briefly hit his poll ratings. More than 5,000 complaints were filed calling for him to be prosecuted for hate speech and he lost several political allies.
But Wilders has bounced back and some of his American backers, after squirming, say they will stick by him.
About 18 percent of voters tell pollsters they will cast their ballots for his party in the EU-wide elections on May 22, ahead of the governing coalition Liberal and Labor parties and level with the centrist D66 party.
Wilders may command only minority support but his populism is a magnet for floating voters and he has set the tone of an increasingly harsh debate about immigration.
“If you held a referendum in the Netherlands tomorrow and asked the question that I asked - ‘do you want more or less Moroccans?’ - I think 70 or 80 percent would say yes (less) for sure,” he told Reuters last month.
Human rights lawyer Goran Sluiter, acting for organizations that want Wilders prosecuted, said: “If you really would try and arrange to remove all Moroccans from the Netherlands, this is simply ethnic cleansing.”
Wilders has lived under round-the-clock armed guard since he received death threats in 2004. He views himself as a crusader against extreme Islam. “At least when I face threats, it’s the result of what I say,” he said with pride.
For a Dutch politician to ride high by advocating ethnic deportations, nearly 70 years after Jewish girl Anne Frank hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam before being deported to the Auschwitz death camp, suggests the mood has darkened starkly.
“Wilders does very extreme things and loses a bit of goodwill but that is very quickly forgotten,” says Peter Kanne, senior research adviser at pollster TNS-Nipo.
In the YouTube movie, white people express disgust at the anti-Moroccan chant. Some hug the “departing” youth - in real life, Nesim Ahmadi, the 21-year-old son of Turkish and Iranian parents, who says he shot the clip with a hidden camera.
Wilders said he hasn’t seen the film and declined to watch it. A poll commissioned by his party showed 43 percent of the Dutch would like to see fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands.
Thirteen out of 100 elected Freedom Party officials in national and local assemblies quit in protest at Wilders’ comment - departures that will cut his party’s funding and prompted some to conclude it is in crisis.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said his Liberal Party, of which Wilders was a member until 10 years ago, would not govern with him until he apologized.
One of Wilders’ U.S. backers - Daniel Pipes, whose pro-Israeli Middle East Forum Education Fund helped pay the Dutch politician’s legal bills in a previous hate speech case - wrote on his blog: “I wish that Mr. Wilders went about protesting this issue in a more cautious way.”
But Wilders, who fought off charges of hate speech after his 2008 film “Fitna” denounced the Koran for allegedly inciting violence, says he has no regrets.
“It’s a sad thing when people are leaving your party,” he told Reuters. “But the electorate are not concerned. They are very loyal, very strong.”
Pipes told Reuters he would help pay Wilders’ legal fees again. Another U.S. backer, Pamela Geller, said Wilders was protesting at Islamic supremacists. “Mr. Wilders is identifying an obvious problem in Holland and in many countries across the continent of Europe.”
Though he casts himself as an outsider, Wilders is one of the Netherlands’ longest-serving politicians. He first took up a parliamentary seat in 1998.
Son of a Dutch father and an Indonesian mother, he entered politics to challenge what he saw as political correctness, drawing on the following of anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated 12 years ago.
His party has coarsened the parliamentary discourse, using colloquial words like “bonkers” or “asshole” in the house.
It wants to deport immigrants convicted of violence even if they have Dutch citizenship, stop immigration from Muslim countries, and take the Netherlands out of the European Union.
In his memoir, “Marked for Death”, Wilders recounts how armed police rushed him to a military barracks in 2004 after authorities learned of an Islamist threat to assassinate him. He and his wife slept in an army compound in the woods that night in an “ice-cold” room with two single beds.
He has since lived virtually in hiding. His wife, reported to be a former Hungarian diplomat, accompanies him. Wilders avoids mentioning her “because the less I speak about her ... the better it is for her”.
His approach upends centuries of Dutch social tolerance.
Prosperous and fast-growing in the years after World War Two, the Netherlands welcomed guest workers from Muslim countries like Morocco and Turkey in search of a better life. Muslims make up about 5 percent of the population today, according to the CBS statistics agency.
But as the economy soured, race relations became thornier. Tension between working-class white Dutch people and immigrants has flared over access to welfare benefits and social housing.
Islamophobia has become a potent proxy for such disputes, says Cas Mudde, a Dutch-born specialist on the far right at the University of Georgia in the United States.
“Making an ethnic argument that a certain group is bad is suspect in the Netherlands,” Mudde said. But criticizing Islam “allows the Dutch to be xenophobic but not in an ethnic way”.
Wilders’ voters also fret about income inequality. The party now includes social policies such as better care for the elderly in its manifesto.
For some defectors, that is part of the problem. Wilders’ policy adviser Stephan Jansen said the party had “swapped its former right-wing thinking for a left-wing program”.
Koen Vossen, a political historian at the University of Nijmegen, says the defections reflect deeper internal tensions. Several of those who left accused Wilders of running the party like a dictator.
“Wilders’ really big problem is that he can’t lead a party,” he said, citing members’ complaints of a lack of communication and management skills. “He isn’t a social man.”
Additional reporting by Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; additional reporting and writing by Sara Ledwith; Edited by Simon Robinson and Paul Taylor