Can This City Predict The Fate Of The Dutch Elections?
ALMERE — Founded in 1976, this city 30 kilometers from Amsterdam offers a glimpse into the future of the Netherlands. Leaving behind the tourist droves of the capital, a 20-minute ride on an Intercity train — equipped with WiFi — whisks you through windmills and farmland to reach Almere.
Lying 3.2 meters below sea level, the 7th largest city in the country has a population of almost 200,000 people. One in three locals hails from outside the European Union (EU). The local statistics office says Almere is home to 153 nationalities and 181 ethnicities.
Despite its diversity, Almere voted for the xenophobic right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) for the last seven years. Headed by Geert Wilders, a controversial figure, the party is leading in national polls ahead of Wednesday's election. PVV could even unseat the current government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The Dutch election is the first in a long line of crucial polls in Europe this year. It comes ahead of votes in France, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
In Almere, no house is further than 400 meters from a bus stop. Public transportation and bicycles have dedicated lanes on roads. The town square is an enormous open-air shopping mall with three-story buildings that make it reminiscent of a college campus. An atmosphere of order and tranquility prevails in residential neighborhoods — this is not a neglected area where far-right parties often thrive.
A third of Almere's residents are aged younger than 25 years and only 9% of inhabitants are older than 65 years. Local economic trends match national ones — 2% GDP growth and an unemployment rate of 5.3%, much lower than the Eurozone average of 9.6%. After a day in the city, it's difficult to find someone who openly admits to supporting the PVV.
Faiza, 50, has lived in the Netherlands for 20 years. She's waiting for her number to be called in the city hall, a vast open space with comfortable couches and floor lamps that makes it seem like a furniture showroom. "They are ashamed to say so publicly but in private many residents support Wilders' views," she says. "I don't know what's happening to Dutch society, it used to be that respecting rules and laws was sufficient for integration. It's not like that anymore, especially for Muslims, and our religion is seen as a disease that must be kept at bay."
In recent years, there have been a few cases of radicalized Islamists in Almere but none managed to carry out terrorist attacks. This trend may have contributed to anti-Muslim sentiment in the city. The first point of Wilders' policy manifesto promises to "de-Islamize" the Netherlands. This would involve shuttering mosques and Islamic schools and banning the Islamic veil and sales of the Koran.
The PVV is virtually a one-man structure and Wilders is under 24-hour protection for his controversial statements. He recently suspended his election campaign because one of his bodyguards leaked information about him to Moroccan gangs. The Netherlands has already seen political assassinations in recent times. Pim Fortuyn, a far-right politician, was assassinated in 2002. Theo Van Gogh, a filmmaker, was killed by Muslim extremists in 2004.
The threats against Wilders have been a hot election topic. The interior ministry is on high alert to ensure his safety. The country has also grown fearful about possible infiltrations by Russian hackers. The government has even ordered a hand-count of election results to avoid potential cyberattacks.
Wilders has targeted Islam but also Brussels and the EU.
"In Holland, we voted against the European constitution and the EU-Ukraine association agreement. Now it's time to say no to Europe," says Vicky Maeiser, a PVV member of the European parliament.
Few people in the country believe the Netherlands will split from the EU.
The upcoming election has also focused on the question of immigration. Denk, which means "think" in Dutch, is a new pro-immigrant party. Founded by Turkish immigrants, the party may gain representation in parliament for the first time.
There are 28 parties contesting the election but only half of them are likely to get enough votes to win seats. Even if Wilders gets the most votes, it will be difficult for the PVV to form a coalition in a country with an ultra-proportional electoral system. It will take at least three months for any winner to put together a credible coalition.
"Wilders definitely won't be in the coalition government that emerges," says Meindert Fennema, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. "No one wants to ally with the PVV and even he has no intention of becoming Prime Minister."
The logic goes that it would be too politically risky for Wilders to govern; it suits him better to stay in the opposition.
This is exactly what has happened to the PVV in its stronghold of Almere. Despite being the single largest party to win there, it has been kept out of local government by a coalition of opposing parties.
Instead, the city government is controlled by the progressive liberal D66 party. Franc Weerwind, the mayor, is the son of immigrants from Suriname. In 2015, he also became the first person of color to become a mayor in the Netherlands.