by Jesse Wieten
THE HAGUE, Feb. 22 (Xinhua) -- With the Party for Freedom (PVV) leading the polls for the forthcoming Dutch general elections, the question looms where the right-wing populist leader Geert Wilders gets his support from, but it's a broader based support than one might think.
At the end of November last year, Wilders was found guilty for insulting Moroccans and inciting discrimination. "I am not a racist and my supporters are not racists either," he said. "My voice is the voice of many. Almost one million Dutch people voted for me in 2012 and on March 15 there will be even more."
The latest polls suggest that Wilders is right in claiming over a million votes. After his party won 15 seats during the general elections of 2012, a decline compared to the 24 seats of 2010, the PVV leads the current polls, neck-and-neck with the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) for the elections in less than a month and could be the biggest Dutch party for the first time in history.
Meanwhile, the Dutch economy is recovering, profiting from European integration and global economic recovery. Unemployment is already relatively low and getting even lower, major race conflicts are rare and a major terrorist attack has not happened so far in the Netherlands. So why should the Dutch people vote for an anti-Islam, anti-migrant, anti-Europe party like the PVV?
Sitting in a bar at Amsterdam Central Station, Koen Damhuis told Xinhua about his experiences with PVV voters. The 29-year-old political sociologist has dedicated most of his time in recent years to finding and interviewing them. Last week, his book Wegen naar Wilders (Ways to Wilders) came out.
"The government parties often talk about the economy, unemployment, good statistics," Damhuis said. "But that is not enough. Most PVV voters I met don't really care about these figures. They see terrorist attacks on TV, see the government helping Greece, have personal experiences. They often feel unheard by mainstream politicians and Wilders answers that feeling. When it comes to migration issues, they'd rather call themselves realists, instead of racists."
The Dutch Parliamentary Election Studies 2006-2012 show that PVV voters are more often men than women and more often than average have only received primary or secondary education. However, a comparison of the 2010 and 2016 figures from pollster Maurice de Hond make clear that PVV voters increasingly reflect the average Dutch voter, in terms of income and educational level.
The same studies also show that PVV voters are quite diversified in terms of age. The party is especially popular among young voters. In December last year, research bureau I&O Research published a new investigation into the ages of voters, which found that the PVV was by far the most popular party for voters under 35 years of age.
And where do voters come from? Not only from Wilders' southern city of birth, Venlo. "They live in many areas around the main cities and suburbia, where many lower middle class live and where the amount of migrants has risen quickly," electoral geographer Josse de Voogd said.
"In addition, in degrading industrial areas and in regions where the population has decreased, and in general also more in the southern part of the Netherlands, where Catholicism declined in importance rapidly which caused reduced social cohesion," he said.
"I have nothing to do with the PVV, but I understand why the party is here," De Voogd continued. "The more cosmopolitan liberal elite, left and right, quite often rolls over the themes that these voters consider important. White poverty is rarely seen by the elite. The political class focus on the big cities and the problems there."
Those who think that PVV has no support among immigrants are wrong. The Dutch Parliamentary Election Studies show that 10.3 percent of the natives voted for the PVV in 2012 and 11.8 percent of immigrants with a non-Western background voted for the PVV.
Research firm Kantar TNS provided more data in December last year on the voting behavior of the four biggest immigrant groups, showing that the PVV is the biggest party among Dutch people with Caribbean roots, the second among Surinam voters, the third party among people of Turkish descent and the fourth party among Moroccans.
"Immigrants seem to follow the voting behavior of natives," Tim de Beer of Kantar TNS explained. "They are also worried. Maybe some migrants may agree with the anti-Islam views of Wilders. There are differences, Antilleans and Surinamese are more like natives in voting behavior than Moroccans and Turks."
The statistics indicate that the PVV is a party with a diverse support, but who the voters really are, stays somehow mysterious. To understand them you have to speak to them, but that is not very simple. Their voices are not regularly heard in Dutch media, they are not regularly willing to speak.
Damhuis spoke to them. A PhD candidate at the European University Institute in Florence, Damhuis researches PVV voters and their French counterparts from the Front National. He traveled across the country to talk with 64 PVV voters, portraying eight of these people in his book, each representing a bigger group of PVV supporters.
"The voters I spoke with show an enormous diversity," he said. "How is it possible that all these different people, from the former traditional left to the former traditional right, come out to vote for the same man, and the same party? That's the main question."
Damhuis noticed that most people he interviewed translated their personal experiences to a broader political platform. A retired female housekeeper saw foreigners moving into her neighborhood and wasn't able to communicate with them. A furniture deliveryman feared losing his job to Polish workers and Somali refugees, and an assistant goat farmer, who is gay, was beaten up by a group of local youth with foreign roots.
In addition, an owner of a consultancy agency was afraid that Dutch culture would disappear due to Islam and a bartender thought he worked hard to pay too much tax, while the Dutch government gave away billions to save Greece.
There are three main ways that lead to a vote for Wilders, according to Damhuis. The first group he caught under the Dutch word "verongelijktheid". "It's hard to translate," Damhuis admits. "It's about a powerful feeling of injustice, a feeling that people are not treated equally, that migrants are favored instead of locals, that politicians favor migrants over locals. Generally, people with lower income and lower education fit into this group, people most exposed to migrants and negative effects of the multicultural society, at their homes or at their work. They consider migrants as a threat."
The second way to Wilders he called contributionism. "People who think they give too much to society, pay heavy taxes," said Damhuis. "More middle class than working class. Self-made people who think other people should contribute to society as they do themselves. They mainly consider immigrants and aid to foreign countries as a burden, and believe that the money they work so hard for is wasted by the Dutch government, instead of being invested in their own country."
Radical conservatism is the third way to Wilders, practiced by the ideologists. "People who want to preserve their national roots, their identity, the Christian-humanist values," Damhuis explains. "According to them, these values are under pressure by the arrival of Muslim immigrants. They are mainly upper middle class people, much closer to politicians than the first two groups."
Electoral geographer De Voogd recognizes the different groups pointed out by Damhuis. "The PVV does well in traditionally leftist regions with much lower educated people with low incomes," he said. "And at the same time, in right areas with many entrepreneurs, the new rich. The common factor often seems a rather difficult relationship with the authorities."
All groups share the opinion that mainstream parties fail to show up for the Dutch people and spend too much money and attention on groups who, in their opinion, don't deserve it. The support for Wilders could therefore be seen as a vote against the political establishment, but different groups within the PVV constituency do so for different reasons and in different ways.
"Wilders wants to be considered an outsider," Damhuis says. "He does not want to be part of the political establishment. In that way he is able to address a wide variety of problems without being responsible for them; and to present himself as an unspoiled, radical alternative to mainstream parties, like Donald Trump did in the United States. The more other parties take over parts of his program, the more radical he becomes. But at the same time, he has to convince Dutch voters that he is capable of governing."
To gain a wider range of voters, the traditional right-wing liberal Wilders combined his rightist election themes with leftist promises. He now advocates lower rents for poor Dutch people, no market forces in health care, a drop in vehicle taxes for entrepreneurs, and the de-Islamization of the country.
"He often combines passport and wallet, identity and profit," says Damhuis. "Very clever of him. He promises to solve a wide range of problems for different groups in Dutch society, but it will be hard to fulfill all of his promises if he comes to power."
The "Ways to Wilders" are far from unambiguous, Damhuis concluded in his book. Some PVV voters he spoke to were not at all convinced about their vote for the PVV. They only find that the PVV is the least bad choice. The question to how many votes the ways to Wilders really lead, will be answered on March 15 at the polling stations.