In 1672, the Dutch killed and ate their prime minister.
Johan de Witt was technically the ‘Grand Pensionary’ of the Netherlands, but his title can be understood to be an equivalent of the modern position of ‘Prime Minister’. It was the height of the Dutch golden age, the era of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and a period of ascendant wealth for the Netherlands. It was also a time of great internal division and political fury. And so, when the public turned against de Witt at a particularly fractious time, anger suddenly turned to cannibalism.
Contemporary accounts describe it as an almost orderly, albeit brutal, affair. All those involved in the cannibalism were pardoned by de Witt’s successor. De Witt’s tongue and a finger of his brother (also murdered and cannibalised) are still on display at the Gevangenpoort Rijksmuseum in The Hague.
On November 22, the Netherlands elected Geert Wilders, a man often compared to the former US president, Donald Trump, for his puffy white bouffant and controversial opinions, to be its new prime minister. The days of literal Dutch cannibalism are long gone, but the public rage engendered by their prime ministers is still very much part of Dutch political reality. And with Wilders at the helm, the Netherlands and the European Union risk tearing themselves apart — metaphorically speaking — much like poor de Witt.
Voters awarded the anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-EU Party for Freedom led by Wilders 37 out of the 150 seats in the Dutch Parliament when a snap election was held after the incumbent cabinet collapsed earlier this summer due to immigration policy disagreements. The incumbent party leader governed for 13 years and in that time mostly kept the hardliner Wilders in check. Wilders was seen as a relatively marginal figure, unable to exercise much direct power other than the regular headline-grabbing remark and agitating voter bases. And so Wilders’ surprise victory has led to “one of the biggest political upsets in Dutch politics since World War II”, according to a report from the Associated Press.
For years, most major parties and political leaders have refused to work with Wilders, citing his radical far-Right views on Islam and immigration. And although the election results make it nearly impossible to form a government without him, it will not be smooth sailing for a new hard-right government. The second largest coalition, an alliance of Labour and Greens, won 25 seats. The third and the fourth largest parties are not eager to work together, but each seems less eager to work with Wilders than with each other.
As the longest-serving member of the Dutch Parliament, Wilders rose to prominence in 2004 as one of Europe’s first generation of anti-Muslim populists and has been under 24/7 police protection after receiving numerous death threats. In 2010 and 2011, he was tried for hate speech and discrimination and, in 2016, he was convicted of inciting hatred for a speech calling for “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands, but the conviction was ultimately overturned.
The Dutch election results have sent democracy watchdogs across Europe into a tailspin. Since the immigration crisis of 2015 and Brexit, Europe has had its share of extreme-right candidates rising in parliamentary powers and as forceful drivers of political Opposition, but only a handful have managed to break through to taste actual political success.
Prior to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there was the hard-right and illiberal partnership of Hungary and Poland and, to a lesser extent, also Czechia (the Czech Republic) and Slovakia. But their power in the EU is stifled by their relative economic dependence on western European countries, keeping them at least minimally deferential to Brussels in their EU dealings, if not domestically. That cooperation has since withered, particularly over rifts related to Poland and Hungary’s opposing views on Russia (Poland adamantly supports Ukraine, while Hungary has repeatedly cosied up to Vladimir Putin).
Then came Giorgia Meloni, who raised concerns over her outspoken admiration for the Italian fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, when she was elected as the prime minister of Italy in October 2022. But Meloni, unlike the aforementioned far-Right leaders, is an outspoken Europhile with little interest in proposing measures that would take Italy out of the EU. By contrast, Wilders’ antagonism to Brussels places him closer to illiberal populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, signalling a trend of normalised far-Right power in Europe that is inherently anti-EU.
Although Wilders is infamous for incendiary opinions, especially those concerning Muslim refugees and immigrants, his campaign took a milder tone earning him the nickname ‘Geert Milders’. On public television, he said he would not pursue his manifesto policies about banning mosques, Islamic schools, and the Quran if it meant becoming prime minister. But critics argued there was little genuine change. For example, his manifesto did abandon its demand for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal from the EU but replaced it with a proposal for a binding ‘Nexit’ referendum. Some of his more radical positions remained, some of which, observers believe, are illegal according to national or international law.
Even if Wilders is now ‘Milders’, and even if he is ultimately unable to form a coalition, his victory will certainly push Dutch politics much further to the right. What is perhaps more concerning is that it would also encourage other right-wing parties across Europe ahead of important elections to the EU Parliament in June next year. Far-Right parties are gaining ground in Austria, Germany, and Belgium, and it is a near guarantee that Marine Le Pen will have another shot in a run-off for the French presidency in 2027.
But not all hope is lost. In October, one of the most powerful members of the illiberal bloc had a major upset. In an unprecedented election, Polish voters ousted their far-Right leadership in favour of a liberal government and although a coalition is still being formed, activists are optimistic that more than eight years of hard-right policies can be reversed, at least in some part. Without Poland, Europe’s illiberal agitators have one less ally, even if there may be a new one in Wilders.
Wilders’ election has already deeply divided the Netherlands and his path to power will not be simple. His victory promises more instability to come for the Netherlands and for Europe. The Dutch political establishment, much like de Witt, may find itself cannibalised. If that were to happen, it wouldn’t be for the first time in its history. To see it, one only needs to take a trip to a museum in The Hague.
Carol Schaeffer is a journalist based in NewYork and Berlin from where she writes about Europe, politics and culture