Just days before a crucial deadline, Geert Wilders, the far-right leader in the Netherlands, is encountering hurdles in his attempt to establish a government.
The stumbling block lies in the discord among potential coalition partners regarding fiscal and immigration policies.
Wilders, known for his anti-Islam and climate-change-denying stance, achieved a surprising victory in the November elections, proposing measures such as banning mosques and the Koran. However, the Dutch political system, unlike those of Britain or the United States, involves a prolonged negotiation period after elections to form a coalition government.
Despite initiating discussions with three other parties, Wilders and his potential partners find themselves significantly divided, with time running out.
Ronald Plasterk, the official overseeing these negotiations, is required to present progress to parliament by next Monday at the latest.
“There are serious doubts as to whether the four parties can find sufficient middle ground for the foundations of a coalition agreement,” AFP quoted Sarah De Lange, professor of Political Pluralism at the University of Amsterdam, as saying.
The four party leaders have agreed to keep silent on the talks, meaning commentators and journalists have to rely on a stream of messages from Wilders on X, formerly Twitter.
And judging by those, the omens are not good.
“We have a serious problem,” he warned after one possible coalition partner voted through a controversial immigration measure in the upper house, posting “MY GOD” in capitals after the news broke.
He then lashed out at Dilan Yesilgoz, leader of the centre-right liberal VVD, calling her “sour” after she appeared to take aim at him in a speech to her party.
Yesilgoz has offered to support a Wilders cabinet in parliament but not actively participate in it, sparking anger from Wilders but also her own party faithful.
“While the negotiating parties initially said the talks were cordial, currently they are being described as tense,” De Lange noted to AFP.
‘Most significant issue’
Officially the parties are supposed to be discussing the “rule of law” – the parts of Wilders’ manifesto seen as anti-constitutional like its anti-Islam elements but also plans for a “Nexit”, or a Dutch exit from the EU.
This is a particular stumbling block for anti-corruption champion Pieter Omtzigt and his New Social Contract party, whose support Wilders needs if he wants to form a majority.
But there are other clear bones of contention.
Wilders was livid when the VVD in the upper house Senate voted through measures to distribute immigrants in local communities – a policy he bitterly opposes.
And public finances have emerged as a dividing line – the “most significant issue”, according to analyst De Lange.
The Netherlands reportedly needs to find some 17 billion euros in spending cuts but Wilders has instead vowed tax cuts and no major reductions in spending, infuriating the fiscally prudent Omtzigt.
The Dutch are used to politicians taking their time to form a government – the last one took 271 days – and Mark Rutte will remain prime minister until a deal is clinched.
But Wilders also raised eyebrows by dangling the possibility of new elections if the talks founder.
The latest polling suggests support for Wilders’ PVV is soaring, with one showing a staggering 50 seats out of 150 for the far-right party.
De Lange sees three possible outcomes from Plasterk’s report: kicking the can down the road and continuing talks, starting negotiations between a different set of parties, or a new vote.
She sees fresh elections as the least likely option, especially as parties are not keen to run two campaigns with European elections also in June.
“It could be in the PVV’s interest to collapse the talks, as long as they can blame the other parties for the collapse,” she suggested.
“In that case the PVV could be the biggest opposition force and put a lot of pressure on the government without getting its hands dirty.”
With inputs from agencies