By NAOMI O’LEARY
The prime minister is starting to sound like his main challenger, giving a coarse tone to the campaign.
Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) has consistently been topping polls, followed by Rutte’s conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). Rutte’s strategy so far is aimed squarely at Wilders as the main competition, casting the election as a choice between the prime minister or the PVV.
Almost invariably, the moment the rhetorical gloves come off is when politicians turn to the defining topic of the election campaign: immigration, particularly Muslim immigration.
Here is a roundup of how brash words conquered the Dutch political mainstream.
Before Wilders, there was Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay populist who rode a wave of resentment toward Muslims in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and described Islam as a “backward culture.” He was assassinated in 2002 by a radical environmental activist who accused Fortuyn of scapegoating marginal groups, in a murder that shocked the Netherlands.
‘Head rag tax’
Wilders’ ability to get free publicity by making headlines with his language has been key to his party’s rise. One moment that entered Dutch political lore was when he calmly proposed to parliament introducing a “kopvoddentaks,” or “head rag tax”.
‘Doe eens normaal’
“I understand that people think: if you reject our country fundamentally, I’d rather see you go. I have the same feeling. Act normal or leave,” Rutte wrote in his newspaper advert.
His words were an obvious echo of a comment by Wilders to him in 2011 — “doe eens normaal, man” — a slangy remark that roughly translates as “act normal, man” and became instantly notorious as a break with parliament’s traditional etiquette.
“Scornful laughter” was the reaction to Wilders’ words back then, noted Joost de Vriesin the Volkskrant newspaper. “Six years later, the VVD has elevated the same words to a slogan.”
The chant, “fewer, fewer, fewer!” was what a crowd of supporters called back to Wilders in 2014 when he asked them whether they wanted more Moroccans in the Netherlands, or fewer. It landed him in court on trial for hate speech, which Wilders took as an opportunity to cast himself as a defender of free expression and a victim of a politically motivated trial. He was convicted of incitement and encouraging discrimination but was not given a penalty.
Rutte opened the political season with a television interview in which he said antisocial youths of Turkish background should “pleur op” or “piss off” to Turkey. It’s a somewhat old-fashioned sounding phrase referring to pleurisy, in the Dutch tradition of illness-themed curses, and it had clear echoes of Wilders’ rhetoric.
“Everybody knows immediately this is Wilders’ style … it’s almost a dialect word, a little bit archaic,” said Henk te Velde, a professor of Dutch history at Leiden University who studies political language. “This is new, that a mainstream party is copying Wilders’ rhetoric.”
The risk, according to Te Velde, is that Rutte may strengthen Wilders by setting him up as the main opposition, and that copying him could reinforce an impression that he is a politician without strong convictions of his own.
“People will ask: who is the real Rutte, and what does he really think?” Te Velde said. “He’s enhancing the impression that he doesn’t have his own ideas, and that he’s not to be trusted, because he’s changing every day.”