Pro-Business Party Claims Win In Dutch Elections

Preliminary results of Wednesday's election in the Netherlands show that fears about the country's economic future pushed aside a potential surge by anti-immigrant groups. Voters did, however, give huge gains to a right-wing politician who wants to stop all Muslim immigration into the country.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Voters in the Netherlands gave huge gains yesterday to a right-wing politician and his party. The Freedom Party nearly tripled its number of seats in the Dutch parliament. Its leader, Geert Wilders, wants to stop all Muslim immigration into the country. And while his party did not win a majority, it may have won some influence. NPR's Rob Gifford is in Amsterdam, covering this story.

Hi, Rob.

ROB GIFFORD: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: We say they want to stop all Muslim immigration into the country. How does that fit into their larger platform here?

GIFFORD: Well, yes. Geert Wilders is a very controversial man here and throughout Europe. He has indeed said that he wants to ban all Muslim immigration. He said he wants to put a tax on women wearing head scarves. He says that Islam is incompatible with Western values. It's against freedom, and it's against tolerance. And he's actually on criminal trial later this year for inciting hatred for making these statements.

So he's very, very controversial, and especially in the Dutch political scene. The Netherlands are a very, very moderate, liberal country, only 16 million people, about 10 million voters. But about one million of those people are now Muslim immigrants. And it's because of that that people have swung to the right and many of them have said enough to Muslim immigration.

INSKEEP: I do wonder, because you say the type of country that it is, Rob, if this is a protest vote or a vote where people actually expect these proposals and policies to become law.

GIFFORD: I think it is a protest vote, in many ways. Actually, a couple of months ago, people were predicting that Wilders was going to become prime minister. Many people on the left were extremely worried about that. What has happened, I think, is that he's affected the political landscape here.

And so because of his policies, he's influenced other parties, especially the party that gained the most seats last night in the election, the VVD, a sort of centrist party, has adopted some of Wilders' rhetoric about immigration -they've had to, in order to draw the sting from Wilders' Freedom Party.

And so I think a lot of people, at the last minute, shifted away from Wilders because they were slightly scared that he was a little bit too extreme and it was a little but much for their moderate, liberal Dutch sensibility.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, he did gain seats. And you're saying that he gained influence over the course of the election and influenced other parties. How much power will he have in the new parliament?

GIFFORD: Well, the key thing now is with that centrist party, the VVD, and their leader Mark Rutte, the key thing is: Who does he decided to join with? The party on the left, it should be said, also did very well, very interesting, led by a Jewish son of Holocaust survivors. He takes a much more integrationist approach to Islam. The fact that he also did well shows that it's not everyone who's going to Mr. Wilders.

The key thing is what this middle guy, Mr. Rutte - will he ally with the left or will he ally with Geert Wilders? And that is what's going to shape the coalition government and shape whether Dutch politics veers very much to the right in the years to come.

INSKEEP: Because, as we should emphasize, nobody won a majority here. Usually, nobody does in the Netherlands. And so it's a matter of a coalition government.

Now, Rob, I'd like to know if the concern about Muslim immigrants that is reflected in these election results is widespread all across Europe right now.

GIFFORD: I think it is. We've seen other parties in other countries taking a similar stand to Mr. Wilders. Just recently in the British elections, there was a far-right party, didn't do nearly as well.

But we have seen a lot of the right-wing parties - the Conservative Party in Britain got tougher on immigration, because that's what the voters want. Of course, the economy is crucial, as well, and was very, very influential in this vote, as well. But socially, Muslim immigration really, really is at the top of the list of concerns.

INSKEEP: NPR's Rob Gifford is in Amsterdam, where there are election results, including big gains for a right-wing party, the Freedom Party, and its controversial leader, Geert Wilders.

Rob, thanks very much.

GIFFORD: Thank you, Steve.

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