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Far-Right Candidate Falls In Polls Ahead Of Netherlands Elections


2016 was a banner year for populist nationalism and a rough one for international institutions. First the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in the Brexit vote. Then Donald Trump won the U.S. election on an America-first platform. Two upcoming elections in Europe will show us whether 2017 will bring more of the same. In a moment, we'll talk with our correspondent in France - first, a look at the Dutch parliamentary elections happening next month.

Renegade politician Geert Wilders hopes to ride the populist momentum, as he runs on an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam agenda. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in the port city of Rotterdam and joins us now. Hi, Frank.


SHAPIRO: Geert Wilders is not a new figure on the political scene in the Netherlands. Remind us of his story.

LANGFITT: Yeah, he's been actually in Dutch Parliament for nearly 20 years, and he's the leader of the PVV. That's the party for freedom. He wants to ban the Koran, close mosques. And following in what happened in the U.K. with the vote last summer, he'd love to take the Netherlands out of the European Union. He's a flamboyant guy, very articulate and has this bleach blonde pompadour. Many people liken him to Donald Trump in style and definitely rhetoric and say that he's begun to really normalize political speech that here previously was out of bounds.

SHAPIRO: How's that working out for him? Is his party doing well in polls?

LANGFITT: Well, he was actually leading since November, doing very well. But recent polls - he's fallen behind the liberals, the biggest ruling party here. And if true, there are a couple of theories behind why this might be happening. One is, he's been under death threats for years. He can't go out and campaign too much. I was actually talking to a critic of Wilders today in the south of the city, and he said, you know, this guy is just running a campaign on Twitter.

The second theory is that, you know, Mr. Trump has had a pretty rough first few weeks in Washington, and there's a concern here among some people that if they vote for Wilders, they might get the same kind of disruption that we've seen back in the U.S.

SHAPIRO: And what are you hearing from people who support Wilders?

LANGFITT: Well, I went to a small city not too far from here called Spijkenisse, and it's the only place that Wilders actually campaigned so far. And I heard very similar concerns about immigration that I heard when I was covering the vote to leave the EU in Britain.

And it's good to remember back in 2015, the height of the European refugee crisis here, there were more than 50,000 people from Africa and the Middle East in refugee centers in the country. And a lot of the complaints I heard today are about influx of migrants and refugees over the years - hearing complaints about crime, changing in culture in neighborhoods, people not speaking Dutch - so people feeling a bit alienated in their own communities.

SHAPIRO: Beyond immigration, are there other issues where people have really resonated with what Wilders is saying?

LANGFITT: Well, I - it was really interesting. I had a conversation today - fascinating one - with a steelworker, a guy named Cor. He's 61. He's in really bad shape physically. He's got three herniated discs. The government has raised the retirement age, so he's just going to have to keep working. He was actually very tempted to vote for Wilders because Wilders has promised to help older people.

And also, this guy Cor - he's angry with the government. And it reminded me a lot of voters that I talked to in northern England who voted for Brexit, you know, to leave the European Union in part because they felt abandoned by politicians down in London.

SHAPIRO: What would the implications of a Wilders win be beyond the Netherlands?

LANGFITT: Well, even if he wins - and everybody points this out - he can't form a government because he won't be close to having a majority in Parliament. The other big parties hate him, and they say they're not going to work with him. But symbolically, it could be important, and it could give the sense of momentum of the far-right heading into the next contest of course which is coming up in France.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking with us from Rotterdam in the Netherlands, thank you.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.