Netherlands read more

“Act normal, or go away”

Dutch Prime Minister releases an open letter wooing right-wing voters

Dutch Prime Minister releases an open letter wooing right-wing voters

On Monday morning, many Dutch citizens opened their newspapers to find a full page advertisement from their Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Against a black backdrop, half of his bespectacled face stares out from the page, flanked by a ‘letter to the Netherlands’ in white print.

The most striking part of the letter criticizes those who refuse to integrate and adopt Dutch values. “We feel uncomfortable when people abuse our freedom to spoil things, when they have come to our country for that very freedom,” Rutte wrote, just weeks before the country’s general election on March 15. “Behave normally, or go away.”

Although his message seemed to address immigrants, its real target is voters who have been leaving his Liberal Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) party in droves. In recent years, the right-wing Freedom Party (PVV) a one-man party headed by Geert Wilders has taken a commanding lead in Dutch politics.

Wilders is a former VVD politician with persuasive, divisive rhetoric and a striking blonde hairdo similar to that of U.S. President Donald Trump. His political platform consists of one A4 sheet of paper and focuses on de-islamizing the country, getting rid of immigrants and leaving the European Union (EU).

Wilders was quick to respond to the prime minister’s message on Monday. On Twitter he condemned Rutte as “the man of open borders, asylum tsunami, mass immigration, Islamisation, lies and deceit.” Later he posted a video online in which he said Rutte should be the one to go, as he had welcomed many migrants to the Netherlands. In the video, Wilders addresses Rutte: “Stop lying to your own country – there is nobody who still believes you.”

Rutte, first elected in 2010, is looking to win a third term as the country’s Prime Minister. As Wilders rises in the polls, the PM has shifted to the right and started to adopt similar rhetoric. Monday’s advertisement was just the latest incident.

Last summer, Rutte used an appearance on a popular television program to say that Turkish people who bothered a reporter during a demonstration in Rotterdam against the coup in Turkey should “fuck off’ back to Turkey. That began a campaign that has largely focused on immigration rather than traditional issues such as the economy.

Although his party leads in the polls, Wilders is unlikely to be the next Prime Minister. In order to rule, Dutch parties need to form a governing coalition, consisting of at least 70 seats, just under half of the 150 deputies. Wilders’ PVV is slated to win 33 seats. Rutte’s VVD is predicted to win 24.

Initially, Rutte did not rule out entering into a coalition with Wilders, but he has since changed his mind, hoping to further undercut PVV support. “The chance of the VVD working together with the PVV is zero,” he said on Jan. 15. Despite this, a majority of voters believe that Mr. Rutte will go back on his word after the elections if it makes political sense to do so.

Left wing parties are also already hatching plans for their own coalition, which would be led by Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old leader of the Green Left (GroenLinks) party, currently slated to win 16 seats. Klaver also lashed out at Rutte, saying his message on what was normal in the Netherlands was “unbelievable.” On Facebook he wrote: “400.000 children in poverty is not normal. People who cannot afford the high costs for health care is not normal. Racism is not normal.”

What exactly was ‘normal’ was a question left hanging in the air. Even the prime minister felt the need to further clarify his views during a live chat on Facebook on Monday evening. One viewer asked whether he was normal if he stopped watching the series Lost two episodes before the show’s finale. That was not what he meant, Rutte explained. “Normal are the things which we are used to in this country – like shaking hands.”

He gave the example of the “bizarre verdict” against bus company Qbuzz, which was censured for turning down an immigrant who applied for a job as a bus driver because the man refused to shake hands with women.

“That’s precisely why I and many other people are rebelling. Because the norm here is that you shake hands with each other.”

“If you live in a country where you get so annoyed with how we deal each other, you have a choice. Get out! You don’t have to be here!” Rutte told daily paper Algemeen Dagblad. Only the looming elections will tell whether such tough talk from a man famous for his compromising stance will convince voters.

Fernande van Tets is a Dutch journalist living in Amsterdam.

Cover: ASSOCIATED PRESS

M-F 7:30PM HBO