VOLENDAM, Netherlands (Reuters) - The Dutch fishing village of Volendam hardly seems like a hotbed of discontent: tidy, prosperous, little crime or unemployment. Yet a third of its voters are likely to back anti-immigrant nationalist Geert Wilders in the March 15 general election.
His appeal highlights a paradox that is challenging the status quo in Western democracies and fraying the European Union: voters are spurning the mainstream in favour of anti-establishment populism in times of economic wellbeing.
The trend is especially striking in the Netherlands, where the economy is set to be the best performer in the euro zone this year and the people consistently rank near the top of global measurements of happiness and material comfort.
Dutch anti-establishment sentiment is “first and foremost about culture and identity and less about economics”, said Sarah de Lange, a University of Amsterdam political scientist studying the rise of far-right parties in the EU.
It echoes the dissatisfaction that fuelled Britain’s vote to quit the EU and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president, and the Dutch vote looks like the next chapter of the populist backlash, even if Wilders does not win big enough to gain power.
Polls show Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) will more than double its seats in parliament to 26, almost even with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservatives who stand to tumble from 41 to 27, with his coalition partner Labour plunging to 14 from 38.
But because centrist parties rule out any alliance with Wilders, he will probably end up in the opposition again.
Still, he has already succeeded in pushing mainstream politics toward the hard right, with centrist parties now endorsing an immigration ban.
Anger at pro-EU metropolitan political elites over years of liberal immigration policy is a major driver of Wilders’ appeal.
Non-Western immigrants comprised 7.5 percent of the Dutch population in 1996, and that figure rose to 12.1 by 2015, according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS). Around five percent of the population of 17 million is now Muslim.
“Imagine what a mess it would be in the zoo if all the cages were left open,” Volendam retiree Willem Veerman said when asked why he has embraced Wilders’ anti-Islam, anti-EU agenda.
“Well, that’s what’s happening currently in Europe.”
The Dutch were long renowned for multicultural tolerance rooted in their history. But immigration has become the pivotal election issue regardless of whether voting districts are high- or low-income or have large or small numbers of foreigners.
Volendam is a largely white, middle-class community with small but freshly painted houses and spotless streets. Non-Western immigrants are a largely invisible 2 percent of its 8,000 population, joblessness is 3 percent, the crime rate 3 per 1,000 people and the median home price 325,000 euros ($343,800).
De Lange said anti-immigrant feeling in places like Volendam often arises from fears that “big city problems” like crime will spill into their tranquil neighbourhoods.
Volendam is a half-hour drive from the cosmopolitan, heavily immigrant Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ largest city.
A second Wilders redoubt, Nissewaard, is ethnically mixed and less well-off. Fourteen percent of its 85,000 population is foreign, there are 7 crimes per 1,000 people, unemployment is 5.9 percent and the median house price 189,000 euros. The PVV scooped nearly 25 percent in Nissewaard in 2015 regional voting.
Mattijn van de Stroop, 45, said while watching Wilders on the stump in Nissewaard that he supports him because of his plan to lower the retirement age to 65 - raised to 67 under Rutte.
Another reason is “Moroccans,” he said. “You see it in the crime here. The other parties don’t do as much and you see Wilders is standing up.”
In Rotterdam, the second-largest Dutch city, white voters have long gravitated to Wilders or other far-right parties. Thirty-eight percent of its 631,000 population is immigrant and the jobless rate exceeds 12 percent - both nationwide highs.
An austerity campaign under Rutte also eroded respect for mainstream leadership because it hit middle- and lower-income Dutch much harder than the rich, stoking perceptions of unfairness and inequality on which Wilders has capitalised.
Though the Dutch economy is buoyant now, spearheading euro zone growth, it stagnated at zero growth from 2008 to 2014 as the government cut spending to comply with EU budgetary rules in the wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis.
Austerity bred much resentment - above all, over cuts to health services and care for the elderly. Together with ongoing immigration, the cuts deepened a sense among many that the country was deteriorating while politicians seemed oblivious.
“What people often say is, ‘I‘m doing fine, but things are not going well in this country’,” said Julia van Rijn, a minister in Amsterdam’s Protestant Church.
“Until now, every generation has had it better than the previous generation. But now people have the feeling that it’s stagnating, and they’re afraid for their children.”
While most of the Dutch are positive about their personal situation, seven of 10 are pessimistic about the country as a whole, citing social divisions and diminishing national character, a recent poll showed.
Wilders’ campaign slogan, “The Netherlands Ours Again”, plays to traditional Dutch patriotism and nostalgia.
“(There’s a) perceived threat to Dutch identity, Dutch values and the Dutch way of life, that it will be eroded by migration and the size of the Muslim population,” de Lange said.
The election is the first of three in EU founding-member states this year, with populist parties in France and Germany also counting on anxieties over immigration and identity to bring them gains that could transform the continent’s politics.
The roots of populist revolt in the Netherlands actually date back almost two decades.
The country’s first right-wing populist, Pim Fortuyn, rocketed to popularity on an anti-immigrant platform before he was shot dead by a leftist activist in 2002.
Wilders’ own popularity took off after the 2004 murder of anti-Muslim filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamist militant.
The number of asylum seekers actually fell by 50 percent in 2016, thanks to an EU deal with Turkey that curbed a large influx of mainly Muslim migrants via that country into Europe.
But a central complaint of Party for Freedom voters is that the Dutch welfare system simply cannot afford more newcomers.
As of June 2016, 15.2 percent of non-Western immigrants were jobless, compared to around 6 percent for native-born Dutch.
Carla Dekker, a Wilders voter in Hendrik-Ido-Ambacht, a Rotterdam suburb and PVV stronghold, said she had no problem with legitimate refugees, but she opposes economic migrants who claim welfare benefits.
“It’s a kind of parasitism,” she said.
Accompanying worries about the cost of immigrants is an emotional national debate about their perceived failure to adopt Dutch cultural norms, such as women’s rights and acceptance of homosexuality.
Recognising the political capital Wilders has made from such resentment, mainstream party leaders have begun aping some of his themes. Last month, Rutte published a letter to the nation summoning immigrants “to conform or go home”.
The centre-left Labour Party has proposed making it a crime to “follow and hinder, hiss at or make sexual proposals towards” women in the street - behaviour associated by many Dutch with Muslim immigrants.
Dekker said she regards such moves as mere gestures. “In any case it comes across to me as very unconvincing.”
She said mainstream politicians have had plenty of time to address problems linked to immigration, and they still had not accepted Dutch voters’ emphatic rejection of European unity projects in referendums in 2005 and 2016.
“It’s time for a fresh wind,” she said. “If Wilders comes first and they shut him out of government, I don’t know. I almost think there will be a rebellion.”
Editing by Anthony Deutsch and Mark Heinrich