It's been a busy week for Geert Wilders, the Dutch MP who heads the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV). Four long months after parliamentary elections delivered his party 16% of the national vote making it the third-biggest party in the Netherlands he is now on the brink of power, after announcing on Sept. 30 that he would prop up a minority coalition government of the pro-business Liberal Party (VVD) and the conservative Christian Democrats (CDA). Even though Wilders' PVV is not actually part of the government that is expected to take office within the next ten days, his support for the coalition will give him huge influence over its policies.
As the country's kingmaker, Wilders might have been basking in his moment of triumph. Instead, on Monday he was in an Amsterdam courtroom, defending himself in a hate speech trial. Wilders is charged with five counts of inciting hatred and discrimination dating back to 2007, when he described Islam as a fascist religion and Moroccan youths as violent, and called for the banning of the Koran. If convicted, he faces up to 16 months in prison or a fine of up to €7,600 ($10,000).
For anyone else, the trial might seem like an incongruous and unfortunate turn of events, but for Wilders, it's just another episode in his bizarre political career. Nicknamed Captain Peroxide, the 47-year-old with a platinum blond bouffant has been stirring up trouble since he created the PVV party in 2005. His diatribes against Islam have included describing it as a "retarded" religion, likening the Koran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, and calling the prophet Muhammad a "sick pedophile." His bombastic rhetoric represents a shocking counterpoint to the typical image of the Netherlands as a haven for tolerance. It has also earned him death threats, and his daily life is heavily curtailed by a permanent police detail.
Yet Wilders shows no signs of easing up on the Islam bashing. On Monday, he told the court that he was being persecuted for merely expressing his opinion. "I am on trial, but on trial with me is the freedom of expression of many Dutch citizens," he said. "I have said what I have said and I will not take one word back." Just two hours after the court opened its session, Wilders' defense team had forced it to adjourn for a day, after accusing the presiding judge Jan Moors of bias. A special court meeting on Tuesday will rule on the defense challenge.
However, with the government deal still not confirmed, Wilders could find his fortunes reversing as quickly as they soared. The coalition program promises budget cuts in social security, health care, defense and development aid, but Wilders has also ensured it includes tighter immigration rules, measures to bar radical religious leaders from entering the country, and the option to expel immigrants convicted of crimes. Yet even with the support of his PVV, the planned center-right cabinet can only command the slimmest of majorities: 76 seats in the 150-seat second chamber, or lower house.
At a special weekend meeting of the Christian Democrats, about 68% of 4,033 members cast their ballots for the deal, but it still needs to go through a parliamentary vote. Wish such a small margin for support, the coalition needs every vote from the three parties; at least one CDA MP is opposed, making it hard to predict whether or not the deal will get the okay. Outgoing Justice Minister Ernst Hirsch Ballin, a mainstay in the CDA leadership since the party's founding in 1980 and the son of Holocaust survivors urged party members, "Don't do this to the people in our country, don't do this to the party, don't do this to our country." Health Minister Ab Klink echoed Ballin's sentiments, warning that, "This strikes Christian Democracy at its heart. My advice: don't do it." Two former CDA prime ministers also voted against partnering up with the PVV.
But Wilders appears unabashed. Speaking at a rally in Berlin on Saturday, he lashed out at German Chancellor Angela Merkel for capitulating in the face of encroaching Islamisation, and urged the country to be more assertive against Muslims. "Whatever happened in your country in the past, the present generation is not responsible for it," he said. Last month, he marked the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with a visit to Ground Zero in New York, where he contrasted the "forces of Jihad" with the city's tradition of tolerance.
Still, as he prepares to assume responsibility for the incoming government, Wilders will have to show there is more to him than an obsession with bad-mouthing Islam, according to Rudy Andeweg, political science professor at Leiden University. "Wilders is a clever political entrepreneur who has managed to mobilize the intolerance," says Andeweg. "But many people see him as a single-issue politician, who is only an anti-Islam campaigner. He has reached a certain level, and he cannot grow further by saying even more outrageous things about Islam."
The verdict of Wilders' trial is due to be announced on November 4. Ever the contrarian, he has already surprised observers by invoking his right to stay silent. But few expect the noisiest politician in the Netherlands to remain quiet for long.