AMSTERDAM — The Dutch anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders acknowledged Thursday that voters denied him a chance to rule his nation. But to many Dutch Muslims, his victory was secured long before his nation’s nail-biter election.
The reelected Dutch prime minister told immigrants to fit in or get out. A likely coalition partner wants to impose restrictions on refugees. A nation once known for its laid-back tolerance is now focused on its divisions. And while European leaders breathed a sigh of relief that a raucous populist had been beaten back ahead of elections this year in France and Germany, many Muslims say that Wilders’s raw racism is still ascendant.
Europe has a new face, they say — and it’s that of the blond-haired bomb thrower from the Netherlands.
“I was a bit surprised at how disappointed I was this morning,” said Sabri Saad El Hamus, 59, an actor and theater producer in Amsterdam who migrated from Egypt in 1978. Despite the loss for Wilders, the future ruling coalition will still move to the right on immigration, Hamus said.
“We were all expecting the Trump effect and it didn’t happen, but we’re not done with it,” he said.
He still fears that Wilders will eventually capture the prime minister’s office.
Overall, Dutch voters rewarded right-wing parties, many of which delivered tough lines on immigration.
The Netherlands’ fractious political system makes some parties hard to classify, but parties that hold traditionally left-wing views on the economy won only 37 of 150 legislative seats following a wipeout by the center-left Labor Party.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte took a hard line against immigration during the campaign, in a bid to capture some of the Wilders vote. But having tacked rightward, Rutte is now on the hook for the campaign rhetoric, giving many Dutch Muslims little comfort in his victory. And Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy still shed nearly a quarter of its seats in parliament.
Wilders harvested electoral gains even as he fell short of projections that once positioned him as the front-runner. After a campaign to ban the Koran and shut down mosques across the Netherlands, he captured 13 percent of the vote Wednesday, compared with 10 percent in the previous elections, and boosted his seats by a third. The showing made him the leader of the second-largest party in the Netherlands.
“Now we are the 2nd largest party. Next time we will be nr. 1!” he wrote on Twitter on Thursday. Earlier in the day, immediately after the results started coming in, he declared that a “patriotic spring” had begun in Europe and vowed to continue fighting.
Rutte began the difficult work Thursday of forming a governing coalition, a process that is expected to take weeks or even months. Dutch citizens spread their votes across a wide spectrum of parties, electing 13 of them to parliament. Rutte will have to persuade at least three other parties to join his side, coming to office with a weak coalition whose main unifying principle is that it is anti-Wilders. That could be a long-term benefit to the right-wing firebrand if he can convince his voters that mainstream politicians are unjustly shutting their voices out of government.
The entire situation makes the old, accepting Netherlands feel like a distant dream, Hamus said.
When he moved to Amsterdam, he reveled in the Dutch tolerance — a tolerance so pronounced that many people would try to speak a few words of Arabic to him rather than expecting him to speak Dutch, he said.
But over time — and hastened by Wilders — Dutch society has turned in on itself, he said. The splits have grown so deep that at a recent holiday gathering with the family of his Dutch-born wife, people could barely hold a conversation about Black Pete, a Christmastime blackface tradition that many immigrants find deeply offensive.
“The whole family was divided,” he said.
And the nation’s divisions will keep getting worse, said a politician, Bouchra Dibi, whose Labor Party was reduced to rubble in Wednesday’s vote.
“We are a society in a sort of crisis,” said Dibi, who is of Moroccan descent. “Dutch Muslims are very afraid for their future in Holland now.”
Those fears are manifest in the electoral success of Denk, or Think, she said, a mostly Muslim party that has taken many of the same aggressive pages from Wilders’s playbook and flipped them on end, in a register of immigrant disgust for mainstream politics. The party won three seats.
“We live in a society now that is splintered, the Dutch against the Muslims,” she said.
Not all Dutch Muslims were so pessimistic. Some said that the Netherlands had dodged a bullet by keeping Wilders away from the prime minister’s office.
“He left his mark on the decent parties. That’s undeniable,” said Tofik Dibi, 36, a former lawmaker from the center-left Green-Left party who is not related to Bouchra Dibi. “But Wilders was first in the polls for a long time. People were really thinking about what the Plan B was if he became prime minister.”
He said that he had been pulling together his papers, getting ready to apply for a Moroccan passport in case his Dutch one was taken away. Other friends were stockpiling savings in case they needed to build a life somewhere else.
Now, he said, Wilders may have hit a ceiling.
“He has gone very far in the things he said. It’s almost impossible to go further than he does,” Dibi said. “I think he has reached the limit of his influence.”
But if mainstream politicians across Europe were calmer on Thursday after the election result, Wilders’s ideological allies in France and Germany were taking notes — yet another way he is leaving his imprint on the continent.
“Wilders raised the right issues in the election campaign, but perhaps not always struck the right tone,” said Frauke Petry, the leader of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party, which is poised to capture seats in the German Parliament in elections in September. “People want to have a clear message, but not a harsh tone.”
Annabell Van den Berghe contributed to this report.