THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — He's been called the Dutch Donald Trump. He's been threatened with death countless times by Islamic extremists, convicted of insulting Moroccans, and Britain once banned him from entering the country.
Now Geert Wilders has won a massive victory in a Dutch election and is in pole position to form the next governing coalition and possibly become the Netherlands' next prime minister.
An exit poll revealing his landslide appeared to take even 60-year-old political veteran Wilders by surprise.
In his first reaction, posted in a video on X, formerly Twitter, he spread his arms wide, put his face in his hands and said simply “35!” — the number of seats an exit poll forecast his Party for Freedom, or PVV, won in the 150-seat lower house of parliament.
Wilders, with his fiery tongue has long been one of the Netherlands’ best-known lawmakers at home and abroad. His populist policies and shock of peroxide blond hair have drawn comparisons with Trump.
But, unlike Trump, he seemed destined to spend his life in political opposition.
The only time Wilders came close to governing was when he supported the first coalition formed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte in 2010. But Wilders did not formally join the minority administration and brought it down after just 18 months in office in a dispute over austerity measures. Since then, mainstream parties have shunned him.
They no longer can.
“The PVV wants to, from a fantastic position with 35 seats that can totally no longer be ignored by any party, cooperate with other parties,” he told cheering supporters at his election celebration in a small bar in a working class suburb of The Hague.
Whether he can piece together a stable coalition with former political foes remains to be seen.
As well as alienating mainstream politicians, his fiery anti-Islam rhetoric also has made him a target for extremists and led to him living under round-the-clock protection for years. He has appeared in court as a victim of death threats, vowing never to be silenced.
Voting Wednesday at The Hague City Hall, Wilders was flanked by burly security guards scanning the cavernous space for possible threats. He has moved from one safe house to another over nearly two decades.
In 2009, the British government refused to let him visit the country, saying he posed a threat to “community harmony and therefore public security.” Wilders had been invited to Britain by a member of Parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords, to show his 15-minute film “Fitna,” which criticizes the Quran as a “fascist book.” The film sparked violent protests around the Muslim world in 2008 for linking Quranic verses with footage of terrorist attacks.
To court mainstream voters this time around, Wilders toned down the anti-Islam rhetoric and sought to focus less on what he calls the “de-Islamization” of the Netherlands and more on tackling hot-button issues such as housing shortages, a cost-of-living crisis and access to good health care.
His campaign platform nonetheless calls for a referendum on the Netherlands leaving the European Union, an “asylum stop” and “no Islamic schools, Qurans and mosques,” although he pledged Wednesday night not to breach Dutch laws or the country's constitution that enshrines freedom of religion and expression.
Wilders is set to become the longest-serving lawmaker in the Dutch parliament later this year. He has been a member of the House of Representatives since 1998, first for the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, where he mentored a young Rutte before quitting the party and setting up his Party for Freedom. He demonstrated a softer side Wednesday night by thanking his Hungarian-born wife Krisztina for her support.
He also is a staunch supporter of Israel and advocates shifting the Embassy of the Netherlands there to Jerusalem and closing the Dutch diplomatic post in Ramallah, home of the Palestinian Authority.
Wilders is known for his hardline politics, but also for his witty one-liners. And his pets. His two cats, Snoetje and Pluisje, have their own account on X, formerly Twitter, with nearly 23,000 followers.