One month before Dutch elections, far-right MP Geert Wilders is the talk of the town
Several times a week, “village elders” in the scenic Dutch tourist town of Volendam cram into a small hut overlooking the harbour, as yet another boatload of Asian tourists depart in the background.
For many the green-and-white “Het Praathuis” - Dutch for “talk house” or “meeting place” is the spot to test local sentiment - whether it be inclement weather, local football success or the unending stream of day-trippers from nearby Amsterdam looking for an “authentic Holland” experience.
In recent weeks however, talk has increasingly turned to politics. And a month ahead of crunch general elections in The Netherlands, one name is dominating the conversation: far-right leader Geert Wilders.
“I don’t necessarily agree with all Wilders’ ideas, but what he says does make a lot of sense,” said 78-year-old Jan, who asked that his real name not be used.
“We usually support the 50+ Party,” he said, referring to a party that pitches to the middle-aged, as many of the other grey heads nodded in agreement.
Nearby another scrum of tourists, escorted by a flag-waving guide, shuffled towards shops selling bric-a-brac, from miniature windmills to tulip fridge magnets and wooden clogs.
“But now I’m not so sure,” he said, declining to say which way he will vote on March 15.
Support for Wilders and his far-right Freedom Party (PVV) has been steadily on the rise in The Netherlands - particularly in Volendam, seen as a stronghold for the man who wants to take the country out of the European Union and close borders to Muslim immigrants among other measures, should he be voted into power.
In the last national elections in 2012, the PVV won 16.8 per cent of the Volendam vote, according to Dutch news site RTL.
The tally rose to 26 per cent during provincial polls in 2015, highlighting the PVV’s popularity here and neighbouring Edam, a combined municipality of some 22,000 people in northwest Netherlands.
Even Pim Bliek, who leads the left-wing Labour Party (PvdA) in Edam-Volendam’s local council believes support for Wilders will be even higher in March.
Wilders “is very popular and that’s mainly due to people not feeling very comfortable with politics right now,” Bliek said.
Volendam is renowned for its hard-working folk, many who own their own businesses particularly in the building industry, said Bliek.
But after the 2008 global economic collapse, The Netherlands too felt the slump as building projects slowed to a crawl and the housing market took a nosedive.
“Then suddenly these hard-working people saw people from Eastern Europe coming in and being happy with being paid far less, getting the jobs instead.”
“Someone comes and steals your job for half the price. That would make me unhappy as well,” Bliek said.
“Then when people try to say something about it, they are being called racists,” he said.
Volendam’s former harbour master Sijmen Kaper, 70, agreed.
“The politicians aren’t listening to the people. These people aren’t racists, they are people who want things done differently,” he said.
Dressed in a traditional Volendam costume of a embroidered long black dress, Gaar Keizer, 69, said people here had had enough of empty promises.
“Politicians’ promises don’t put money in people’s pockets and it doesn’t put food in their bellies,” she said in her waterfront shop.
“Maybe Wilders too won’t keep his promises, but people are perhaps willing to try something new,” she said, surrounded by Delft blue porcelain cups and stacks of T-shirts sporting the words “Amsterdam” and “Holland”.
But not everybody agrees with Wilder’s isolationist views.
Visual artist Wijnand ten Napel, 47, who lives on the nearby Marken island believes the Dutch MP’s popularity piggy-backs on fear-mongering and lacks substance.
“When I think of Geert Wilders, I think of a tweet, a populist having a photo opportunity. He doesn’t really have a political programme.”
“But a lot of people will vote for him. Personally I find that’s a shame,” Ten Napel said.
The Labour Party’s Bliek added: “In my opinion, Wilders ... is stirring up anger between people. And I think that’s not the answer. We have to solve these problems together.”