THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The economy is up, unemployment is down and some Dutch prisons are so empty the government has been renting out cells.
So why do polls indicate that the Netherlands' ruling parties are set to suffer big losses before a March 15 national election, while the party of right-wing anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders appears poised to make substantial gains?
"It's not the economy, stupid," Professor Gerrit Voerman of the University of Groningen said, tweaking the campaign message Bill Clinton used in his successful 1992 march to the White House. Instead, Voerman said, "It's about identity."
Wilders' campaign slogan sums it up: "The Netherlands ours again!"
The nationalist refrain, which echoes U.S. President Donald Trump's campaign call to make America great again, is a theme that could dominate elections in two other European nations this year— France and Germany. How Wilders' Party for Freedom fares next month should provide an indication of the prospects for fellow far-right nationalists Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate for France's National Front party, and Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany.
In the Netherlands, pollsters predict that Prime Minister Mark Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy will lose about 15 of the 40 seats it holds in the 150-seat House of Representatives. Wilders' party, which currently has 12 lawmakers in the chamber, is on track to become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, parliamentary faction, despite a recent decline in polls.
However, Wilders' hard-line anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform and rhetoric has driven away potential coalition partners among mainstream parties, meaning that he is unlikely to be able to form a government even if he wins the popular vote in this country whose elections all but guarantee coalitions.
Wilders' one-page election manifesto leads off with two "us-against-them" themes. The Party for Freedom pledges to "de-Islamize" the Netherlands by shutting all mosques, banning the Qur’an and halting all immigration from majority Muslim nations. It also commits to remove the Netherlands from the European Union, which it helped found 60 years ago.
After decades of immigration, around 5 per cent of the Dutch adult population is Muslim, according to the Central Bureau for Statistics. Many of Wilders' supporters have a deep-rooted sense that new, often Muslim, arrivals in the nation of 17 million are treated better by the government than long-time residents.
Wilders pounced this week on figures from the statistics bureau showing that despite the drop in unemployment the number of people eligible for welfare rose last year, a trend mainly driven by refugees granted residency permits, the bureau said.
"Thanks to Rutte, the Netherlands has become the ATM for many immigrants," Wilders tweeted.
His supporters agree.
"People who come here get everything and people from the Netherlands have to survive on a few cents," Jo Hendriks, a 65-year-old Wilders voter from Rotterdam, said. "The foreigners go to the food bank in their Mercedes to get food. ... I live near a food bank and I see it with my own eyes."
Economic Affairs Minister Henk Kamp, a veteran member of Rutte's party, observed recently that "people are inclined to look at other issues" during election campaigns, if the economy is doing well. The Dutch economy expanded for 11 consecutive quarters and grew by 2.1 per cent in 2016.
Meanwhile, crime has been steadily declining for years, so much so that the country has in recent years rented out prison cells to Belgium and Norway and even housed asylum seekers in disused jails.
Ahead of Dutch elections, mainstream parties carefully outline their plans to keep the economy healthy and run them past a government-funded think-tank to prove that their projections are sound. , Wilders gave the economy just a few words in his manifesto. His priorities would be to "reduce rents," ''lower income tax" and cut health care contributions, while spending "much more on defence and police" and slashing funding for overseas development aid and culture.
Wilders also is focusing on concerns — shared in France and Germany — that the huge numbers of migrants Europe saw arriving in 2015 could peak again if an EU deal with Turkey that has reduced the flow of newcomers were to collapse.
"He is trying to make use of fears within society," Voerman said.
Wilders is not the only politician appealing to concerns about migrants and their place in Dutch society. Rutte, in a move seen as openly courting Wilders voters, published a letter in national newspapers saying that, "We have to actively defend our values" against people who refuse to integrate or act antisocially.
"Behave normally or go away," the prime minister wrote.
Mike Corder, The Associated Press