After a surprise electoral win this week, a far-Right, populist party in the Netherlands is scrambling to fill its seats on crucial provincial councils.
The Dutch political establishment was thrown a curve ball after 36-year-old Thierry Baudet’s fledgling Forum for Democracy won the largest share of the vote in regional elections, which decide the make-up of the upper house.
Mr Baudet, a former academic, was considered something of a political outsider. He brought his grand piano to work as an election pledge, last summer posted a naked holiday picture on Instagram, and has turned up in parliament in a flak jacket instead of a suit.
But days after a terror attack in Utrecht, his anti-immigration, anti-environmentalist and anti-EU party, which has just two MPs, is set to be the largest party in the second house.
The Forum for Democracy is expected to gain 13 of 75 senate seats, knocking prime minister Mark Rutte’s centrist VVD off the top spot.
Commentators point out that as well as aiming a body blow at the coalition government, the win means Mr Baudet needs to shift bodies to fill 86 provincial seats, while putting forward his 13 upper house candidates.
“You can speak beautiful big word and make lots of promises if you’re a new party, but now he has to show he can fill the administrative positions correctly," said Arjan Noorlander, political correspondent of the Dutch programme Nieuwsuur.
"He got 100 candidates together for the provinces through ‘speed dates’ – some of whom do not live in the provinces where they have been elected. We are trying to work out if they can actually fill all of their lists. Forum members need to be packing up their homes as they will need to live in other provinces within a month.”
Mr Baudet first formed his Forum for Democracy to campaign for a referendum on an EU trade treaty with Ukraine in 2015, won a seat in parliament in 2017 and promptly knocked populist Geert Wilders off the top spot as “politician of the year”.
He has drawn comparisons with 32-year-old Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who became Europe’s youngest leader in 2017 after a campaign that appealed to the populist right.
“We don’t have the answers to why this happened,” said Raoul du Pré, chief political editor of the Volkskrant newspaper.
Although the Netherlands has long seen support for populists including Mr Wilders, the rise of Mr Baudet shows centrist parties may be losing their grip across Europe, Mr Pre said.
“It was always one of the old parties in the middle as something of a buffer to rule our country,” he said. But, “Wilders’ loyal voters feel he hasn’t got influence in government, and Thierry Baudet has a hard-to-describe appeal.”