Thierry Baudet's Forum for Democracy emerged from the sidelines into the Dutch political mainstream as the biggest winner in nationwide elections that determine the makeup of the parliament's upper house and also impact the coalition government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
"Today, we won the first major battle," Baudet told his party faithful in a jubilant victory speech after Wednesday's vote. Baudet, one of his party's two national lawmakers, ticks all the populist boxes, often railing against what he calls an aloof elite of career politicians, academia and journalists as well as immigration that he argues are undermining a proud nation.
Baudet himself is a flamboyant 36-year-old who studied at the respected Leiden University and has built a traditional elitist image with criticisms of modern art, whimsical turns of phrases and a strong attachment to the Netherlands of old.
His resume on the Dutch parliament's website is headed: "Flagship of the Renaissance Fleet." In keeping with his carefully cultivated highbrow image, Baudet appeared to reference German philosopher Georg Hegel or Roman mythology by speaking about the "owl of Minerva" in his victory speech. The Dutch phrase was trending on Twitter Thursday morning.
With most votes counted from Wednesday's elections, Baudet's party, which opposes mass migration and legislation aimed at tackling climate change and has called for a referendum on the country's European Union membership, was forecast to surpass Rutte's conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, or VVD.
Dutch broadcaster RTL reported that Forum for Democracy had 14.5 percent of votes while the VVD had 13.9 percent. Baudet appeared to take votes not only from three of the four parties that make up Rutte's ruling coalition, but also Wilders and the left-wing Socialist Party.
Wilders' Party for Freedom polled 7 percent, down from 11.7 percent four years ago. Green Left, an environmental party, also made strong gains. Unlike Wilders, who speaks in the blunt language of the Dutch working class, Baudet takes a lot more cues from the erudite Pim Fortuyn, the Netherlands' first major populist.
Fortuyn, a proudly gay, shaven-headed academic-turned politician, broke a Dutch taboo by openly blaming immigrants for rising crime and criticizing Muslims for refusing to adopt Dutch ways and fully integrate.
Fortuyn was shot and killed by an animal rights activist in 2002 in a political assassination that stunned the nation. Wilders later filled the void left by Fortuyn and appealed to the masses with his even more strident anti-Islam rhetoric, but he now appears to have been overtaken by Baudet.
Wilders called his party's performance "a limited loss," but added: "Of course, we would have wanted more." Baudet has courted controversy in his brief political career. He was criticized for a reported meeting in 2017 with American white nationalist Jared Taylor and has been accused of racism — a charge he strongly denies.
But his popularity continues to soar, with Wednesday's election the highlight so far. "We are going to start a renaissance in which our self-confidence is restored, in which we can live safely in a trusted environment, in which the democratic state is repaired and economic and cultural dynamism can return," Baudet said in his victory speech.