‘It was heartbreaking’: Muslim mayor comes to terms with Dutch election result

Soon after news broke that the populist Geert Wilders and his anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) had won the most votes of any party in the Dutch elections, Ahmed Marcouch found himself comforting his distraught eight-year-old.

Earlier in the day, a teacher at his son’s school had explained the election results, discussing the wide differences between parties. Now Marcouch’s son was terrified that the family would have to leave the country.

“It was heartbreaking,” said Marcouch. But for Marcouch, the Moroccan-born mayor of the eastern Dutch city of Arnhem, it was also a worrying sign of just how deeply politics had veered into the personal.

Related: Dutch Muslims fearful for future after ‘shocking’ election results

“This is the son of the mayor,” he said. “And he’s scared that the government – this party – will push them out of this society.”

Since 2017 the Labour party politician has been at the helm of Arnhem, seeking to bring together nearly 170,000 residents whose nationalities span more than 100 countries.

But the election catapulted him into uncharted territory. For the past 10 days, Marcouch, a Muslim who moved to the Netherlands at the age of 10 and who has been directly targeted by Wilders during his political career, has grappled with how best to heal the wounds laid bare by the results.

PVV emerged as the most voted-for party in the Gelderland province, home to Arnhem, with more than 20% backing promises that included the rejection of all new asylum claims, the banning of Islamic headscarves from public buildings, deporting dual-national criminals and ending the free movement of EU workers.

Eye-catching promises aside, what Marcouch saw in the result was a pushback against traditional parties and institutions by people frustrated with spiralling housing costs and the soaring cost of living. “For 40 years they’ve heard promises. ‘Vote for me and your life will become better,’” said Marcouch. “But they haven’t seen any change in their circumstances.”

This reality paved the way for Wilders, he believes. “In the meantime they see Wilders addressing their anger, their disappointment. They didn’t hear any solutions but he gives words to their fears,” he said. “It was enough for him to say ‘I feel your pain.’ It was enough for people to vote for his party.”

Marcouch described the result as a wake-up call for politicians, in that it had exposed how the longstanding failure to address these issues had given way to what he called a “threat to democracy” in the Netherlands. “Dutch society is one of the richest in the world. But not every citizen benefits from this wealth.”

He pointed to the lack of affordable housing as an example. “We have a social crisis, like we have a climate crisis or energy crisis,” he said. “It’s not because of immigrants or refugees. It is because of mismanagement of politicians. It is because of political choices. We have to address the anger.”

He has begun taking steps to do just that, organising a dialogue days after the election to allow residents to share their views. “For me right now, it is very important to get people connected, to get people to fight this negative polarisation,” he said.

Among those still reeling from the results included many members of the Muslim community. “I really understand the shock of a win by a party that has systemically humiliated Muslims for decades, that wants to ban mosques, the Qur’an and wants to deprive Muslims of their fundamental rights,” he said.

In 2017, after news broke that Marcouch was set to become the mayor of Arnhem, Wilders was among those who showed up to the city to protest, describing Marcouch in a statement as “more suitable to be the mayor of Rabat” than of Arnhem.

“He tried to humiliate me, but he didn’t,” said Marcouch, who responded in 2017 by noting that everybody – including Wilders – was welcome in the city.

“But of course, the problem is the signal he sent to all the youngsters with the name Ahmed or Mohamed or Fatima. With that kind of protest, he was saying even if do your best and get to a place where you have the competence to become a mayor, it’s not enough to be accepted,” he said. “And that’s the tragedy of this kind of speech.”

Days after the election, he was again concerned that the election had left some young Muslims feeling alienated from Dutch society. “I think it’s really important to pay attention to these youngsters and these members of our community, to support them and tell them that this is the voice of a very little minority. The majority of our society is against this.”

While there are likely to be protracted negotiations as Wilders attempts to cobble together enough support to lead the country’s parliament, Marcouch was adamant that the election had offered a crystal-clear outcome when it came to the erosion of trust in democratic institutions.

What was needed now was sustained funding in areas such as education, housing and safety, he said. “We need that kind of investment to earn back the trust of voters and make people see that democracy will also work for them. Because our democracy isn’t working for everyone.”