Dutch reject populism …
All the talk before the election was whether the Trump- and Brexit-inspired wave of ‘anti-establishment populism’ would wash into the Netherlands.
Rutte’s victory over far-right firebrand Geert Wilders is confirmation Dutch defences are stronger than we thought, unsurprising perhaps for a country that in the majority sits below sea level.
Wilders – who wanted to halt Muslim immigration, close all mosques and ban the Koran – had led opinion polls but support appeared to wane in the last weeks of the campaign.
With around 95 percent of votes counted, Wilders’ party was in second with 20 seats, trailing Rutte’s VVD, who won 33.
Gijs De Vries, a former Dutch politician, now working at the London School of Economics’ European Institute, said Wilders had improved on the four seats he won in 2012 elections, but is still short of his 24-seat haul in 2010.
… or do they?
On the face of it the Dutch have rejected populism, turning away from one-time favourite Wilders and backing incumbent Rutte.
De Vries told Euronews the Dutch have voted for political continuity and rejected the ‘populist temptation’ of Wilders.
But, he added, other parties, such as Rutte’s VVD and the Christian Democrats (CDA), had triumphed by shifting to the right.
“Wilders’ discourse is increasingly being copied and rehashed by his competitors,” De Vries told Euronews before the election. “Mr Rutte [current PM] wrote an open letter in a major Dutch newspaper, which, between the lines said ‘if foreigners don’t behave the way, we, the original Dutch want, they had better pack their bags’.”
Did Turkey turmoil help Rutte win?
Muslims and immigration were key issues in the election and we have already seen how Rutte seemingly shifted to the right to occupy some of Wilders’ traditional territory.
But, with Wilders leading the polls in the months leading up to the election, it’s open to question how well the PM was doing this.
Then, shortly before polling day, a diplomatic row exploded with Turkey over its April referendum on extending its president’s powers.
The Dutch stopped Turkish politicians from campaigning on the referendum in the Netherlands, prompting strong criticism from Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“Turkish president Erdoğan gave (Rutte) a beautiful gift,” said Cas Muddle, associate professor at the University of Georgia, referring to the fact the row had allowed Rutte to appear strong on Muslims and consequently take votes from the far-right.
Being in government is not all it’s cracked up to be
The centre-left Labour Party (PvdA) had been in coalition, albeit the junior partner, with Rutte’s VVD party.
But the party suffered its worst ever result, winning just nine seats, down from the 38 they netted in the last election.
Labour, like the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom, have suffered from being the minor force in a coalition government and were the biggest losers of the night.
De Vries told Euronews centrist parties had enjoyed a good night, with Christian Democrats, the pro-EU D66 and the Greens all increasing support.
The success of D66 and the Greens, who both ran on a ticket of being pro-EU, and Wilders not coming first in the poll will have handed Brussels a timely boost.
Experts said even if Wilders had won he would have struggled to form a government, but the prospect of the Dutch turning to his anti-Muslim agenda will have concerned EU chiefs.
But this is just the first challenge in a difficult year: with elections coming in France and Germany, Wednesday was just the quarter final, as Rutte himself suggested earlier this week.
Le Pen is set to make France’s presidential election run-off in May after a first round in April, while Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany is likely to enter the German federal parliament for the first time in a September election.
Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University in the United States, said defeat for Wilders, who has been in parliament for nearly two decades, should not be considered a sign that European populism is waning.
“He does not represent a populist wave. Rather, he is part of the political landscape and how his party fares does not tell us much about European populism,” she said.
“The real bellwether election will be Marine Le Pen’s quest for the French presidency, starting April 23 – that is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon.”