Dutch say 'no' to populism
Rutte wins election, sending relief waves across the EU
17 March, 2017
Geert Wilders reacted to results with humility.
Dutch centre-right PM Mark Rutte last Wednesday fought off the challenge of anti-Islam and anti-EU rival Geert Wilders to score an election victory in the closely watched vote in the Netherlands, news wires reported citing preliminary results. Rutte's VVD Party won 33 of parliament's 150 seats, down from 41 at the last vote in 2012, while his main opponent Geert Wilders' Freedom party finished second with 20, up 5. While PVV will have a third more seats in parliament than before, it is still well below a 2010 high of 24 seats. Official final results will be announced by the Dutch Electoral Council on 21 March.
The Christian Democrats (CDA) and the liberal D66 party follow close behind with 19 seats each. The Labour Party (PvdA), the junior party in the governing coalition, suffered a historic defeat by winning only nine seats, a loss of 29. Denk, a party supported by Dutch Turks, looked set to win three seats and become the first ever ethnic minority party in parliament, in a possible sign of deepening ethnic division. Turnout was 80.2%, the highest in 30 years, which analysts say may have benefited pro-EU and liberal parties.
The result sent a wave of relief across European capitals. “The Netherlands are our partners, friends, neighbours. Therefore I was very happy that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will run for re-election in September, said. Outgoing French President Francois Hollande called the result a “clear victory against extremism” while Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called it “an inspiration for many”. “The Netherlands is showing us that a breakthrough for the extreme right is not a foregone conclusion and that progressives are gaining momentum,” French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, expected to face Marine Le Pen in a run-off in May, said.
Rutte is now virtually guaranteed a third term, leading a government that can be expected to continue tightening immigration policy in the Netherlands, already among the strictest in the EU.
Following the initial results, he declared an “evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism.”
The result was a serious disappointment for Wilders, who had led in opinion polls until late in the campaign and had hoped to pull off an anti-establishment triumph in the first of three key elections in the EU this year. A win for him would have been seen as a boost for French far-right leader Marine Le Pen, running high in opinion polls before a presidential election in April and May, and for populist parties elsewhere that want to curb immigration and weaken or break up the EU.
However, with his strong second-place finish, Wilders warned Rutte that he had not seen the last of him. He added that he wanted to participate in coalition talks, even though mainstream parties have ruled out working with him. “We were the 3rd largest party of the Netherlands. Now we are the 2nd largest party. Next time we will be number 1,” Wilders said adding that “the patriotic spring” would still happen.
According to Mabel Berezin, sociology professor at Cornell University in the US, defeat for Wilders, who has been in parliament for nearly two decades, should not be considered a sign that European populism is waning. “The real bellwether election will be Marine Le Pen's quest for the French presidency. That is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon,” she said.
Rutte got a last-minute boost from a diplomatic row with Turkey, which allowed him to take a tough line during an election campaign in which immigration and integration have been key issues. “Rutte profited from moving to the right, but also from Wilders having radicalised a lot over the last years and being invisible in the campaign,” said Cas Muddle, associate professor at the University of Georgia, referring to Wilders' decision to forego election debates until the final week. “On top of that, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave Rutte a beautiful gift,” he added cited by Reuters.
With 13 parties set to enter a fragmented parliament under the proportional Dutch voting system, it will likely take months for Rutte to negotiate a ruling coalition. He will need at least three other parties to reach a majority. At 80%, turnout was the highest in a decade in an election that was a test of whether the Dutch wanted to end decades of liberalism and choose a nationalist, anti-immigrant path by voting for Wilders and his promise to “de-Islamicise” the Netherlands and quit the EU. However, Dutch chose not to change the lane.