Did the Netherlands stop the populist tide?

20 Mar 2017 - 11:52
Source: ANP

Mark Rutte, the incumbent Dutch prime minister, celebrated winning the largest share of seats in yesterday’s parliamentary elections by declaring that the Netherlands has put a stop to the rise of the “wrong kind of populism”. But has it?

Most of Europe breathed a sigh of relief when it became clear that Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) would not come first. German chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to congratulate Rutte and said she looked forward to continuing to work with him. It was long clear that if Wilders had gained the largest share of seats, he would most likely stay out of government; during the campaign, every mainstream party had ruled out joining him in a coalition. But symbolically and psychologically, this result is significant and gives a confidence boost to moderates in France and Germany, where Eurosceptic parties look set to do well in elections later this year.

Eurosceptic parties will not govern, but the Dutch political landscape is more fragmented than it has ever been. The Dutch should avoid being complacent. Thirteen parties will take seats in the new parliament. Forging coalitions, and maintaining them, will be a challenge. It is not hard to see who would gain from any political turbulence.

Neither should Rutte overestimate his success. The government, made up of Rutte’s VVD party and the social democrats (PvdA), lost 37 of its 79 seats. The pain was distributed unevenly: the PvdA dramatically lost three-quarters of its seats, Rutte saw his 41 seats reduced by eight. But Wilders won seats, if only five.

Though his gains were less than expected, Wilders now represents the second-largest faction in parliament. If, as expected, he is not invited to join a coalition, he will lead the largest party in opposition, giving him a platform to hold the new government to account and exploit any missteps it makes.

Wilders will continue to set the tone of the Dutch political debate. This election cycle revolved around issues that he had put on the agenda; migration, Islam, national identity, the European Union and inequality. These issues will not go away. Rutte and the Christian Democrats — which will probably join forces in government — were able to peel voters away from the PVV by adopting a Wilders-like tone on migration, Islam or the EU, and package it in a way voters found more palatable. It remains to be seen whether this electoral rhetoric will translate into government policy, but Rutte and others won by lurching right. On the fringes, a new Eurosceptic, anti-establishment party called Forum for Democracy managed to win seats by copying much of the PVV agenda.

History is shaped by the victors, and so the VVD will say they blocked the ascent of Wilders. But among yesterday’s winners, there were eurosceptic parties and anti-establishment ones. That they will not end up in government is a small comfort. The populist swell remains strong, it just has not breached the dykes. The new coalition government has a responsibility to strengthen them.

Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London and starting April 1 at the Clingendael Institute.