Sanity Prevails in the Netherlands - Election 2017

 "A quarter-final against populism' ahead of the French and German polls"

Since the start of the year, European eyes have been focused on those upcoming elections in Europe, which pit outlandish right wing extremists against centrist, establishment political organizations. The first of these to take place - the elections in the Netherlands - occurred on March 15th . Holland’s most alarming candidate, Geert Wilders, has been at the helm of the nativist, Islamaphobic Freedom party since its inception in 2006. His pledges to “de-islamicise” the Netherlands, to haul it out of the EU, to ban the Koran, and close all mosques, have gained worrying amounts of momentum and recent polls, prior to the election, showed him in the lead. The results, however, emphatically did not give him the victory he had hoped for. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party, the centrist-right VVD, held onto its majority, and with an 82% turnout, which was said to be the highest in decades, many took it, as the Prime Minister himself did, to be “an evening when … the Netherlands said, ‘Stop’, to the wrong sort of populism.” 

To what extent, however, the establishment was forced to accept the ‘right’ sort of populism, if such a thing can exist, is the controversial question that remains. Alongside this - how did a man with such pernicious views manage to gain traction in a nation famously known for its liberal values? Will his kind of populism really go away?

A collective sigh of relief was heard across Europe’s liberal democratic landscape - and beyond, when the news was announced that VVD, the party of Mark Rutte, who will now be enjoying his third term in office, remained the largest party in Holland. To begin with the outcome, when the official results were announced on March 21, it was made clear that the VDD had 33 MPS out of a 150 seat Dutch parliament. In second place came Wilders ‘Freedom Party’, with 20 seats, just one more seat than the establishment ‘Christian Democratic Appeal’, and ‘Democrats 66’, at 19 each. The performance of the Green Left, led by 30-year-old Jesse Klaver - who has won comparisons with the dynamic Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau, made considerable gains, going from 4 seats to 14. Election night was catastrophic for the Dutch Labour party (who had been the junior partner in the pre-election coalition) which went from 38 seats to an all-time low of 9. 

The idea of a coalition with Labour being unlikely now, it appears that Rutte will seek to form a coalition of the VDD, the CDA and D66, but this would still leave it 5 seats short of a majority. Hence a fourth party will be needed, which may be the Green Left. Talks are underway, but coalition building is a lengthy process. In total, 28 parties took part which explains why the Dutch political scene is so complex. The number of voters was a record 10.3 million.

At the VVD’s election night party, Rutte cheerfully told supporters that: “our message to the Netherlands – that we will hold our course, and keep this country safe, stable and prosperous – got through.” The message may well have hit home but a nexus of factors ensured Rutte’s victory. Wilders’ opponents were effective at portraying him as an off-the-wall radical, a wildcard candidate, incapable of decisive action. Wilders didn’t help himself by refusing to appear at presidential debates. Economic factors may have also played their part. Although following a period of recession in 2011 and 2012, Rutte’s government introduced unpopular measures in the name of austerity, the Dutch economy has recovered in recent years. For the past 11 quarters the country has witnessed growth, which was at 2.1% in 2016 according to preliminary data. This is a speedier rate than the EU average. The weaker euro has benefited the country by boosting their exports. Equally, unemployment has fallen, meaning dissatisfaction has largely been quelled. It seems that, if anything, the Labour party, complicit in the austerity reform package, took the blame for it and it may be this that informed their calamitous performance.

Rutte also benefited from a major diplomatic spat with Turkey which gave him a timely opportunity to grandstand and showcase his determination. Alongside Germany, Austria and Switzerland, the Dutch government refused to allow Turkish ministers to address rallies of overseas Turks on their soil. Turkey had hoped to encourage Dutch Turks, of whom there are around 400,000, to vote ‘yes’ in a referendum due for April 16, on granting President Erdogan alarmingly greater powers. There are already well justified fears in EU circles, of creeping authoritarianism in Turkey, so Erdogan’s plans have been largely thwarted, though various valid reasons such as security concerns were cited in Holland, as reasons, rather than a hostility to the nature of the referendum. The Turkish government’s absurd response - to brand European politicians ‘Nazis’ - deepened the row. 

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, took the opportunity to brand all Dutch politicians ‘hardline extremists’. “The fascist Wilders and the social democrats are birds of a feather,” he vituperated. Whilst comments like this were evidently crude and inflammatory, there is in it a degree of insight into the extent to which Dutch politics has been pushed to the right, by the mere presence of Wilders. The dispute, crucially, allowed Rutte to capture some of the voters who might otherwise have been tempted to vote for Wilders. The unyielding nature of the Dutch response, along with images of extreme force, being used to disperse Turkish crowds that gathered in Rotterdam, after the Turkish Foreign Minister was detained, signaled that Rutte is far from indulgent. He seemed to have got it right!

This is perhaps the worrying element to draw from the otherwise positive-seeming outcome in these elections - namely that Wilders has managed to shift the spectrum further to the right and forced the middle ground to adopt certain aspects of his rhetoric. Rutte’s comment about ‘the wrong kind of populism being defeated’ (implying there might be a right kind), has been widely pondered by commentators from the left. In his campaign he underscored the necessity of integration and of immigrants accepting “Dutch” values. He used terms that implied that there was such a thing as “real “Dutch people, and that those who are not 100% Dutch, i.e. anyone with immigrant roots, should learn to “act normal” or “sod off”. Rutte, along with the leader of the CDA, Sybrand Buma, have defended Christian traditions and used the language of intolerance when commenting on the immigrant population in the Netherlands. Rutte echoed populist concerns of the ilk propagated by Wilders when he said there was “something wrong with our country” and claimed “the silent majority” would no longer tolerate immigrants who come and “abuse our freedom”. 

Despite its deserved overall reputation for tolerance, Holland’s government is not in fact particularly indulgent when it comes to the matter of integration, although many would say that this emphasis on integration is well advised. New arrivals from outside of the EU have to learn the Dutch language, if they plan to remain in Holland for an extended period. Furthermore, they must sit an integration exam - called ‘inburgering’ - which determines whether they are able to understand how to find a school for their child, or book an appointment at the doctor’s. But the tolerant Dutch have been taking in refugees for centuries. Recent Dutch pro-active policy on integration, goes back to the late 1940’s, as their East Indian empire dissolved and they took in the families of Indonesian civil-servants, policemen and soldiers that had served them there. 

An interesting observation to note is the fact that the serious defeat of the Labour party also signaled a shift to the right, as many of the seats it lost did not end up in the hands of other left-wing parties.

The fact of the matter is, as everybody knew, that no matter how popular Wilders proved to be, the Dutch political system would not have allowed him to become Prime Minister, because of the PR system. Since all of the major parties refused to cooperate with him, his getting into elected power was never really going to be possible. He has no choice but to stand on the sidelines. In this respect, he has not disappeared, and nor has he been ineffective. He has effectively managed to get the mainstream to carry some of his messages. In 1997, a Dutch judge sentenced the far-right politician Hans Janmaat, for saying ‘As soon as we have the power and the opportunity, we will eliminate multiculturalism’. 

Twenty years later Wilders expresses even more horrifying sentiments, without a hint of censure from the judiciary, indicating how much the prevailing political climate has changed. Wilders himself vowed that the defeat will not deter him - commenting ominously, “Rutte is certainly not rid of me yet.” He also pointed out that the VVD lost 8 seats whilst the Freedom party gained 5. Moreover, there are benefits for Wilders to remain outside of the political mainstream. He does not have to censor himself in any way or compromise, so will be able to maintain his extremist stance and his anti-establishment views untainted. Political commentator Roderick Veelo has warned against seeing the result as the end of Wilders, arguing that the issues that propelled his rise, remain: “Rutte is still standing, but so too is social discontent about uncontrolled immigration, failed integration and the power of Brussels.” The factors that have brought about the rise of Brexit politics in England, can be seen to some extent in analysis of support for the Freedom party. Last year, the head of the government’s ‘think- tank’ said the economic gains that were being made were not reaching all elements of society. Gaps are apparently emerging between the old and young, white and non-white, along with fissures between the educated and lesser educated people. 

Despite these worries, there are of course reasons to view the result as a positive step, particularly as it had been seen as a ‘litmus test’ for the upcoming elections in France and Germany. Their hardline right wing candidates, the FN in France and Germany’s eurosceptic ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ respectively, are poised to make gains, and some had suggested that a resounding victory for the Freedom Party (even if Wilders would never make it into government), might have emboldened voters in France and Germany to stand behind their hard line nationalist candidates. Mark Rutte himself spoke of the election as, “a quarter-final against populism ahead of the French and German polls”. 

A frontrunner in the French presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron, who hopes to see off Marine Le Pen, expressed relief and optimism, stating, "The Netherlands is showing us that a breakthrough for the extreme right is not a foregone conclusion and that progressives are gaining momentum.” Although in Holland the Labour party fared badly, the emergence of popular alternative parties such as GreenLeft indicate that the left wing is not a spent force. Gratitude to Rutte for seeing off the challenge of the extreme right wing might be just slightly tempered, if the only way he managed to do so was by coopting some of its toxic elements. However with the election behind them, it may be hoped that that now the immediate challenge of Wilders has abated, the political spectrum can shift back to more centrist ground. 

Sara Bielecki