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The Dutch Step Away from Populism

Lieke Bos
Commentary, 16 March 2017
Europe
Populist firebrand Geert Wilders’s failure to make a breakthrough in the Dutch elections has only postponed a debate about the country’s identity.

The Netherlands’ long-serving Prime Minister Mark Rutte has won the country’s general elections, seeing off a strong challenge from far-right anti-Islamic immigration firebrand Geert Wilders.

‘It appears that the [centre-right] VVD will be the biggest party in The Netherlands for the third time in a row’, Rutte told jubilant supporters in the early hours of Thursday morning. ‘Let’s celebrate a little’, he urged them.

Rutte’s ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is on course to hold 33 seats in The Netherlands’ 150-seat parliament.

This put the VVD well ahead of Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV), which gained only 20 seats despite leading in most of the opinion polls conducted during the electoral campaign. And the fact that turnout in the elections was an unprecedented 81% also boosts the result’s credibility.

The results are being hailed throughout Europe as an indication that the populist backlash now sweeping the continent can be stopped. Still, there were specific factors at play in the Dutch ballots that will not be repeated in France or Germany, both of which face cliff-hanger electoral contests, in May–June and September respectively.

Populism is not new in The Netherlands. In 2002, Pim Fortuyn enjoyed a landslide victory in Rotterdam’s city council and his party came from nowhere to come second in the general elections that year by being one of the first Dutch politicians to be openly critical about Islam.

He was assassinated nine days before the general elections in 2002. His assassination, and that of Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker – in 2004 – who was also critical of Islam, changed the Dutch political landscape dramatically, and the country has been moving steadily to the right since then.

This also made room for the PVV in 2006. Over the years Wilders’s views have become more extreme, and with his eighteen years of being an MP, he is one of the most experienced and longest-sitting parliamentarians.

Despite all this, there was no clear-cut theme for the Dutch general elections this time around. Four years ago – amid an economic crisis – the economy and budget deficit were the main focuses.

Much has happened since, with the current government being the first since 1998 to see out its full term, as well as ensuring a budget surplus for the first time in ten years.

Healthcare and pensions received some attention, but that was only because – with the return of economic and fiscal stability to the Netherlands – such ‘luxuries’ can be discussed again.

Therefore, the biggest question on voters’ minds was which party outlined the vision of The Netherlands they could most identify with. That, in itself, is an interesting question for, as Argentina-born Queen Máxima famously said in 2007, ‘The Netherlander does not exist’.

Major themes such as the economy, defence spending and climate change were rarely discussed. At the same time, foreign policy issues, such as the refugee deal with Turkey, the consequences of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in the US, were largely absent from the parties’ programmes.

The biggest focus on the world outside of The Netherlands was a debate about the large increase in registration of Dutch voters living abroad. Many of them were unable to cast their votes in time for the election due to a delay in the posting of the ballots caused by the large number of parties that initially registered to take part in the elections.

The otherwise lethargic campaign changed, of course, when a diplomatic crisis between The Netherlands and Turkey erupted.

Rutte’s swift and firm handling of this row helped him to portray an image of the experienced prime minister while making Wilders look like someone who only tweets from the sidelines.

Denk, the new party aimed at Dutch-Turkish and Moroccan communities, did not fare badly after the diplomatic standoff either, picking up three seats.

However, the question of Dutch identity, angry citizens and the gap between politicians and the rest of the country were the focus of the remaining electoral debates.

The results mean that the Dutch political system is not being taken over by a populist, but they also mean that the system is fragmented: the five biggest parties, including the PVV, all have between 9–29% of the vote.

All the major parties have already ruled out sitting in the same government as the PVV. This is not only because of Wilders’s extreme views, but also because they see him as unreliable. During a previous attempt to govern with the PVV in 2010, Wilders pulled the plug on the coalition less than two years after it was formed.

Still, forming a new coalition will not be easy, especially since five parties have about the same number of seats in parliament. Matters may be so tricky that the king might be asked to step in to help, despite the fact that he lost that constitutional power five years ago.

One thing to remain positive about is that a long formation process will lead to a higher budget surplus as new major expenses will be postponed until after a government has been officially appointed by the king.

And there's another thing to remain positive about: at least one populist did not make it into office in Europe.

Banner image: Geert Wilders is still hovering in the background. Courtesy of Wouter Engler/Wikimedia.

Author

Lieke Bos
Project Officer

Lieke is a Project Officer at RUSI working with the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, RUSI International and National... read more

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