The Dutch elections of March 15th attracted a lot of international attention. Were the Dutch going to defeat right-wing populism? Or were they going to hop on the anti-immigrant/anti-establishment/anti-EU bandwagon like the Americans and the British have done over the past few months? When the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the elections for the third time in a row, Europe heaved a sigh of relief. But should Europe keep calm and carry on?
Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is the big winner, but Rutte’s cabinet has suffered an enormous loss. The 2012 coalition partner Labour Party (PvdA) lost almost three quarters of its seats in Parliament. The left-wing Labour Party seemed to have lost its track during the coalition with the VVD. Labour Party’s opinions on health care and refugees changed and the party failed to stand against the right-leaning tendencies of its coalition partner VVD, which disappointed many Labour adherents. The VVD was celebrating a major victory, but the party’s current win makes it the smallest leading party in the history of the Dutch elections. The actual major victory was celebrated by the Greens (GroenLinks), which more than tripled its presence in Parliament. Based on his appearance, the young charismatic Greens party leader Jesse Klaver has been compared to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by international media, but Klaver claims he is inspired by Bernie Sanders. Whereas the Greens are now bigger than ever, overall the number of left-wing seats in Parliament has dramatically declined.
Europe sighed with relief when Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) did not win the elections, since the polls predicted that Wilders and Rutte would run a neck-to-neck race for becoming the biggest party. The Party for Freedom did gain four extra seats in Parliament, but was by far not as popular as the VVD. It may be important to note that even if the PVV became the biggest party in the elections, Geert Wilders would not have been able to form a cabinet – most parties had excluded the option of forming a coalition with the PVV.
Even though there was a perfect climate of xenophobia, feeling of unsafety and discontent with the current political situation among a fair number of Dutch citizens, the PVV did not manage to gain as many seats as expected in relation to the right-wing populism that is prevalent in European politics. There are a number of explanations for the PVV’s relative lack of success. First, Wilders’ rare public appearances due to security threats and limited media exposure caused him a loss of public attention hence a loss of votes. Second, internal complications kept the media’s focus off Wilders’ campaign when his spokesperson confessed to have stolen around €110,000 from the Party for Freedom’s fund to finance his cocaine- and alcohol addiction.
The third explanation for the PVV’s limited success is that Mark Rutte undertook firm action when Turkey ignored the fact that the Dutch government withdrew Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s permission to land in the Netherlands – where he was to campaign for the Turkish referendum. The Turkish government decided to send their Minister of Family Affairs instead by car, but she was not admitted into the Turkish Consulate and finally escorted out of the country. Rutte’s response to this situation, only a few days before the elections, satisfied his supporters, as well as many undecided voters who rejected foreign actors making demands in the country.
However, the main reason for the PVV’s scarce growth in electoral support might be that every centre- and centre-right party leaned slightly more to the right during their electoral campaign. Rutte addressed “all Dutch people” in an open letter published in major newspapers that stated that people should “act normal or go away.” The Dutch PM stated that he would rather have immigrants who do not integrate leave the country. “People who don’t want to adapt, who are attacking our habits and rejecting our values, who attack gay people, who shout at women in short skirts, or call ordinary Dutch people racist. I understand very well that people think: “If you so fundamentally reject our country, I prefer that you leave.” I feel that as well” he wrote.
Christian Democrats (CDA) leader Sybrand Buma strongly emphasised Dutch national values during his campaign and this approach paid off. The CDA went from 13 seats in 2012 to 19 seats in the latest election. Buma took a controversial stance on double passports when he argued “When you turn 18, you have to choose: Turkish or Dutch.” He said that the Dutch Queen Máxima should also dispose of her Argentinian passport.
Are the Dutch elections a precursor for the French and German elections that will take place later this year? Europe can hope, but the defeat of right-wing populism in the Netherlands might not be as obvious as it seems. Mark Rutte may have defeated the “wrong kind of populism”, but the political discourse in the Netherlands of centre- and right parties shifted in its entirety to populist rhetoric. The Dutch parties kept their populist enemy close by changing their discourse in a similar direction. Moreover, the political systems of France and Germany are largely different from that of the Netherlands. In the latest elections in the Netherlands, there were 28 parties on the voting ballot. In France and Germany, there are nowhere near as many parties to choose from. So even if Geert Wilders’ defeat is a relief for the EU, Europe cannot keep calm and carry on. France and Germany will have to find their own ways to deal with the far right.