Far-right trip up in Dutch elections, row with Turkey helped incumbent

Sunday 19/03/2017
Litmus test. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (R), right-wing leader Geert Wilders (C) and Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer talk during a meeting of party leaders in The Hague, on March 16th. (AP)

London - Europe’s populist anti- Muslim far-right fell in the Netherlands’ contentious elections, the first hurdle in what is expected to be a bumpy election year across the continent.
Mark Rutte secured a third suc­cessive term as the Dutch prime minister by comfortably defeating a determined challenge from the far-right’s Geert Wilders, who had consistently led the polls.
Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) remained the largest party in parliament, securing 33 seats, while Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) won 20 seats. The Christian Demo­cratic Appeal (CDA) and centrist Democrats 66 tied for third with 19 seats each. The GreenLeft and Socialist Party won 16 and 14 seats, respectively.
While the VVD lost eight seats and the PVV gained five, it was not enough to upset the status quo in Holland. Left-wing parties such as the Democrats 66, the GreenLeft and Socialist Party also saw their parliamentary shares increase. Rutte will begin coalition talks with the virtual guarantee that Wilders and his PVV will not be a part of whatever government he ends up leading.
“This was a festival for democ­racy today, with rows of people at voting stations. It is also an even­ing when the Netherlands, after Brexit and the American elections, has said ‘no’ to the wrong sort of populism,” Rutte said in his victory speech.
Many had feared that the Dutch elections would represent the first victory for Europe’s populist far-right, with subsequent elections set to take place in France and Germa­ny. Wilders, who has been likened to US President Donald Trump due to his coiffured hairstyle and pen­chant for tweeting, pledged to de- Islamicise the Netherlands by shut­ting down all mosques, banning the Quran and halting immigration from majority Muslim countries.
Despite trailing for most of the campaign, Rutte’s fortunes were helped by his strong response to the diplomatic spat with Turkey, as well as a polished performance in a televised debate with Wilders two days before the election.
“There is a difference between tweeting from the couch and run­ning the country,” Rutte told Wil­ders during the debate. “If you run the country you have to make sen­sible decisions.”
European leaders were quick to congratulate Rutte on his victory. “The Netherlands are our partners, friends, neighbours. Therefore, I was very happy that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result, a clear signal,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “It was a good day for democracy.”
“The value of openness, respect for others and a faith in Europe’s future are the only true response to the nationalist impulses and isola­tionism that are shaking the world,” French President François Hol­lande said in a statement.
The first round of France’s elec­tions is scheduled for April 23rd, with far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen polling ahead, al­though not ahead enough to secure outright victory.
The Dutch elections had been viewed as a litmus test for the elections in France and Germany. Although Rutte’s victory will be a source of relief to many mainstream European politicians, what effect, if any, it may have on other European elections remains opaque.
“The unconvincing populist per­formance in the Netherlands may weigh on French voters’ sense of urgency when heading for the bal­lots for their elections,” an analy­sis by UBS said. “Hence, we cau­tion against extrapolating the Dutch results and continue to see a 40% chance of a Le Pen victory in France.”
Despite the PVV’s underwhelm­ing showing at the polls, nobody can deny that Wilders’ anti-Islamic, anti-immigration rhetoric had a major impact on the election, drag­ging everybody — including Rutte — to the right.
“Wilders did not want to en­ter government. What he wanted — and he’s pretty much already achieved it — is for the two main­stream right-wing parties… to say and do what he wants,” Amster­dam’s Free University political sci­entist Andre Krouwel told Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “In a sense, he had already won the elections.”
“Whatever the outcome of the election today, the genie will not go back into the bottle,” Wilders said after casting his ballot. “Rutte has not seen the back of me!!” he tweet­ed after the election results.
Europe’s loose anti-immigration, far-right may not have secured vic­tory in the continent’s first electoral test of 2017 but it was not defeated either. All eyes now turn to the French elections.