Lessons of the Dutch vote

Sunday 19/03/2017

In the Netherlands, a small, orderly country in north-west­ern Europe, an election result has been delivered. In normal times, a Dutch election would not get worldwide attention but these are not normal times. An anti-Islam, anti-immigrant politician, Geert Wilders, had been doing rather too well in opinion polls in the run-up to polling day, March 15th. He did not win. Instead, he received just 13% of the national vote.
Wilders was the reason the world stopped to take a long, hard look at the Dutch election. After the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s unexpected triumph in the US presidential vote, it was feared Wilders would win in the Netherlands, then far-right Marine Le Pen would coast to victory in the French presi­dential contest and Germany’s right-wing Alternative for Ger­many (AfD) would improve its prospects in the September election.
As it turned out, Wilders did not win the majority of Dutch voters’ trust. A high turnout rate, the Netherlands’ biggest in a general election in 30 years, gave the incumbent centre-right prime minister’s party the largest share of the vote.
The Dutch, it seems, did not fall for Wilders’ incendiary calls for the Quran to be banned, mosques and Islamic cultural centres to be closed and for asylum seekers to be summarily turned away. By implication, they did not also endorse the way he demeaned Moroccans and all Arab and Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands.
Also, three ethnic Turk politicians formed a new party and won the seats they contested. DENK, the first ethnic party in the Dutch parliament, will offer a unique experience of immigrant political interaction.
It would be short-sighted, however, to think that the Dutch have stopped the rising tide of populism breaking over Europe. Le Pen is expected to do well in the first round of the French elections next month, though she may not win the run-off in May. In Germany, the right wing is not surging now but an unfortunate terrorist incident could change that.
The clash-of-civilisations narrative used by politicians such as Wilders has, unfortunately, moved from the fringe to the main­stream. His incendiary comments only fuel the fires of extrem­ism because he attacks Islam, the faith itself, rather than the violent Islamists who distort and abuse the tenets of the reli­gion. That said, the high voter turnout in the Netherlands proves that citizens of a healthy democracy can mobilise to defeat dangerous ideas.
Muslim governments should not play into the hands of bigoted politicians in the West. Sections of the Turkish government have unfortunately wasted no time in denouncing the Dutch political mainstream as no different from Wilders’ defeated far-right. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says a “clash between crescent and cross” has already begun. Luckily, it hasn’t. The West is not an anti-Islamic monolith. The values of tolerance and dialogue are deep-rooted enough to justify optimism.
A word of caution though. Whatever the elections results, anywhere, the populist stream of hate speech is likely to leave its residue. That is the other lesson of the Dutch vote.