What lessons for Europe from the Dutch vote?

Sunday 26/03/2017
Bullwether. Newly re-elected Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte leaves following a meeting in The Hague, on March 20th. (AFP)

The Dutch election was seen by many in Europe as a potential bellwether for elections in France and Germany, where far-right populist parties have gained ground in recent years.
While the Netherlands turned out not to be the next populist domino after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election as president in the United States, it would be premature to assume that the far-right in Europe is defeated.
International interest in Dutch elections usually approaches zero — even seasoned followers of European politics would be hard put to name the Dutch prime minister. This time it was differ­ent because, after the roller coaster on both Atlantic sea­boards we have been through since last June, the March 15th election was seen as the latest face-off between the two large global political movements — nativists versus international­ists, protectionists versus globalists, tolerance of minorities notably Muslim versus those who see such people as an existential threat to Western security and identity.
As one commentator rather wittily put it, if there is one thing the Dutch agree on, it is to preserve the dikes that protect their low-lying country from the ravages of the North Sea. That sentiment has been translated into politics.
The Dutch share with many Europeans, not least the French, a dislike of the way the United States, their longstanding ally, is going under Trump’s leadership. They see a risk of chaos and they do not like it. The Netherlands is a country of essentially liberal social instincts, which is also true of Germany, where general elections are due next autumn, but not necessarily of France, which elects a new president in May.
Commentators saw the extreme-right Geert Wilders and his Eurosceptic Islamophobic Party for Freedom running neck and neck with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Free­dom and Democracy. They were wrong but a few keen observers of the Netherlands polit­ical landscape, such as Simon Kuper of the Financial Times, predicted the outcome accurately: The first gained seats but remains far behind the second, which lost seats but retains more deputies than any other in parlia­ment.
As Kuper noted: “It isn’t even clear that Wilders wants to rule. If he compromises to get into government, he becomes almost a standard Dutch politician… More exciting to stay pure and remain the only Dutch politician who is heard abroad, better known than the prime minister.”
The same cannot be said of the National Front in France. Its leader very much wants to become president but drawing conclusions from the Dutch vote is hazardous. Dutch voters turned out in very high numbers — at more than 80% the highest in a general election in 30 years.
Turnout in French presidential elections is traditionally high, which suggests that, in the present volatile political environ­ment, higher participation favours the political mainstream. The higher the turnout is in France, especially in the May 7th run-off, the less likely the National Front’s Marine Le Pen stands of being elected. In Austria last year, a high turnout and a big increase in the Green vote helped Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green leader, beat his far-right opponent.
The election in France is unlike any since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1959. Heavy­weight politicians who were considered likely to run were knocked off their perch before the campaign began — François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, Alain Juppé and Manuel Valls. The traditional right, represented by the former prime minister François Fillon, is badly damaged by the scandals surrounding its candidate.
Some conservative voters will opt for the extreme-right National Front but others who are close to Alain Juppé are attracted by the great surprise in this election — former senior banker Emmanuel Macron, who was unknown to a wider public until his brief stint as minister of the budget.
His critics argue he is a catch-all politician without a political party base but the two great parties of the left and right are in disarray, the Socialist Party split down the middle. Macron, who cuts a handsome, slightly Tintin-like figure and refuses to insult his opponents, may turn out to be tougher than he lets on. The velvet glove may conceal a hand of steel.
It is unprecedented since 1959 to have a centrist and a far-right candidate as front runners just more than a month before the election. While European leaders are relieved at the result of the Dutch poll, forecasting the outcome in France remains hazardous. The only wise conclusion is — wait and see.