Defeat of Dutch far-right leader welcomed across EU

Angela Merkel expresses joy at ‘very pro-European result’ in Netherlands

 Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders (left) of the PVV party and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte  of the VVD Liberal party: victory of latter was widely welcomed in Europe. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders (left) of the PVV party and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party: victory of latter was widely welcomed in Europe. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

 

Angela Merkel and François Hollande, both of whose countries face populist challenges at the polls this year, have led a flood of congratulations after Dutch premier Mark Rutte forced his far-right opponent, Geert Wilders, into a distant second place in Wednesday’s general election.

Rather than becoming the first of the three countries to embrace populism, the Netherlands instead became the first of the three to resoundingly reject its far-right, anti-immigrant leader, Mr Wilders – prompting a palpable sense of relief from the political establishment in Europe’s capitals.

Dr Merkel, who will run for re-election in Germany in September, described the Dutch as “our partners, our friends and our neighbours”, and said she was happy at the “very pro-European result” which she maintained was “a signal”.

In France, Mr Hollande called the Dutch result “a clear victory against extremism”. Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, who is likely to face Marine Le Pen in a two-way run-off in May, said it showed that “a breakthrough for the extreme right is not a foregone conclusion”.

The relief was not confined to political circles of the centre and left. The markets also responded positively. The euro strengthened, European shares hit a 15-month high and, significantly, the risk premium demanded by investors to hold French government bonds sank to its lowest in two weeks.

Opinion polls

After opinion polls in the US and the UK misread the presidential election and the Brexit referendum, sampling here, by contrast, accurately reflected an early lead for Mr Wilders followed by a gradual resurgence for Mr Rutte, consolidated by the diplomatic row with Turkey.

By Thursday morning, an early exit poll from the national broadcaster, NOS, had been fine-tuned, leaving Mr Rutte’s Liberals with 33 seats in the 150-seat parliament or 20 per cent of the vote, and Mr Wilders’s Freedom Party in second place with 20 seats or 13 per cent of the vote.

That gave the Liberals eight seats fewer than in 2012, but it was a substantially better performance than expected given the fragmentation of the vote.

While Mr Wilders gained five seats on his lacklustre 2012 performance, there was no sign of the “Patriotic Spring” that he’d promised would begin in the Netherlands and sweep through France and Germany – and he accepted his party had “underperformed”.

Speaking at the Liberals’ victory party, Mr Rutte said: “After Brexit, after the US elections, the Dutch people said no – they did not want to be the next domino to topple to the wrong kind of populism.”

Mr Wilders tweeted his first response, “PVV voters, thank you. We have won seats . . . I will keep coming after Rutte.” Later, as the exit poll boosted him from third to second, he added: “We were third. Now we’re second. Next time we’ll be number one.”

In terms of who will join the Liberals in a new coalition, the Christian Democrats and centre-left D66 shared third place on 19 seats each, and will more than likely become part of a four- or five-party government.

Possible allies

Other possible allies are GreenLeft, who put in one of the most impressive performances of the campaign under charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver, propelling them from four to 14 seats, sharing fourth place with the Socialists.

As anticipated, the Liberals’ junior coalition partners, Labour, were punished for backing tough austerity measures introduced by Mr Rutte in the first two years of his government, and won an historic low of just nine seats – a drubbing compared to their triumphant 38 seats in 2012.

“All in all, the left has never been smaller than this,” lamented Labour’s outgoing finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers.

With 76 seats needed for an overall majority, if the Liberals were to be joined by the Christian Democrats and D66, that would already give them 71 seats before adding even a fourth partner. Whether a bruised Labour would throw in their hard-won nine votes, time will tell.

The process of forming a government is already under way. It began on Thursday afternoon when the leaders of the 13 parties elected to the new parliament met and chose outgoing health minister Edith Schippers as the verkenner or “scout” to help smooth the negotiations.