Dutch election result holds back populist tide in Europe

But Wilders has succeeded in moving Dutch politics as a whole to the right

Mark Rutte, the centre-right Dutch prime minister, described Wednesday's parliamentary elections as continental Europe's first test in 2017 of the anti-establishment populism that pulled the UK out of the EU and elected Donald Trump as US president.

Having emerged as the emphatic winner, Mr Rutte has good reason to contend that, in this corner of Europe, the Dutch dyke has held back the tide of populism.

His victory will give hope to mainstream French political forces that hope to deny Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front in the April-May presidential election. But the Dutch and French votes are different in crucial respects.

If Ms Le Pen makes it through to the knockout round on May 7, she will be in a one-on-one contest against an opponent from the political mainstream. Voters will face a simple choice, as they did in Mr Trump's fight against Hillary Clinton and in the UK referendum on leaving the EU.

In the Dutch election, voters chose from a multiplicity of parties in an electoral system characterised by a strong dose of proportional representation. This limited the ability of extremists to score a shock victory.

The larger point is that Mr Rutte's success comes at a price. The social and cultural tensions that give sustenance to populism in the Netherlands have not gone away just because of Mr Rutte's triumph.

Mr Rutte's VVD and the Christian Democratic CDA, another centre-right party, neutralised the challenge of the far-right, anti-Islamic Geert Wilders by incorporating some of Mr Wilders' themes into their campaigns. Race, identity and patriotism smoothed the path to Mr Rutte's success.

One highlight of the prime minister’s campaign was a full-page letter, published in Dutch newspapers, that attacked certain immigrants, implicitly of Muslim origin, for refusing to integrate into society. “Behave normally or leave,” he warned them.

In similar fashion, Sybrand Buma, leader of the CDA, forecast to come third in the election, demanded that the singing of the national anthem should be mandatory in schools.

In this way Mr Wilders was both a loser and a winner of the election. He lost because his PVV party is expected to gain only 20 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, compared with 33 for the VVD and 19 for the CDA.

But Mr Wilders won in the sense that he helped to wrench Dutch politics as a whole to the right. The effect is similar to that achieved by the UK Independence party in Britain and the National Front in France.

Mr Wilders ran a peculiar campaign. He published a manifesto one page in length, with 11 bullet points. He remained largely invisible to voters except for tweets (he cancelled public appearances because of threats to his personal safety). He played down elements of his programme, such as withdrawing the Netherlands from the EU and eurozone.

Yet this is by no means the end of Mr Wilders or the Dutch radical right. The social basis of their support remains intact. As Catherine de Vries, a Dutch politics professor at the UK's Essex university, points out, Mr Wilders and the PVV attract voters who distrust political elites, are hostile to foreigners, are critical of the EU and lack a university education.

All these factors will form part of the Dutch political scene for years to come. So, too, will the problem of Muslim immigrants insufficiently integrated into Dutch life because of poor schooling, higher levels of unemployment and cultural distance.

FT Service

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