Netherlands election: The centre cannot hold

Rutte’s comeback attributable to his embrace of Wilders’s ideas on migration and robust confrontation with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan

 

It was what prime minister Mark Rutte called an “evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said ‘stop’ to the wrong kind of populism”. And the headlines all over Europe reflected as much, both relief in capitals and the failure of Trumpist, anti-Islamist and anti-EU demagogue Geert Wilders.

Victorious Dutch PM Mark Rutte.

Importantly, according to the common narrative, the Netherlands would not now be providing a boost to Marine Le Pen’s campaign in France’s presidential election next month.

The Dutch election story is more about the squeezing of the mainstream centre and its traditional parties than about an electoral surge to the anti-immigrant right

But the Wilders story is only half the picture. The relative modesty of his Freedom Party’s advance – he gained four seats to hold 20 in the 150-seat parliament, well below a 2010 high of 24 – is in marked contrast to the severe losses suffered by both Rutte’s centre-right VVD (down eight seats from 41) and the country’s traditional labour party, the PvdA. It suffered its worst ever result, winning just nine seats, down from 38 last time and crashing from second to seventh place. However, anti-establishment parties like the GreenLefts, the Party for the Animals, the progressive D66, and the Socialists did very well.

The Dutch election story is more about the squeezing of the mainstream centre and its traditional parties than about an electoral surge to the anti-immigrant right.

This squeeze, particularly of the centrist social democrats, has also featured in the UK, where Labour remains in the doldrums, in France where the SP will not make the presidential second round, and in Germany where only the adoption of “outsider” Martin Schultz as party leader has been able to restore SPD fortunes.

Anti-Islamist and anti-EU demagogue Geert Wilders.

If – as some believe – the Wilders vote is to be seen as setting a high water mark for the radical populist right in Europe, the continent’s mainstream political movements are very far from recapturing their old pre-eminence.

And, ominously, the election also proved the extent to which the populists can rewrite the political agenda of the mainstream right. Rutte’s comeback in the campaign was in no small measure attributable to his embrace of many of Wilders’s ideas on migration and his robust confrontation with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan.

But the 78 per cent turnout was a demonstration of the rude health of the Dutch body politic. This was not, as others have described both Trump’s and the Brexit votes, an “anti-politics” electorate turning its back on the system, but a strongly engaged citizenry, albeit more polarised. Significantly, Denk, a party supported by Dutch Turks, has taken three seats to become the first ethnic minority party in parliament, a possible sign of deepening ethnic division.

Rutte may have won, in comfortably outdistancing Wilders, but will need at least three of the other 12 elected parties to build a majority. Putting together a government could take months.

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