Beating Populists

Lessons from the Dutch Vote

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Dutch election outcome could impact the presidential vote in France in April and May and parliamentery vote in Germany in September.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals party remained the biggest party in the Netherlands, while Geert Wilders’s anti-E.U. Freedom Party did not grow as much as expected.
    • In France, the right-wing National Front party led by Marine Le Pen is still doing well in the polls, though a first-place finish seems less likely.
    • E.U. leaders fear that a strong showing of populist parties could threaten Europe’s stability and diminish its standing globally.
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    Audio

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main 78762911 source AP – anti-Wilders protestors cheered the Dutch election outcome on Thursday in front of parliament in The Hague
Anti-Wilders protestors welcomed the Dutch election outcome on Thursday, standing in front of the Lower House parliament building in The Hague. Source: AP

The relief has been quite evident: The electoral victory of the current prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, has allowed politicians throughout Europe to breathe a sigh of relief.

“I believe it was a good day for democracy,” Angela Merkel said Thursday, a day after the vote. French President François Hollande spoke of a “clear victory against extremism,” and the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, also had words of praise: “A large majority of the people of the Netherlands voted in favor of the values for which Europe stands: free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe.”

The conservative-liberal Mr. Rutte celebrated his victory and said the Netherlands had stopped the trend of rising populism in Europe by preventing Geert Wilders’ right-wing Freedom Party from becoming the strongest political force in the country.

Why so much attention? Because Mr. Rutte’s victory over Mr. Wilders, who had wanted to take the Netherlands out of the European Union, may offer lessons for presidential elections in France in April and May and general elections in Germany in September.

“The Netherlands, after Brexit and after the U.S. election, said 'Stop' to the wrong kind of populism.”

Mark Rutte, Dutch Prime Minister

Especially in France, the far-right National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, stands a chance of making it into the second round in May. Ms. Le Pen also wants to take France out of the E.U. and the 19-nation euro zone, which would pose an existential threat to the six-decade-old economic bloc after Britain’s Brexit decision last year. France, after all, is a founding member of the European Union.

Political observers point to a variety of factors that helped Mr. Rutte’s party secure its position as the Netherlands’ largest party, meaning Mr. Rutte will very likely remain prime minister in a new coalition government. Not all of them are transferable to France or Germany.

Friso Wielenga, director of the Center for Netherlands Studies at Münster University, said the fact that Mr. Rutte can continue to govern – Wednesday marked his party’s third straight victory in parliamentary elections – is due to the “longing of the people of the Netherlands for stability and continuity.” Mr. Wilders by contrast, with his aggressive tone, was considered by most Dutch citizens to stand for possible chaos, Mr. Wielenga said.

This became clear during television debates in the days before the election, when Mr. Wilders’ tone was sometimes quite abusive. Mr. Rutte, on the other hand, came across as a calm, statesmanlike political manager. At the same time Mr. Rutte, 50, clearly didn’t avoid a direct confrontation with the 53-year old Mr. Wilders – and even managed to win the encounter.

Dutch General Election 2017_16.03-01

The prime minister’s unswerving position in the diplomatic spat over campaign appearances by Turkish politicians in the Netherlands helped him as well. His straight talk here could provide lessons for others: People expect politicians “to mince no words, for example with respect to Turkey,” said Manfred Weber, floor leader of the conservative European People’s Party alliance in the European Parliament.

There was also a clear shift in policy: The fact that Mr. Wilders’ party did not become number one was partly because both Mr. Rutte and the Dutch Christian Democratic CDA party, currently in opposition, shifted to the right during the campaign. They voiced criticism of how the integration of foreigners in the Netherlands had proceeded up to now. Even if they didn’t call for prohibiting the Koran or closing mosques, as Mr. Wilders did, the right-wing populist was still able to set part of the electoral agenda.

Mr. Wilders had less success with his anti-E.U. stance, however, where he was unable to convince many new voters of his proposed exit from the bloc. “People understand that Holland’s international economic relationships bring in lots of money,” said Kees van Paridon, an expert on economics at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

“The final tally shows that right-wing populism isn’t a disease that must inexorably spread from country to country.”

Herbert Reul, European parliamentarian, Christian Democrats

Three pro-European opposition parties, the Christian Democrats, Green-Left and Liberal Democrats D66, all gained seats on Wednesday.

“The final tally shows that right-wing populism isn’t a disease that must inexorably spread from country to country,” said Herbert Reul, who leads Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party faction in the European Parliament.

Mr. Reul believes the lesson is that populist movements can be beaten when the other parties adopt clear positions and provide proper explanations of their policies.

But it’s also a matter of restoring confidence in more traditional policymaking. Jo Leinen, an E.U. parliamentarian from the Social Democrats, said the political establishments of member states as well as the E.U. institutions in Brussels must work hard “to regain the trust in politics that people have lost over the years.”

Can France’s top political leaders achieve a similar feat in the coming months? German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called the electoral results in the Netherlands a “clear sign” for Europe and predicted: “I’m sure that will be repeated in France.”

Not many are as sanguine as Mr. Gabriel, but at the very least most observers acknowledge the right has lost some momentum, rather than right-wing populists strengthening each other with their respective victories.

The momentum may have been halted, but that doesn’t mean populism is going away – even in the Netherlands. Though Mr. Wilders didn’t triumph and become the strongest political force, his party nonetheless gained 5 seats. With 20 mandates in total, he will lead the opposition in the Dutch parliament from a stronger position. As he proclaimed on Twitter: “Rutte has not seen the last of me.”

 

Mathias Brüggmann is the head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt, with a focus on defense, domestic policy and cyber issues. To contact the author: brueggmann@handelsblatt.com and hoppe@handelsblatt.com

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