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Dangers from the political wilderness

The defeat of the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria's presidential election late last year raised hopes that continental Europe would not join the populist march that had heralded Britain's exit from the European Union and the entry of Mr Donald Trump into the White House. In the same vein, last week's election results in the Netherlands might lead many to believe the European penchant for middle-of-the-road politics will keep repelling the siren call of the far right.

While Dutch voters handed victory to Prime Minister Mark Rutte's centre-right party, he and his coalition partners have not seen the last of the far right's iconic representative, Mr Geert Wilders. Though he failed to overtake the establishment, Mr Wilders' party gained more seats. Indeed, at one point during the race, some contemplated the nightmare scenario of a decisive vote for the far right. Two points are worth bearing in mind: First, the largest parties in the Netherlands have for years secured only about a quarter of the votes. The outcome is largely the same this year for Mr Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy. Meanwhile, Mr Wilders' Party for Freedom has grown in strength.

Second, Mr Wilders gained by forcefully delivering a deeply troubling pitch: He sought to reinvent the Dutch political identity by barring Muslim immigrants, closing mosques, and banning sales of the Quran. Such seething racism is reason enough for such politicians to be firmly rejected. But the Dutch polls told a different story because of the way Mr Wilders blended his xenophobic views with stridently nationalist appeals - for example, promising to hold a referendum on taking the Netherlands out of Europe. A major concern is that the subversive attraction of such strategies might make mainstream European parties tilt to the right in order to win precious votes to stay marginally ahead of others.

In the Netherlands, the threat from the wilderness remains. Mr Wilders promised that, whatever the outcome of the election, "the genie will not go back into the bottle" because people "feel misrepresented". This is the new strain of the populist anthem. It claims that traditional politics and politicians, of all mainstream parties, have bartered away the interests of ordinary citizens in their quest to negotiate the peaceful rotation of power among themselves. Positioning itself as a national vanguard formed by economic insurgents and political subversives, the far right promises to destroy the old distribution of power.

Right-thinking Europeans must puncture inflated claims about the restorative powers of rampant nationalism. Mainstream parties ought to engage the masses by showing how open and diverse nations stand to gain more than those that shrink the economic pie by adopting protectionist policies and creating social divisions.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'Dangers from the political wilderness'. Print Edition | Subscribe