Europe relieved as Dutch reject populism in polls

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (left) during a meeting between main parties leaders and the Chairman of the Senate in The Hague after the general elections on March 16, 2017.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (left) during a meeting between main parties leaders and the Chairman of the Senate in The Hague after the general elections on March 16, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

Dutch PM staves off challenge from far-right, but forming a coalition govt won't be easy

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte fought off a stiff challenge from far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, winning praise and drawing expressions of relief from fellow European leaders yesterday for having beaten back the seemingly relentless march of populist politicians.

Wednesday's election in the Netherlands was closely watched as a test of how mainstream politicians will fare in even bigger electoral battles this year - in France and Germany - against those, like Mr Wilders, hoping to ride the wave of nationalist sentiments.

With all the results in, Mr Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) came out ahead and is on course to hold 33 seats in the 150-seat Parliament. The party is ahead of Mr Wilders' Party for Freedom (PVV), poised to win 20 seats despite having led the pack of 28 parties in opinion polls.

Although the VVD still has to pull together a ruling coalition, a jubilant Mr Rutte declared his party's victory as having put a "stop to the wrong kind of populism" that led to Brexit and propelled Mr Donald Trump into the White House.

Congratulations followed swiftly. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Mr Peter Altmaier, tweeted "The Netherlands, oh the Netherlands, you are a champion!", while French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault congratulated the Dutch for "stemming the rise of the far-right".

The markets reacted positively. The euro climbed to a one-month high against the dollar after exit polls on Wednesday evening showed Mr Rutte's party in the lead. European stocks were also buoyed in part by the prospect that the populist backlash sweeping the continent can be stopped.

Still, there were specific factors at play in the Dutch ballots which will not be repeated in France or Germany, countries which are also about to face cliffhanger elections.

Despite his claim to represent a "new brand" of politics, Mr Wilders has been a constant feature in Dutch political life for the past two decades, a factor that limited his novelty value in the polls.

Mr Wilders was also eclipsed by Mr Rutte, who succeeded in burnishing his own nationalist credentials by standing up to Turkey's demands that its ministers should be allowed to address ethnic Turks living in the Netherlands, as part of its referendum campaign.

Exit polls indicated that up to a third of those who voted for Mr Rutte were influenced by his tough stand on Turkey.

It was also not all bad news for Mr Wilders, whose party's vote share almost doubled from the last general election in 2012. "I am not done with Rutte by a long shot!" he tweeted.

Declaring that a "patriotic spring" had already begun in Europe, he has vowed to continue fighting.

Meanwhile, Mr Rutte will struggle to form a government. His party won eight fewer seats compared with the last election. His traditional coalition partner, the Labour Party, lost 29 of its seats, ending up with only nine. A new party now leads the left: the Green Left party. It may well have to be included in a future government which, unusually, will be composed of up to four disparate parties.

With the Dutch elections over, the focus will now shift to France, where another anti-immigrant, anti-European Union populist, Ms Marine Le Pen, is the candidate to beat in the first round of the presidential election on April 23.

SEE WORLD: Loss for far right but victory for populism

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2017, with the headline 'Europe relieved as Dutch reject populism in polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe