News analysis

Loss for far right but victory for populism

Politicians in Netherlands election chose to adopt rather than confront nationalist messages

Until now, the march of far-right populist ideas and politicians had seemed unstoppable: They won the so-called Brexit referendum, pulling Britain out of the European Union, then grabbed power in the United States and appeared poised for similar breakthroughs in key European countries.

"Not so fast, and not so soon" is the message from this week's elections in the Netherlands. For although far-right firebrand Geert Wilders with his anti-Islamic extremist ideas led in most opinion polls during the electoral campaign, he ultimately failed to make a breakthrough.

His Party for Freedom (PVV) looks set to have only 20 seats in the 150-seat Dutch Parliament, well behind the ruling People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is now certain to remain in power.

This is bad for Ms Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, who hopes to win her country's presidential election in early May. Prospects are also now less than good for the Alternative for Germany, another populist anti-immigrant movement which hopes to make inroads in Germany's general election scheduled for September.

Mr Rutte was quick to make the connection between his re-election and global trends. "The Netherlands, after Brexit and the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism," he told jubilant supporters in the early hours of yesterday, after most of the ballots had been counted.

The Netherlands' Prime Minister and VVD party leader Mark Rutte after casting his ballot at a polling station in The Hague on Wednesday. "The Netherlands, after Brexit and the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism," he told su
The Netherlands' Prime Minister and VVD party leader Mark Rutte after casting his ballot at a polling station in The Hague on Wednesday. "The Netherlands, after Brexit and the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism," he told supporters in the early hours of yesterday, after most of the ballots had been counted. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

REACTIONS IN EUROPE

A vote for Europe, a vote against extremists.

MR MARGARITIS SCHINAS, spokesman for European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncke

Populism didn't pay off.

LUXEMBOURG PRIME MINISTER XAVIER BETTEL

Congratulations to the Dutch for stemming the rise of the far-right. Desire to work for a stronger Europe.

FRENCH FOREIGN MINISTER JEAN-MARC AYRAULT, in a tweet

The breakthrough of the extreme right is not inevitable and that European progressives are growing in power.

MR EMMANUEL MACRON, the centrist front runner in the French presidential election which kicks off next month

Still, the fact that Mr Rutte was careful to refer to just defeating "the wrong kind of populism" rather than populists as a whole is indicative of the true lesson of the Dutch election: that populism continues to change European politics by forcing all mainstream parties to adopt its ideas and shift further to the right.

It is worth noting that, notwith- standing the PVV's failure to win first place in the election, the fact remains that Mr Wilders' far-right movement has almost doubled its share of the vote from 12 seats gained at the last general election five years ago to 20 MPs today.

The PVV has also zoomed up the scales from being the fifth-largest party in Parliament to now being the second-biggest. This is there- fore hardly an electoral defeat; the Dutch nationalists have merely failed to win outright, but are continuing to edge closer to power.

And there were special circumstances which affected the election results. The tide turned against Mr Wilders when the Dutch government became embroiled in a spat with Turkey over demands by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that his ministers be allowed to address ethnic Turks living in the Netherlands, as part of a Turkish domestic referendum campaign.

Mr Rutte's refusal to allow the rallies to go ahead and his decision to expel a Turkish minister who tried to enter the country for electoral purposes proved widely popular with the Dutch electorate.

It also allowed Mr Rutte to seize the initiative in the immigration debate by vowing that the Netherlands will not allow the politics of other countries to be played out on its national soil, and by telling all migrants settled in the country and those born to immigrants that they had better be loyal to the kingdom where they currently reside, or consider themselves "free to leave".

The Dutch government did not pick the fight with Turkey; Turkish politicians did, for their own domestic reasons. Still, the confrontation was useful to Mr Rutte, who was able to show that, while Mr Wilders beats the nationalist drum from the sidelines, the government defends national interests with deeds.

The fact remains that the election was won by the government because established politicians adopted rather than confronted nationalist messages; Mr Wilders' obsession with the politics of race and national identity is now shared by most Dutch leaders, at least in their public statements.

The conclusion that Dutch politics is unlikely to return to business-as-usual is reinforced by the meltdown of other established political movements, and especially the Labour Party, which is now left with nine seats, down sharply from 35. Politics in the Netherlands may seem unchanged at the top but is becoming more polarised than ever.

Therefore, while French and German leaders, who face elections in which far-right candidates and parties are hoping to make an impact, are entitled to feel encouraged by the Dutch results, they should not read too much into them. For although nationalists and populists are being kept out of power, they are still succeeding in destroying Europe's old political order.

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Voters hand Mark Rutte big win. http://str.sg/47Jf

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2017, with the headline 'Loss for far right but victory for populism'. Print Edition | Subscribe