Populist Wave Hits Dutch Breakwater

Jansen Vandermeulen '19
Executive Editor

The right-wing populist wave sweeping across the Western world hit an unexpected floodwall last week. In elections in the Netherlands on Wednesday, far-right Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) came up short in their quest to become the Netherlands’ largest party in the Dutch parliament. The Trump lookalike Mr. Wilders, running on a one-page platform that included such pledges as “Close all mosques and Islamic schools, ban the Koran,” and “The Netherlands independent again. Leave the EU,” had long led polls in the election, though few expected him to eventually form a government given the Dutch system’s insistence on multi-party coalitions. Still, the specter of a man who compared the Koran to Mein Kampf coming in first in Europe’s most famously liberal nation was enough to preoccupy European leaders looking worriedly to France’s upcoming presidential election, in which the far-right National Front is looking competitive. 

Defying expectations, the Netherlands’ mainstream parties largely contained Mr. Wilders’ rise. While the PVV gained seats, moving from fifteen seats to twenty in the 150-seat House of Representatives, the mainstream center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of Prime Minister Mark Rutte won the day. The party’s thirty-three seats are eight fewer than in the past election, but Mr. Rutte is expected to be able to find the seats for a governing coalition among the other large parties, including the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal, the liberal Democracy66, and the left-wing GreenLeft. The liberal European establishment breathed a sigh of relief. “The centre holds,” The Economist declared, while German newspaper Der Spiegel headlined its story on Mr. Rutte’s victory with the phrase “A Triumph of Reason.” 

Columnist Max Wagner wrote in the March 22nd edition of Law Weekly of the Dutch elections as a defeat of the so-called “Leftist Establishment.” That view grossly oversimplifies the dynamics. First, placing European parties on a simple left-right spectrum ignores the significant differences therein on almost every issue. The left-of-center, in particular, has two distinct factions. One, exemplified by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, might be termed the “liberal left.” It is pro-European Union, pro-NATO, and less skeptical of free markets than traditional European leftists. The other group, epitomized by German party Die Linke (“The Left”) and the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, is more traditionally left-wing. It opposes Western adventurism in foreign affairs, is deeply skeptical of free markets, and sees the European Union as inappropriately neoliberal in its favor of free trade. Mr. Wagner points out that the center-left Dutch Labor Party (PvdA) struggled mightily in last week’s election and attributes their disappointing result to the failure of the global left. What he fails to mention is that the party that increased both its vote percentage and seat total the most was GreenLeft. While not as anti-West as the former communists of Die Linke or as stridently anti-NATO as Mr. Corbyn, GreenLeft is dramatically more left-wing than the PvdA. Its dominance represents a triumph of the West-skeptical left, and should not be celebrated by right-wingers such as Mr. Wagner.

Mr. Wagner is right to point out that Mr. Rutte made right-wing gestures in his battle with Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and thereby strengthened his hand with PVV-favoring voters. A diplomatic kerfuffle with the Muslim-majority country responsible for a large portion of the Netherlands’ foreign population bolstered Mr. Rutte’s standing with voters on the right tired of immigration. The well-timed episode, with Mr. Rutte refusing Turkey’s foreign minister entry into his country’s airspace and being called a Nazi by Mr. Erdogan, robbed Mr. Wilders of needed momentum and made Mr. Rutte look strong and decisive just in time for polling day. But the long-term consequences of the dispute are not yet clear. In his victory speech, Mr. Rutte condemned “the wrong kind of populism,” as if to say there was a right kind. His victory may, as Mr. Wagner believes, hail a rightward shift among Europe’s traditionally pro-immigration center-right parties. 

Threatened by populists (often aligned with Russia) on the hard right and facing a disintegrating or directionless center-left, center-right figures like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May have found it to their advantage to co-opt some of the far-right’s immigration rhetoric. After taking millions of Syrian refugees and facing a revolt from more conservative members of her Christian Democrats, Ms. Merkel has tightened Germany’s refugee policy in advance of her bid for a fourth term this autumn, even as the Euroskeptic far-right, Alternative for Germany (AfD) has won key elections on Ms. Merkel’s home turf. Ms. May, an opponent of Brexit prior to her premiership, has determined that the UK will break cleanly with the EU, enacting a so-called “hard Brexit” that severs ties with the European single market as a means of controlling immigration. The poll standing of the right-wing, anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party has fallen by about a third since Ms. May made clear that the UK would end its formal relations with the EU. 

Mr. Rutte has shown that there is electoral success to be found in taking a harder line toward immigration from outside Europe. Expect other conservatives, especially in Germany, to follow his lead. If they can win election in the face of an emboldened far-left and a menacing far-right, mainstream conservatives will look to Mr. Rutte’s method in this election as their textbook for survival. Mr. Rutte’s skepticism of immigrants and outsiders may have been politically successful, but whether it is healthy for European politics and society is another question entirely. Should other right-of-center, traditionally liberal parties adopt the approach, the face of Europe is likely to change, and its longstanding consensus regarding openness to immigrants is likely to wither.



1 http://www.geertwilders.nl/index.php/94-english/2007-preliminary-election-program-pvv-2017-2021

2 http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21718929-nonetheless-new-type-identity-politics-emerging-netherlands-geert-wilderss

3 http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/why-mark-rutte-won-election-in-the-netherlands-a-1139055.html

4 http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/angela-merkel-tightens-germany-s-rules-for-migrants-1.2481503

5 http://time.com/4636078/theresa-may-hard-brexit-single-market/

6 http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/voting-intention-2