EU leaders will breathe a sigh of relief after the centre-right saw off the populist threat.
Voters in the Netherlands have handed current prime minister Mark Rutte a resounding victory over far-right, anti-EU firebrand Geert Wilders in national elections. Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is projected to win 33 of 150 seats in the Dutch parliament, while Wilders’s Freedom Party (PVV) is set to capture 20, placing him in distant second place.
Rutte’s victory was met with immediate relief from national capitals across Europe. French president François Hollande called it “a clear victory against extremism.” German chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, congratulated the Netherlands on the “great result”.
Elections in the Netherlands – a stable, prosperous country of nearly 17 million – do not generally receive so much international attention or scrutiny. But many suggested the election would serve as a bellwether for the electoral strength of far right political movements across Europe. Voter turnout, at 81%, was the highest in the Netherlands in 30 years.
The Dutch vote was the first of three important national elections in Europe this year. In France, a two-round presidential election is set for April 23 and May 7. German national elections are scheduled for September 24. The French and German votes in particular will be pivotal for the future of the European Union.
A victory in France by the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who for years has campaigned aggressively against the EU, would immediately throw the very future of the bloc into question.
Wilders on the sidelines
Outside the Netherlands, the main storyline of the Dutch election was Geert Wilders, and whether he would be able to follow last year’s two biggest populist, anti-establishment electoral triumphs – the Brexit vote in June and the election of Donald Trump in November.
For years Wilders has been one of the most polarising political figures in Europe. He has made a number of inflammatory statements and accusations about Islam and Muslim immigration. He wants to ban the Qu’ran, close mosques, and put an end to Muslim immigration into the Netherlands. He has also called for a referendum on whether the Netherlands should remain in the EU.
Since forming his own party in 2006, Wilders has attracted millions of followers who also embrace his anti-Islam, anti-EU message. In December 2016 he was convicted in a Dutch court for inciting “discrimination and hatred” against an ethnic group. He receives regular death threats and lives under constant police protection.
It was unlikely that Wilders would have become prime minister even if he had come out on top. The other main parties, including Rutte’s VVD, declared months ago that they would not enter into a coalition government with him.
Wilders will thus remain on the sidelines, which could suit him even more than being prime minister. As head of government, he would have had to build coalitions and reach compromises with the other parties, and get into the day-to-day minutiae of actually governing.
The business of forming government
Instead, Rutte will again seek to form a new coalition government, which could turn out to be a long, protracted process (the record for forming a governing coalition in the Netherlands is from 1977, when it took 208 days). Given how splintered the vote was, it will take three or even four parties to form a coalition.
A few broader takeaways are possible. First, Rutte’s victory is surely a welcome sign to establishment politicians across Europe that seek to stem the tide of populist, anti-EU parties.
Wilders represents the kind of anti-establishment movement that has sprung up over Europe in recent years that has capitalised on concerns over immigration, crime, and anti-EU sentiments. But the French presidential election will be the real test of populism’s appeal and strength in Europe. France is the second-biggest economy in the eurozone and, with Germany, the political heart of the EU.
While Wilders did not manage to come out on top, he did succeed in pushing the public debate to the right. The rhetoric about immigration and the EU hardened. With intense focus on immigration and the ability and even the willingness of immigrant communities to integrate into Dutch society, it was an unusually divisive campaign for the Netherlands.
Issues that were not even discussed a few years ago — such as leaving the eurozone or slowing the flow of refugees into the country — were the centre of debate.
The end of the centre-left
The election showed the growing fragmentation of Dutch politics, which is also a trend across Europe. There has been a shift away from traditional, establishment parties of the centre-right and centre-left.
There were a record 28 parties on the Dutch ballot and six of them will have ten or more seats in the new parliament. While Rutte’s party lost eight seats, the centre-left imploded. The Labour Party will be left with nine seats, a loss of 29 from the current parliament.
In France, the presidential runoff in May may not even feature candidates from the two traditional centre-right and centre-left parties. In Italy, the rise of the Five Star Movement and the Northern League has cut into support for mainstream parties.
Even in Germany, the far-right has made electoral gains. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is now represented in ten of Germany’s 16 states. Though its support has been declining since the start of the year, it is still expected to win enough votes to enter the Bundestag in September.
If the rise of far-right, anti-EU parties does pose an existential threat for the EU, the union has survived its first test. Further tests will be sure to come, but EU leaders can breathe a sigh of relief, for now.
Richard Maher, Research Fellow, Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute