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Netherlands Elections

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European populism brought to standstill after Dutch vote

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (right) of the VVD Liberal party and Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders of the PVV Party take part in a meeting at the Dutch Parliament after the general election in The Hague. Yves Herman/REUTERS

Geert Wilders’ populist Freedom Party did not manage to win the parliamentary vote in The Netherlands. The Liberal party of incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte won the show with 33 seats, followed by Wilders, second with 20 seats and a surprisingly strong showing by left wing and centre parties. The pro-Turkish Denk party won 3 seats, possibly as a result of the diplomatic row between Turkey and the Netherlands over the cancellation of a visit by two Turkish ministers.

Liberals, Christian Democrats and Greens are the big winners of the Dutch elections. But for a parliament with 150 seats, there is no majority. Mark Rutte’s liberal party in fact lost 10 seats compared to the previous elections.

“But look, he was in a coalition that managed to economise 50 billion euros. Every single citizen paid for that,” says one commentator. “And still he managed to keep the party, the biggest of them all.”

But probably the biggest joy, only slightly overshadowed by the tremendous loss of Rutte’s coalition partner, the Labor Party, that went down from 38 seats to a catastrophic 9, was the fact that in spite of prognoses, Geert Wilders’ populists were never close to beat the Liberals.

“I am happily surprised that the Liberal Party won, they have more seats than expected just a few weeks ago,” says Bernard Steunenberg, a political scientist who has been following the elections.

“There is a huge part in the electorate in the Netherlands, that wanted to vote “No” to populism. We had a turnout of 82 per cent, the highest for many years.”

Steuneneburg thinks that there “might have been a silent group of voters who do not agree with the right- or the left-wing, but are have a more moderate view. And they went out to vote as well.”

A complex chess game of coalition building will now start, and straight after the first exit polls that were published at 9:00 pm local time, speculation began.

Analysts came up with combinations consisting of at least three parties, but up to as much as five, to form a new government.

But the plans had one thing in common: Geert Wilders’ populist PVV party was excluded from all of them.

During a press conference deep in the night, Wilders kept on stressing that he “belonged to the winners,” and that his party, after all, “had won five more seats.”

He also maintained his offer that he was willing to be part of a coalition cabinet, but if he were to be rejected, he would “be part of a stiff opposition, that would make Rutte’s life very difficult.”

Analysts say that Wilders’ incapability to win the elections is yet a warning call for Europe.

“Even if the pro-European parties may be forming a government and be in office for the next four years, they still would like the EU to change,” says Steunenberg.

“Yesterday’s vote does not mean that the EU can go on like it did in the last ten, fifteen years.”

“Some changes need to be made, maybe less tasks to be decided by the EU, and more of engaging the European citizens. It is not ‘business as usual’ anymore, there must be change in the coming years otherwise voters still will show their discontent in the next elections.

In Europe, France is next, and Wilders’ French ideological counterpart, the extreme right Front National of Marine Le Pen does well in the polls and is set to win the first round of elections taking part on April 23. How will the Dutch vote influence French voters?

“Based on what we’ve seen in the Netherlands, maybe the turnout in the French elections will also be high, and the central part of the electorate, which has a somewhat more moderate voice than the extremes goes to vote, and that may affect the election results. It may have an impact.”