Dutch Election Signals Win for Europeanists, But Populism Remains Prevalent

March 16, 2017 | Kaitlin Lavinder
photo: Wikimedia Commons/Peter van der Sluijs

The world, and Europeans in particular, watched Wednesday’s Dutch parliamentary election as a litmus test for the populist movement across Europe and what it might foretell about upcoming elections in France and Germany.

Populist candidate Geert Wilders, who espouses anti-immigrant and anti-EU rhetoric, faired worse than expected, with his PVV party only winning an estimated 20 seats out of 150 in Parliament, coming in behind current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s mainstream VVD party, which held on to about 33 seats. The Christian Democrats, the pro-European D66 party, and the GreenLeft party split the remaining seats with a number of other smaller parties.

European politicians from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker congratulated the winner, breathing a sigh of relief at the pro-European Prime Minister’s victory.

The German Chancellery’s Chief of Staff, Peter Altmaier, tweeted, “The Netherlands you are a champion. We love Orange for your actions and what you do.”

And German politician and member of the European Parliament Manfred Weber tweeted, “The electoral result in the Netherlands is a real blow for all anti-Europeans. Good news for Europe!”

French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron, who was in Berlin visiting with Chancellor Merkel on Thursday, tweeted, “The Netherlands show that the breakthrough of the far right is not inevitable and that European progressives are growing in strength.”

Dina Pardijs, who is from the Netherlands and works at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Cipher Brief, “The disappointing result for Geert Wilders will have broken that sense of momentum [for the populist movement], and given more confidence to mainstream parties and voters that if they come out to vote … they can make a difference.”

The voter turnout in the Dutch election was historically high this year, at 82 percent, compared to 74.6 percent in the last parliamentary election five years ago.

Although the outcome was a setback for the populist movement in Europe, Wilders’s PVV received a decent share of the vote, coming in second behind the VVD, and extremist and nationalist views influenced the other political parties.

“The leading Conservative party [the VVD] and also the Christian Democrats who [came in] third, the parties that will most likely be the first two parties in a coalition of four in the government, both adopted some more extreme and nationalist views in this campaign,” noted Pardijs.

She also pointed out that, “The PM [Mark Rutte] has made some strong statements that people who don’t like our country and our values should leave, and the Christian Democrat party said children should learn how to sing the national anthem while standing up, and … people should give up their second passport, including the queen who is half Argentinian.”

Moreover, the Wilders loss does not mean other populist parties, like the Front Nationale (FN) in France or Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), will do poorly in those countries’ upcoming elections.

“The Dutch not giving Wilders a majority or keeping Rutte at the front of the pack, I don’t think that tells us really anything about France or about where populism will go. Each country’s different, each election has its own dynamics,” Jeff Lightfoot tells The Cipher Brief.

Lightfoot, who is a senior associate at Jones Group International and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, also notes differences between Wilders and FN leader Marine Le Pen.

“Marine Le Pen has worked to detoxify the party [FN], normalize it, build some alliances, and build a party structure. Wilders, as I understand it … is very autocratic, doesn’t really cultivate next generation leaders and allow other talent to rise to build a party structure, and nobody wants to work with him,” says Lightfoot.

This means Le Pen could have better prospects in the French presidential election next month than Wilders ever had in the Dutch parliamentary election.

Then, there’s Germany, whose far-right AfD has been steadily gaining ground in state elections and is now represented in 10 out of 16 state parliaments.

Although Chancellor Merkel’s CDU party is expected to do well in the September federal elections, much like Rutte’s VVD, there is no denying the growing discontent in Germany – and across Europe – with the traditional ruling parties. The AfD is one alternative to mainstream leaders. 

The Dutch election results may send a positive signal to Europeanists who believe in globalism, multiculturalism, and the EU, but it is not necessarily a litmus test that can be used to predict how the populists will fair in the upcoming French and German elections.

Wilders certainly has not given up on his populist cause, tweeting, “We were the 3rd largest party of the Netherlands. Now we are the 2nd largest party. Next time we will be nr. 1!”

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.

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