Did Geert Wilders really 'lose' the Dutch election?
Pro-E.U. forces across the continent were celebrating the victory of Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte's Liberal Party over upstart populist Geert Wilders's Freedom Party. The Liberals have picked up at least 30 seats in the 150-member Dutch Parliament, with the Freedom Party gaining 20 seats. But the Dutch voters scattered their support among five parties, making Rutte's job of forming a coalition government extremely difficult.
The outcome was worse than opinion polls had suggested for Wilders, representing a rejection of his platform of pulling the Netherlands out of the European Union, abandoning the euro, closing Dutch borders and stopping all immigration by Muslims. It suggests that the nationalist sentiment that prompted the U.K.'s Brexit vote and won Donald Trump the White House will struggle to secure as big a foothold in Europe's core.
"Dutch voters rejected populism and voted for Europe," said Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow with the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. "It seems like Rutte's appeal for a 'centrist fightback against Trump and Brexit' was heard."
As we shall see, that's wishful thinking.
With key elections in France in April and May, then in Germany in September, Wednesday's vote in one of the EU's founding members was in the international spotlight like never before. Faced with the prospect of a major shift in the direction of their country, Dutch voters responded by flocking to polling stations: Turnout in Rotterdam, the second-biggest city, was the highest in more than 30 years, while balloting stations in the seat of government, The Hague, and elsewhere were kept open later to allow queues of people to vote.
"What a celebration it was for democracy today," Rutte told supporters in The Hague. "After Brexit, after the U.S. elections, the Netherlands said stop to the wrong sort of populism."
Despite the nearly universal narrative being pushed by media here and abroad that Wilders's defeat was a "blow to populism," a closer look at the results tells a different story. Wilders's party gained five seats compared to the 2012 election, while Rutte's Liberals lost 9 seats. The Labor Party was decimated, losing 29 seats, while the socialists and the Greens each made modest gains.
A couple of weeks ago, Wilders and Rutte were neck and neck in the polls. But then, fate intervened in the form of a diplomatic row with Turkey's President Erdoğan. Ankara wanted to send two ministers to the Netherlands to campaign among Turkish expats who are eligible to vote in an upcoming referendum on amending the Turkish constitution that would basically allow Erdoğan to rule as a virtual dictator. Rutte, sensing trouble, refused entry to the two ministers, leading to a back-and-forth with Erdoğan that got very nasty, indeed.
A furious Erdogan hit back at the Dutch officials for blocking entry of Turkish ministers by saying they were "timid and coward" and branded them as "Nazi remnants and fascists." He also said that the Dutch nation was behaving like a "banana republic."
"Has Europe said anything? No. Why? Because they don't bite each other. The Netherlands are acting like a banana republic," Erdoğan said in a speech in Kocaeli province, near Istanbul.
The Dutch PM retorted to the comments made by Erdogan and said that although he understood Turkey's anger, but Erdogan's "Nazi" and "fascists" remarks were "unacceptable and " way out of line." Although the PM called for talks to resolve the impasse, he responded to Turkish threat of sanctions by saying, "We can never do business under this kind of blackmail...We draw a red line."
The upshot was that Rutte was able to show how tough he could be on the Muslims, saying at one point during an interview:
"This is a man who yesterday made us out for fascists and a country of Nazis. I'm going to de-escalate, but not by offering apologies. Are you nuts?" Rutte told a morning talk show.
That response cut the legs out from underneath Wilders and gave people an excuse to vote for Rutte.
The Dutch are not the British. They live in one of the few countries in Europe that has benefitted handsomely from E.U. membership. But to claim that the second-place finish for a party that used to hold parliamentary seats in the single digits is a "blow to populism" is burying the lede – especially since the pro-E.U. parties collectively lost ground.
The fact is, Wilders has fundamentally transformed Dutch politics, forcing more established mainstream parties to adopt some of his platform. Wilders can claim that as a victory.
And besides, he's not going anywhere.