The results are in for one of the most-watched Dutch elections in recent memory. Prime Minister Mark Rutte is likely to keep his job after his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy won 33 seats in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections. Though his party lost eight seats, it is nevertheless widely considered a victory for Rutte — and a loss for Geert Wilders, whose far-right Party for Freedom came in second with 20 seats.
But what does any of that mean beyond election night? Here are three takeaways:
Far-right populism was beaten back…but the center didn’t hold. Wilders didn’t win. His openly anti-Islam party is almost certainly not going to be in the governing coalition. That cheered leaders across Europe, as many in the continent nervously watch populist movements gain power. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker called the result good for “free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed it as “a good day for democracy,” and François Hollande claimed it was “a clear victory against extremism.” Rutte himself said “The Netherlands said ‘Stop’ to the wrong sort of populism.”
But Wilders’s party picked up seats and finished second, even after having successfully pushed Rutte to the right over the course of the campaign. “Many mainstream parties in the Netherlands have incorporated elements of the nationalist discourse,” Matthijs Rooduijn, who researches the populist radical left and radical right at Utrecht University, told Foreign Policy, adding, “Rutte’s party strongly focused on the issue of national identity.” Indeed, it was not Wilders but the once and likely future prime minister who said, just weeks before the election, “If you don’t like it here, then leave.” If voters said “stop” to the wrong sort of populism, it is perhaps now Rutte’s turn to do the same.
The center-left is down, the far(ther) left is up and coming. The big loser of the night was Rutte’s current coalition partner, the Labor Party, which fell from 38 seats to a paltry nine. Party leader Lodewijk Asscher admitted it was an “unbelievably disappointing result,” and that the center could not hold because it lost votes to the far-left party, Green Left. Led by Jesse Klaver, who is all of 30 years old, the party — whose voters are comprised of self-described communists, pacifists, and radicals — won 14 seats, up from just four in the 2012 parliamentary election, suggesting that in the Netherlands, as elsewhere, left-leaning voters are moving away from traditional, center-left parties.
We turn now to the coalition building, and to France. Now it’s up to Rutte to cobble together a coalition, needing at least 76 seats of the 150 in the Dutch parliament. Though Wilders said on election night that he was ready to talk coalition building, Rutte is highly unlikely to take him up on that. Instead, he’ll need to find three other parties with which to work — perhaps including the Christian Democrats and the left-leaning D66, both of which won 19 seats. But, while the Christian Democrats joined Rutte in using increasingly nationalistic discourse over the course of the campaign, D66 emphasized European integration and a more open stance toward refugees.
“When it comes to issue of immigration, there’s a huge difference between them,” Rooduijn said. D66 might want GreenLeft in the governing coalition, because it sees immigration similarly — but GreenLeft has a completely different economic policy than the others. And a larger, compromising, slow-moving coalition might eventually give ammunition to Wilders and his anti-establishment politician stance.
As for the near future of Europe? That rests now with the next major test of the continent’s ability to fend off anti-European, xenophobic populism: France, where the first round of elections, prominently featuring National Front leader Marine Le Pen, are in late April. Le Pen is currently leading the polls for the first round.
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