Dutch elections curb growth of far right but expose growing polarisation

John Thys, AFP | Members of campaign group Avaaz welcome the victory of the Liberal VVD party in the general elections at the entrance of Dutch parliament in The Hague on March 16, 2017.

Wednesday's parliamentary elections in the Netherlands indicated that populist groups may be losing steam but showed that the cultural polarisation of societies in Europe continues to intensify.


Dutch voters temporarily stemmed the tide of populism in Europe on Wednesday by placing a check on far-right candidate Geert Wilders, whose anti-Islam and anti-EU Party for Freedom (PVV) made a poorer showing in the polls than anticipated. While the preliminary results have his party gaining five seats over the 15 he won in 2012, given all the political elements in his favour, including the influx of migrants, fears about the loss of cultural identity, anxiety over recent and potential future terrorist attacks, as well as early polls predicting a significantly stronger showing, yesterday's outcome can hardly be seen as a victory.

“I still think that the results should be interpreted as a setback” [for Wilders], said Sarah de Lange, professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. She pointed out that Wilders performed far better in 2010, when the tides of popular sentiment were far less conducive and he managed to win 24 seats nevertheless. “In this [2017] election, both the context and the debates…were very much in his favour.”

A deciding factor in this election, and a cautionary tale for other European democracies heading for the polls in the near future, was the exceptionally high voter turnout. The participation rate of about 80 percent was the highest seen in the country for 30 years. “The radical right populist parties have quite a loyal electorate,” de Lange said, explaining that those voters can be relied upon to show up in pretty steady numbers. So a large turnout “mainly impacts on other parties,” she said. Being able to mobilize voters from the centre and left of the political spectrum could change the outcome of the elections in other countries as well.

The far-right shouldn’t be dismissed too easily, cautioned Matthijs Rooduijn, assistant professor of political sociology at Utrecht University, who underlined that Wilders’ party is still the second-largest. “Populism and nationalism are still pretty big in the Netherlands,” he said.

Wilders has managed to pull much of the political discourse further to the right, particularly among the right and centre-right parties such as current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). “They have become more nationalist and their election programme is much more restrictive on immigration than in the past,” Rooduijn said.

Some post-election polls indicated that Rutte benefitted from a recent diplomatic row with Turkey that allowed him to talk tough and appear statesmanlike, all of which played well with conservative voters. The VVD claimed 33 of the 150 parliamentary seats more than any other party-- putting Rutte in the driver’s seat for the upcoming period of coalition building. To form a government, he will need to form alliances that give him a 76-seat majority.

While both Wilder’s and Rutte’s parties, which lie on the right and centre-right of the political spectrum, gained seats in Parliament, so, too, did parties on the left most notably the Green party, GroenLinks, which with a win of 16 seats quadrupled its presence in Parliament. Helmed by 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, whose father is Moroccan and whose mother is of mixed Dutch and Indonesian descent, the party is unashamedly liberal, pro-diversity and pro-EU. Its success spotlights a profound cleavage in the Dutch electorate, which was also a factor in the Brexit vote and the US presidential election -- and is likely to play a role in the French presidential contest.

“It is a very polarized result,” de Lange said. The divide is not so much between the political left versus the political right, de Lange specifies, pointing out that parties with centrist economic policies such as Democrats 66 and the Christian Democratic Appeal performed well. The split is rather between the highly educated, urban elites and their less-educated rural counterparts, who feel increasingly left behind and alienated.

“It’s becoming manifest that this is the social division of the future,” de Lange said. “Society is increasingly organized and segregated along these lines.”

“This election was about Dutch identity much more than it was about economic issues,” Rooduijn concurred.

Identity is at the core of the tensions cutting through Dutch society, as it is in much of the rest of Europe. And with growth in parties on both sides of the social divide, that debate is likely to intensify in the immediate future.

Is the Netherlands the tolerant, open country it has historically prided itself to be, or is diversity and immigration robbing it of its essential Dutch-ness? “It will be very difficult to resolve this issue of identity in the coming years,” de Lange said.

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