Netherlands went to polls on March 15 amid unprecedented publicity and Europewide interest in the electoral outcome. Weeks before the election, Netherlands was swarmed with larger than expected press pack. The interest was further heightened by acres of media coverage accorded to the Dutch far-right politician, Geert Wilders, who is openly anti-Islam, anti-Europe and anti-immigration,
Wilders has called for a halt to immigration, a ban on burqa and exit from the EU. The election result was important for several reasons. First, the result pointed up electoral trends for the far-right parties following the Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US election. Second, the fortunes of Wilders showed how much traction anti-Islam and anti-immigrant message enjoys in the EU with knock-on effects on the upcoming elections in Germany and France where the far right has surged in opinion polls in recent months. Third, the result also showed mutually reinforcing effects of the upcoming Turkish referendum on constitutional changes and the Dutch elections.
The election was contested by 28 parties. Of these 13 parties ended up gaining seats, with as low as one seat to as high as 33 because of the Dutch proportional representation system. This system leads to fragmentation of the political field with each strand of political opinion represented in the parliament, making the task of forming a government quite a lengthy process.
As predicted, the result was one of mixed fortunes. The ruling centre right and fiscally conservative party Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), led by the current prime minister, Mark Rutte, did manage to ward off the challenge from Wilders by emerging as the largest party. Rutte’s Party, the VVD, won 33 seats in the national parliament out of a total of 150 seats. While Wilder’s Freedom Party, the PVV, won 20 seats. The much-feared party did not manage to become the single largest party but the party did manage to increase its share of seats from 15 to 20. Thus, Wilder’s party became the second largest party winning one more seat than the mainstream culturally conservative Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the progressive Democrats 66 (D66) parties.
The party of the Green-left and the progressives the Democrat 66 also increased their share of seats. Both parties are pro-EU. The sub story is also an increased share of seats for another Euro-sceptic party, Forum for Democracy, as well as small immigrant-based party Dank which appeals to Turkish immigrants. More significantly, the Dutch Labour party (PVDA) suffered a dramatic fall in its support, slumping to its all-time low of 9 seats from 38 seats.
The results are being pored over by analysts for the underlying trends they show up. Analysts believe that although Wilders did not live up to the press billing of becoming the largest party, the party did manage to increase its share of seats. If Wilders did not make expected gains, it was because of the adoption of his anti-Islam and anti-immigration agenda by the ruling party VVD and the CVD according to some sections of political opinion.
The leader of the VVD and current prime minister, Mark Rutte went even further to the right of Wilders on the issue of immigration. He did not disagree with much of Wilder’s programme on anti-immigration. Instead, he paraded himself as a candidate with the right kind of populism which was less virulent than Wilders’s who was the proponent of a wrong kind of populism.
This reading of the results points to long-term victory for Wilders and his style of politics — for having dragged the mainstream parties to his political terrain.
Other analysts, however, are heralding the result as the decisive halt of the far-right politics in Europe. In this narrative, the success of the Green left, D66 and the party espousing animal rights represents brakes on the onward march of the far-right. These progressive parties are openly pro-Europe and pro-immigration in outlook.
The outcome heartened Angela Merkel who saw in the perceived poor performance of Wilders a repudiation of anti-European and nativist politics (Merkel faces an extreme far right party in the upcoming election). Among the EU leaders, Angela Merkel was the first one to offer congratulation to the sitting prime minister for holding off the far-right.
Turkish and Dutch election also became inextricably linked showing proximity between migrants and domestic politics of the origin country and the larger EU politics. The row escalated when the. Dutch government stopped two of Turkish ministers to campaign for the Turkish referendum among Turkish immigrants living in the Netherlands (Turkish immigrants living outside the country can vote in the Turkish elections).
Analysts think this hardline measure helped the ruling party to outflank Wilders on immigration and Muslims issues. This resulted in the VDD holding onto to the largest number of seats in the parliament. Turkish president Erdogan, in his turn, termed the action of the Dutch government as smacking of Nazi tactics. This war of words with a European leader is also likely to improve electoral fortunes of the Turkish president in his bid to change the country’s constitution from prime ministerial to a presidential one.
The performance of the party of Turkish immigrants Think (Denk) may have benefited from this confrontation as evidenced in its increase of share of seats to 3. Denk’s better than expected performance is likely to foster the widely-held impression in the far-right circles that immigrants do not integrate. This represents downside of the Denk’s otherwise impressive performance
Despite these trends it is hard to tell how things will pan out in the rest of Europe. Though the nativist and anti-immigration parties have failed to make it into the government, they have made some further inroads into the electorate. However, Netherlands remains European in its orientation as manifested in the better than expected performance of the progressive D66 and the Green-left party. The latter owes its success to the newly minted young leader, Jesse Klaver, who is the son of Moroccan father and Indonesian mother. His youth and hopeful and unifying message has struck a chord with the middle classes and young people. Yet the party’s most seats came from Amsterdam which limits its wider appeal.