The Dutch Election Shows How Not to Defeat Populism

By CAS MUDDE- The New  York Times

The parliamentary election in the Netherlands on Wednesday was predicted to be the next populist show of strength after the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election. The Dutch would be the first of a number of European countries to succumb to the right-wing populists’ siren songs in 2017, with the French not far behind.

It didn’t work out that way.

Geert Wilders, who is all too often described as a bleach blond or referred to as “the Dutch Trump,” did not defeat the conservative prime minister, Mark Rutte. In fact, he didn’t come close.

With more than 95 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, or V.V.D., came first with 21.2 percent of the vote, compared to Mr. Wilders’s Party for Freedom, which took only 13.1 percent. Mr. Wilders barely improved on his margin in the 2012 election (where he took 10.1 percent) and failed to do as well as he did in 2010 (where he got 15.5 percent of the vote).

The real story in Dutch politics isn’t Mr. Wilders’s rise, it is the unprecedented fragmentation of the political system. Together, Mr. Rutte’s and Mr. Wilders’s parties look set to make up only 33 percent of the Parliament, with 11 more political parties constituting the rest. This splintering of Dutch politics is making effective governance of the country increasingly impossible.

While previous Parliaments have counted 14 or more factions, what has changed is the relative size of the parties. In 1986, the top three parties together won 85 percent of the vote. In 2003, it was down to 74 percent. Today it is just around 45 percent.

Because of its proportional representation system of voting, the Netherlands is an extreme case. But the trends are similar across Western Europe: The main center-right and center-left parties are shrinking, smaller parties are growing and unstable coalition politics are becoming the norm. There are many reasons for this — from secularization to deindustrialization to the emergence of new political issues, like the environment or immigration.

The consequences have been painfully visible across Europe for some time. It took Belgium 541 days to form a government after its 2010 election. Both Greece and Spain were in recent years forced to hold second elections after the first Parliaments failed to form coalitions. In the Netherlands, forming a government is not quite as difficult, but the next one will most likely be a coalition of four to six parties.

If the Party for Freedom is excluded — and almost all parties have pledged that they will refuse to serve in a coalition with Mr. Wilders — the government will probably consist of five or six medium-size parties that span almost the entire political spectrum. Given that the conservative V.V.D. and the Christian Democratic Appeal are ideologically closer to the Party for Freedom than they are to, for example, the Green Left party with which they will be governing, the government will be rightly perceived as an anti-Wilders coalition.

This will play right into Mr. Wilders’s hands. He has long argued that the Netherlands’ political parties are all the same. Being the leader of the largest opposition party against an internally divided, weak “anti-Wilders” coalition is undoubtedly his second most desired outcome of the elections — after, of course, winning an outright majority of the votes.

The only way to break this vicious circle is for the parties in government to come together to support a positive program, one that justifies their cooperation and their decision to exclude Mr. Wilders. All of these parties do support, in principle, European integration and tolerance of diversity. They also all agree that Dutch multiculturalism and the European Union should be reformed rather than abolished. Unfortunately, they often oppose each other in terms of the proposed reforms.

The highly divisive election campaign, in which virtually all parties defined themselves vis-à-vis Geert Wilders, has only widened the gap between the future coalition parties. The Christian Democrats moved sharply to the right, adopting slightly softer versions of Mr. Wilders’s positions, including Euroskepticism and thinly-veiled Islamophobia. So did Prime Minister Rutte’s V.V.D. In fact, he may have gotten a boost in the polls after taking a tough stance in a spat between the Netherlands and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Green Left party and the libertarian Democrats 66 have positioned their parties as clear alternatives to Mr. Wilders, putting forward strong defenses of cosmopolitan values.

Somehow, they will all now have to figure out how to work together. It won’t be easy.

Other mainstream parties in Europe should watch carefully and learn a lesson from the Netherlands. Fighting the right-wing populists on their terms may guarantee an immediate electoral victory. But ultimately the government that finally emerges from that fight will have its coherence and stability undermined. A better plan for the centrist, left-wing and other mainstream parties is to put forward a positive political vision, not allowing the radical right’s issues to dominate the national conversation.

 

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