The Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte has won a decisive victory in the Dutch general election, indicating a win for the center left in the fight against the spread of Western populism. His party, VVD, won 33 of the 150 seats in parliament while his main competitor, Geert Wilders of the far right Freedom Party, won only 20 seats. Rutte is likely to form a coalition government with at least three other parties. The Dutch election was at the forefront of concern over rising populism within Europe with various far right parties gaining momentum in the wake of populist victories in Britain and the United States. Geert Wilders symbolises the Dutch equivalent of this populist wave, leading his campaign with anti-immigrant and anti-EU rhetoric. To many European spectators, Wilders defeat symbolized a win in the fight against populism.
Jean-Marc Aryault, French Foreign Minister, expressed her congratulations via twitter: “Congratulations to the Dutch for stemming the rise of the far right. Desire to work for a stronger Europe.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed this sentiment, stating that “The Netherlands are our partners, friends, neighbors. Therefore I was very happy that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result, a clear signal.” Emmanuel Macron, French Presidential candidate set to face his own far-right opponent Marine Le Pen in May said, “The Netherlands is showing us that a breakthrough for the extreme right is not a foregone conclusion and that progressives are gaining momentum.”
Concerns about the spread of right-wing populism stemming through Europe took hold in June 2016 when Britain voted in favour to leave the European Union. Further concern arose when Donald Trump unexpectedly won the 2016 US election, spreading fear this wave of populism might bolster far-right parties in European countries such as the Netherlands, France and Germany. Described by some as the “Dutch Trump,” Geert Wilders made headlines throughout his campaign through his promises to close Mosques, remove the Netherlands from the EU, and ban the Koran. He further promised to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands, with claims to shut down Islamic schools and ban burqas. Much like proponents of the Brexit campaign, Wilders played upon the fears of regular Dutch citizens by suggesting their country had become overrun with migrants and refugees. However, this strategy seems to have failed Wilders, with voter turnout the highest in three decades at 81%, many turning out to vote against his message. “My mother has never voted before, but now she has and encouraged the whole family to do so because the situation is serious,” one Muslim woman told AFP. Rutte declared the win a victory for the nation. “This is a night for the Netherlands,” he cried to a cheering crowd, “after Brexit, after the US election, we said ‘stop it, stop it’ to the wrong kind of populism.”
Rutte’s win signals a much needed victory in the fight against populism in Europe. Spectators in France and Germany, with upcoming elections of their own, hope Wilder’s defeat will signal a new wave of resistance towards right-wing populism. However, experts worry Rutte’s victory will lead to French and German voters becoming complacent. “The unconvincing populist performance in the Netherlands may weigh on French voters’ sense of urgency when heading for the ballots for their elections” UBS analysts cautioned, “We continue to see a 40 percent chance of a Le Pen victory in France.”
While Rutte’s victory signals a welcome defeat of right-wing populism in Europe, Sociology professor Mabel Berezin warns it has not yet been defeated: “the real bellwether election will be Marine Le Pen’s quest for the French presidency– that is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon.”