If the 2017 Dutch election was seen as a bellwether for populism in Europe, the verdict is still out. Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD may have come out on top, but it was a limping victory. One which saw the party lose around a quarter of its seats and radically shift its position over immigration.
Just a year ago Rutte stood firm that immigrants were welcome in his country. But as the winds seemed to favour the anti-immigration stance of far-right parties, his rhetoric changed. ‘Act normal or go away,’ he said recently. It was in response to growing concerns that immigrants arriving in the Netherlands were not yet integrating.
The main advocate of stemming immigration is the man most of the international press focused on in the lead up to this election, Geert Wilders. The campaign of his party, the PVV, was summed up in a one-page manifesto. It said it would ‘Close Mosques, ban the Koran and halt immigration from predominantly Muslim countries’. Views which have resonated with the Dutch public.
This is not a new platform for Wilders. He in fact left the liberal VVD in the early 2000’s after a disagreement over immigration. Since the forming of the PVV, this has been its main goal: to bring the debate over immigration into the forefront of politics. The migrant crisis in 2015 – when thousands of people marched across Europe from the Middle East – only sharpened Wilders’ argument. The Netherlands, like Germany, Sweden and Denmark, opened its arms to people fleeing conflict. It offered shelter, food, support. But the generosity of the Dutch government also provoked tensions.
‘They get a nice home and money to buy furniture, when pensioners, Dutch pensioners, are struggling,’ one woman told me. That’s something I heard time and time again on the campaign trail. Other views echoed the more recent stance of Rutte. ‘We are a tolerant nation, but Islam is intolerant,’ they said. They don’t integrate,’ was another common response to the debate about Islam, pushed by Wilders.
Wilders has been described by many in the media as ‘racist’ but most people I’ve spoken to in the Netherlands see him as just ‘saying what the majority of people think’. Even those who told me they despised Wilders defended his right to air his views. A lot even agreed there was a problem with integration and those who couldn’t assimilate, shouldn’t come here.
In the end the PVV didn’t make the resounding gains the polls suggested it would. Just hours before voting booths closed, Wilders himself was still guarded. ‘The people will decide, it’s up to them to make us strong, if they don’t that is democracy’, he told me. After the result he claimed it as a victory, saying his party went into the elections as the third largest party, now it was second. And he’s not giving up the fight yet. Next, he says, it will be first.
Mark Rutte will have a difficult task ahead choosing a coalition government. His previous hook-up with the PvDA won’t work this time around as they were the major casualty of this election, losing almost 30 seats. Instead Rutte will have to look at a coalition with at least three other parties to make-up the 76 seats needed to form a government.
Wilders has offered to be in that coalition, but it’s an offer which is not going to be accepted. The PVV leader had hoped to be the one looking to form this coalition but the votes were not cast in his favour. Opinion polls suggested he would get up to 30 seats, instead he has to settle with 20. So why didn’t the election swing his way as expected?
The are two reasons. Firstly, Wilders decided to stay out of the limelight during most of this election, using the attic of the ‘less I say’ the better. So he didn’t shore up his support. Secondly, a diplomatic spat between the Netherlands and Turkey within the last week worked in Rutte’s favour. Less than a week before people went to the polls Rutte’s government told two Turkish ministers they couldn’t campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in a forthcoming referendum on constitutional change in Turkey.
The result was a war of words, with Turkey branding the Netherlands a ‘banana republic’ and suggesting its government was the remnants of the ‘Nazis’. Rutte in no uncertain terms told Turkey this was out of line. Across the Netherlands, he was suddenly seen as a man standing up for traditional Dutch values, against a country which doesn’t respect freedom of speech. People I spoke to said they saw Rutte taking a decision which allowed them to believe he could stand-up to the impositions of other countries and represent their views. That was enough for many voters to secure their support for Rutte over Wilders.
EU leaders are claiming this result is a vote against ‘extremism’ and have loudly congratulated Rutte on his ‘win’. They are for now breathing a sigh of relief that Wilders didn’t take the 30-odd seats some predicted. They are also hoping populism is on the wane ahead of a crucial election in France this year. But in truth while Wilders didn’t make the gains he hoped for, he has increased his share of the vote and now has more seats. He will be the largest voice of opposition to Rutte’s new coalition government and he will continue to shape the political sphere.