Dutch Elections: A Halt to Wilders, Not to Populism

The Dutch elections for the Lower House of Parliament on March 15 did not result in the expected victory for Geert Wilders’ populist, far-right Party for Freedom (PVV). Two months prior, polls indicated that the PVV was on track to become the biggest party in the Dutch parliament. However, as the election neared, Wilders saw his party's standing in the polls gradually decline. Of the 150 seats in the Lower House, the PVV managed to win 20 seats—five more than they had garnered in the 2012 elections. With 13.1% of the seats in Parliament, the PVV ended up behind Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which secured a clear leading position with 33 seats (21.3%). However, it would be a mistake to conclude that populism in the Netherlands has been brought to a halt.

The Dutch elections drew enormous international attention. Following the 2016 victories of the “Brexiteers” in the June British referendum and the victory of Donald Trump in the November U.S. presidential election, many wondered whether the wave of populist nationalism would reach continental Europe. The Dutch elections were the first of three major European national elections to be held in 2017—the French presidential elections followed in April and May, and the German parliamentary elections will be held in September. A victory for Dutch far-right populism would have been considered the first domino to fall, as it would give a boost to far-right, anti-EU populism in Germany and France, thus endangering the very axis of cooperation in the EU.

In the Netherlands itself, Wilders' party garnered attention for different reasons. The Dutch never feared a PVV takeover of the government—the Netherlands has always been a country of political minorities as no political party has ever won a parliamentary majority. The formation of a coalition is the only way to make a government. The existence of coalition cabinets in a fragmented multi-party system (the Lower House now consists of thirteen parties) may be considered a weakness of the Dutch political system, but it might be its strength as well. The need to form multi-party coalitions offers a built-in system of checks and balances against sudden take-overs by any single party. Even if Wilders' PVV had become the biggest party, it would have needed to convince other parties to cooperate. All major parties, including Rutte's VVD, had refused beforehand to form a coalition with the PVV. Thus, Dutch voters expected neither a PVV government to be formed, nor a coalition driven by PVV interests. According to Dutch political convention, the biggest party takes the initiative to start talks to form a coalition government, which explains the attention given within the Netherlands to the PVV during the campaign.

A PVV 'victory' would have been interpreted as an important signal that far-right populism is on the rise in continental Europe, but such a victory did not occur. After the Dutch election, Prime Minister Rutte was portrayed in EU circles as the one who stopped the swell of populism in his country. His party became the party with the most parliamentary representation and is leading the formation talks that will take at least several months. Most likely, four parties will participate in the new government, but Wilders’ PVV will not be one of them. The domino did not fall after all, but this does not necessarily mean that the influence of far-right populism has subsided.

On the contrary, a closer inspection of the results of the Dutch elections indicates several developments in the opposite direction. First, the PVV did, in fact, gain parliamentary seats. Second, there is a discernible shift from the left to right overall. The social democratic PvdA lost 29 seats—from 38 to 9—and now fail to comprise even 6% of Parliament. The demise of the PvdA can be compared to the position of the French Socialist Party; both parties find themselves in existential crises after having governed for several years. Other left-leaning parties did not compensate for the PvdA’s enormous loss of seats. The far-left Socialist Party lost a seat and the GreenLeft party, with its young charismatic leader Jesse Klaver—the 'Dutch Justin Trudeau'—only had modest gains. Although the GreenLeft saw its number of parliamentary seats grow from four to fourteen (8.9%), the total number of seats obtained by the three parties of the left (37 seats; 24%) is still less than the number the PvdA alone obtained in 2012.

Third, although the VVD has remained the biggest party, it also lost considerably (from 26.4% to 21.3%). On the right side of the political spectrum, the electorates of PVV, VVD, and CDA (the Christian Democratic Party) overlap. When the PVV was doing rather well in the polls two months before the elections, the VVD and the CDA decided to play to populist concerns surrounding national identity in order to draw voters from the PVV. Some commentators called the VVD “PVV-light” and the oppositional CDA led by Sybrand van Haersma Buma did not hesitate to adopt harder stances regarding immigrants and dual nationalities. As a result, the number of seats that Buma's party won grew from 8.4 % to 12.4%. Although polls had indicated that the VVD would only win 16.4% of seats four days prior to the election, during the weekend before the elections, the VVD grew towards the final result of 21.3% on election day. This was mainly due to a diplomatic crisis between the Netherlands and Turkey that weekend. This crisis erupted when Turkish ministers wanted to come to the Netherlands to campaign to the Turkish community for a “yes” in a Turkish referendum over extending the powers of the president. The Dutch government spoke against this campaigning, producing a backlash from the Turkish government. While Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was able to use the Dutch case to convince his voters at home that a strong presidency is needed to withstand the 'unreliable' Europeans, Prime Minister Rutte was in a position to show that an experienced prime minister is needed to defend Dutch national interests when dealing with pressure from countries like Turkey.

The results of the Dutch elections show that more than 85% of the voters did not vote for Wilders’ PVV. Furthermore, the centrist D66, a staunch opponent of the PVV, was able to increase its share of the votes considerably (from 8 to 12%), making it the fourth largest party in size. The limited growth of the PVV is partly due to the fact that some more mainstream parties have adopted right-wing, populist orientations. Thus, populism has not been stopped, rather it has been dispersed. The Dutch case does not forebode the success of populist parties in Germany or in France, nor does it tell us that populism is past its prime. In Germany, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) does not seem to do very well according to the polls. In France, however, Marine Le Pen of the National Front, which is in favor of a “Frexit,” reached the second round of the French presidential elections. Although pro-EU candidate Emmanuel Macron won the election, the fact that Le Pen won 34% of the votes indicates that populist ideas radiate beyond the core electorate of the National Front. This lesson can indeed also be learned from the Dutch case.

Ruud Koole studied history at the University of Groningen (the Netherlands) and political science at Science Po in Paris (France). Since 2006 he is full professor of political science at Leiden University (the Netherlands). From 2011 to 2015 he was a member of the Dutch Senate.