It is as if the foreign press in recent weeks are reporting on a completely different election than the one the Dutch are facing. Unlike the journalists streaming in the country that co-founded the EU, most citizens heading to the polling stations on Wednesday are not obsessed by far-right leader Geert Wilders.
Recent articles in foreign media read like a depiction of elections in a parallel world that looks like the Netherlands, feels like the Netherlands and smells like the Netherlands, but blew up one element completely out of proportion – like a SciFi novel of some kind.
Outlets like CNN and the NYT talk about a new test in the rise of populism, following last year’s shock results of Brexit and Trump. The Intercept, reporting from Trump’s America, says we “should pity the Dutch”. What all of those fail to mention, however, is that Brexit and Trump had support of roughly half the population, whilst Wilders will bag 15-20% of the vote.
Sure, in a fractured political landscape in which at least a dozen parties will get into parliament 20% of votes is a very significant result. But in a system in which several parties must form a coalition government such a size of the pie is useless if no one wants to work with you. Therefore, the Netherlands will not be the “third wave” in the recent rise of far-right populism – sorry, foreign journalists.
For most people in the Netherlands Geert Wilders is only part of the public debate but doesn’t dominate it. It is widely accepted that his party PVV (Freedom Party) has a sizable constituency that deserve representation in parliament, but his antics have made him a toxic brand for coalition politics – therefore, why worry about Wilders if no one will join him in a coalition?
The story of over a decade of Geert Wilders’ rise is marred by radicalisation and trust issues with other conservative parties he could potentially collaborate with. In 2012, when supporting a minority government, he blew up the government over austerity measures and forced new elections. His former partners VVD and CDA have never forgiven him for this.
Moreover, Wilders has in recent years only shifted more to the radical right when he led a crowd of supporters to chant for “less Moroccans” in the country – for which he stood trial and was convicted last December. His plans to outlaw the Koran, close all mosques and ban all immigration from Muslim countries only pushed him further away from the centre-right parties. Much like the Islamists he despises, Wilders too has radicalised over time.
Outside of the gaze of foreign press, meanwhile, most of the focus in the electoral campaign is on upcoming pro-EU-parties GroenLinks (Green Party) and D66 (Liberal Democracts), for instance. Both parties have a strong focus on inclusive politics, appealing to Christians, Muslims or Atheists. They also support investments in green energy, the establishment of a European army and share a range of other progressive views. If only they had joined forces, they would undoubtedly be the largest in the polls.
Meanwhile, more traditional parties such as VVD (conservative liberals), PvdA (Labour) and CDA (Christian Democrats) also seek more collaboration in the EU on the migration crisis or defence matters. Three or four out of these five mainstream parties will undoubtedly form a new government, depending on the results. These parties will undoubtedly seek to tackle transnational issues such as migration, terrorism and climate change within an EU framework instead of breaking down Brussels.
Ignoring Wilders for a second highlights that the Netherlands fragmented landscape is a lot more pro-European and less divisive than most foreign journos realise. Populism is by no means winning in the country of clogs and tulips.
Sure, Prime Minister Mark Rutte cleverly appeals to Wilders’ constituency at times. He gave strong responses to criminals with a migration background (“get lost”) or against Erdoğan’s decision to engineer a diplomatic crisis with the Netherlands over the weekend. But Rutte’s policies are by no means Wilders-lite, as he showed in a head-to-head TV debate on Monday evening, calling Wilders’ alternatives “fake solutions”.
Mr Erdoğan’s decision to send one of his Ministers to campaign in the Netherlands in favour of the controversial constitutional referendum led to a tense diplomatic row. Some might fear that this would play into the hands of Wilders, and he certainly used the opportunity to verbally attack Ankara and Dutch-Turkish citizens.
However, the majority of Dutch citizens from left to right are supportive of Rutte’s tough stance to block the Turkish Minister from hosting a rally in Rotterdam. It sent a clear message that those from Turkish decent living in the Netherlands are Dutch citizens first and foremost, and that Erdogan’s policies are increasingly at odds with European values.
Even Erdoğan’s gift to Geert Wilders won’t be enough for him to become the next PM. The mainstream parties will find a way to collaborate – and none of them seek to do so with “the Dutch Trump”, even if he becomes the largest party. This is the real story of the Dutch elections and it shows that the tide of populism sweeping through the West is not necessarily unstoppable.
(Protip: new government VVD – CDA – D66 – GroenLinks* (*possibly replaced by ChristianUnion))