The Dutch go to the polls on Wednesday, in a highly charged election watched across the west as a bellwether of how populist forces may yet fare in Europe in 2017. What comes out of Dutch ballot boxes will likely impact the political landscape in France, Germany and perhaps also Italy, where more tests lie ahead for liberal democracy and the European Union at large. After Brexit and Trump, the Dutch vote is seen as another potential make-or-break moment for the liberal order: a win for the far-right, anti-Muslim, xenophobic and anti-EU Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders would likely embolden like-minded movements elsewhere.
In an era of globalised politics, another ingredient is at work in the Dutch vote: Turkey has invited itself into the nation’s domestic politics, setting the stage for an even heavier dose of populism. On Monday Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, threatened to impose sanctions on the Netherlands after two of his government ministers were prevented from holding political rallies in Rotterdam over the weekend. Mr Erdoğan is actively seeking the votes of the Turkish diaspora in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, ahead of a constitutional referendum next month in which he hopes to significantly expand his executive powers.
Infuriated by the Dutch government’s attitude, Mr Erdoğan lashed out, calling Mark Rutte’s cabinet “remnants of Nazism”. It did little to discourage the Turkish leader that Rotterdam’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, happens to be Muslim, nor that the freedom of expression Mr Erdoğan so passionately claims for his envoys in Europe is a freedom that his authoritarian rule has done much to crush in Turkey. The diplomatic spat has pitched Turkey and the EU against one another. Germany, Austria and Denmark have also cited security concerns and other reasons for not allowing Turkish referendum rallies on their territory.
In the Netherlands, the Turkish question has brought another twist to the anti-foreigner, anti-Muslim sentiment that populist politicians exploit to gain votes. Dutch traditions of tolerance and liberalism have taken a severe beating in recent years and the country is deeply divided. Mr Wilders has long sown hatred with his calls to close all mosques and ban the Qur’an. Against that backdrop, the liberal prime minister, Mark Rutte, has chosen to make use of the clash with Mr Erdoğan to cast himself as a bulwark against anything that smacks of Muslim pressures. Rather than trying to counter Mr Wilders’s arguments, he is trying to outflank him on the right, a tactic as unpleasant as it is cynical.
There are two dangers here. The first is that mainstream parties, in an effort to neutralise Mr Wilders, allow him to set the agenda. The catastrophic results in Britain of David Cameron’s attempt to neutralise Nigel Farage by stealing his pet issue should serve as a dreadful warning to Dutch politicians, but they might feel they have nothing to learn from the folly of the British. The second is that an explicit determination to keep Mr Wilders from power, no matter how many votes he gets, might strengthen his followers in their feeling of victimisation. That, too, offers him power without responsibility. The Dutch voters should spare their politicians this choice.