It was – finally – a piece of good news for Europe’s liberal democratic order: in the Netherlands, a closely watched election has produced a defeat for xenophobic populism. After Brexit and Trump, and ahead of key elections in France and Germany, the Dutch vote was widely seen as a test for populist forces across the west. In the end, voters turned their backs on extremism. They turned out in large numbers and prevented Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-EU Freedom party from delivering the populist “revolution” he had so fervently promised. With less than 13% of the vote, the Dutch far-right failed to reach first place. Clear victory went to Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD party, which won the largest share of votes and is now set to form the next coalition. On the left, Labour suffered a severe setback. It may not be unrelated that the Greens and the centrist D66 party achieved notable breakthroughs.
After a campaign largely dominated by identity politics, the overall outcome signalled that even in an era of polarisation and fragmentation, the centre can hold and things do not necessarily have to fall apart. It showed that populist insurgencies are not a foregone conclusion and that democratic pushback can be effective. So it was no surprise that a collective sigh of relief could be heard from European capitals. Angela Merkel spoke of a “very pro-European result”. A Wilders victory would have been a boost to Marine Le Pen’s Front National, just six weeks ahead of the first round of the French presidential elections, as well as an encouragement for Germany’s far-right AfD party. In the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendency to the White House, the leaders of Europe’s national populist movement (Mr Wilders among them) had held a summit designed to hail a common “Patriotic spring”, saying 2017 would be the year Europeans “wake up”.
Is that kind of momentum now stopped? Caution is warranted. Mr Wilders lost, but his party came second and gained five more seats in parliament (a third more than in the last election). The man who wants to close all mosques and ban the Qur’an was quick to promise that next time he would be number one. Nor was Mr Rutte’s victory a clear and absolute rejection of everything Wilders stands for. Anti-immigration rhetoric spilled into the mainstream. The prime minister chose to ape, not rebuke, some populist themes. A diplomatic spat with Turkey provided Mr Rutte with the opportunity to galvanise crowds against perceived Muslim encroachments on the nation’s choices. It said a lot that, on election night, Mr Rutte celebrated a victory against “the wrong kind of populism” – a choice of words that seemed to hint that there might be a right kind.
The optimistic take is that this election has upended any notion of a Trump and Brexit domino effect of rising populism set to overwhelm and destroy the EU. As in last year’s Austrian presidential election, voters in the Netherlands demonstrated that they could resist extremist slogans aimed at creating scapegoats. One key lesson, surely, is that high turnout is essential to defeat populists. But each national context should be looked at separately. In France, the trends that have allowed Ms Le Pen to become so strong – among them, a high unemployment rate, trauma left by terrorist attacks, and the collapse of mainstream parties – will not have disappeared overnight.
Rightwing populism is often lumped into a single political category as if it were a homogeneous, international phenomenon – and this is, in fact, a narrative its proponents like to promote. But each situation is distinct and nations respond in different ways. That the Dutch did not give in to chauvinism must be applauded. They have provided strong encouragement for democrats elsewhere. But to assume that xenophobes and would-be autocrats across Europe have been thoroughly routed by the Dutch vote would be a hazardous interpretation. Pushback must continue.