Aftermath — the European angle

Well, that was tense, but in the end the populists lost. Good. Now let’s discuss the international consequences. (We’ll get back to domestic politics and the coalition formation later.)

Obviously, the European mainstream hails this as a victory, and it will be interesting to see how Wilders’s defeat affects the French presidential polls.

What struck me while I waded through the Twitter hashtags yesterday is how much the rabid right had set store on a Wilders victory. Their reactions were disappointed and angry, ranging from dire warnings about the islamic danger to desperate attempts to put a positive spin on Wilders’s disappointing results. Hey, he won seats! Hey, the coalition was defeated! Neither argument is entirely untrue, but they miss the point. The fascists had expected a victory (and the Anglo-Saxon ones equated victory with Wilders in power, which is not how the Dutch system works), and didn’t get one.

No Trump, no Brexit

In his victory speech, VVD leader and prime minister Rutte said: “This is an evening where Holland, after Trump, after Brexit, said Halt to the wrong kind of populism” That’s an interesting line, because it implies that the European (or, at least, the Dutch) mainstream right dislikes Trump and Brexit. (Also, there’s apparently a right kind of populism. The jury’s still out on what Rutte meant here.)

This was not just a random remark. Yesterday the VVD ran a last-minute radio campaign that basically said: “Remember how you felt when you woke up to Brexit? And to Trump? Let’s not repeat that tomorrow.” It worked, apparently.

(Side note: Dutch listen to the radio mostly on their daily commute, and the proudly car-owning, hard-working commuter is a VVD voter if there ever is one. So this campaign was explicitly aimed at right-wingers — and the core argument seems to have worked.)

As far as I can see the No Trump No Brexit strategy, combined with last weekend’s very welcome Turkey crisis, netted the VVD 2 seats each from CDA and PVV, and 2 seats from the left relative to the final polls.

Rutte’s strategy made use of the fact that the European moderate right wing has free agency relative to the populists, unlike the US and UK right-wingers. Let’s see if Macron and Merkel can use this to their advantage as well.

Populist vote share

Yesterday’s election allows us to be more certain about the populist vote share in the Netherlands. Judging by the number of seats populist parties won from 2002 on, we can now state with some measure of confidence that it’s a little bit below 20%. The 2002 elections, when populists won 28 seats, remains the high-water mark. Wilders was not able to top it in 2010, and the populist parties weren’t able to top it yesterday, either, despite having had the luxury of waging opposition for four years against an essentially centre-right government headed by their closest mainstream competitor, which is just about the best starting position they could wish for.

Wilders lost his monopoly on populist politics yesterday. The new Forum voor Democratie party won two seats, and it’s best to see its party leader Thierry Baudet as an upper-middle-class intellectual populist. So now those people have their own party as well, and though they’re not the most important part of Wilders’s coalition, the FvD will nibble at his electoral heels. That’s a new situation for Wilders; he’s never had to deal with a populist competitor before. Let’s see how he copes.

Also, I reclassified the angry elderly 50Plus party as populist. It’s fairly light on the islamic danger and rather heavy on the retirement age, but cultural issues do have a role in their platform, although it’s more like “let’s keep the welfare state we had back in the seventies,” when its voters were young and everything was right with the world.

Will other European countries match this roughly 20% of the vote? Right now Le Pen has had about 25% in the French presidential polls for months, while German AfD peaked at about 15% a few months back, though it’s meanwhile fallen to 10%. Let’s wait a while and see what happens, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that at most 20-25% of the European electorate is into populism.

Wilders’s influence

One point made both on the left and on the right is that, while Wilders may have lost the elections, he still mananges to wield a disproportionate influence on the political discussion. This is undeniably true at the moment. VVD and CDA moved right, with the VVD taking a PVV-light role while the CDA opted for traditional “God, Holland, and Orange” conservatism (where Orange denotes our royal house, and not the citrus fruit.)

However, it is conceivable that this, too, will change.

Yesterday it was proven that the populists can be defeated, and that gives the mainstream a boost of confidence that might counteract rabid right-wing ideas.

Might, could. Not very convincing, though possibly true in a broad sense. Let’s make a better argument.

If we look at the populist voters, it’s fairly clear that they are the former adherents of one of the broad popular parties, notably PvdA and CDA, and to a lesser extent the VVD. Thus, the PvdA had to try and win those disgruntled voters back. For the last four years, that mostly meant going along with VVD right-wing ideas about security and immigration. The PvdA was too scared of the populists to ever say No to more right-wing requirements.

That changed yesterday. Progressive-liberal D66 will end up in government no matter what else happens, and if there’s one party that’s the antithesis of populism it’s D66. No voter hesitates between D66 and PVV. In fact, its voters expect it to take a stand against hard-right policies. Even if VVD and CDA want to continue those policies (and they might), they will have to deal with fundamental opposition from D66, which will be reinforced if GL enters the governing coalition as well. The average GL voter is even more opposed to hard-right than the D66 one.

So where Rutte used to have a coalition partner that meekly agreed with hard-right immigration and security policies, he now has to deal with coalition partners that are opposed to them. That cannot fail to have an impact on policy.

Elections have consequences.

Not that everything will be wonderful from this day on; a lot remains to be done. Still, this is the best opportunity we’ve had for a while. Combine it with a rapidly evaporating sense of dread for the populist tsunami, and we can see a climate where it’s possible to reverse the populist stranglehold on the Dutch political consensus.

And what happens here could also happen elsewhere in Europe.

Next: France

Anyway, the Dutch have done their part in the defeat of populism; now we’re going to turn it over to the French, who seem to have noticed the wave of populism is not unavoidable.

Then comes Germany, and then, assuming all goes well, the mainstream will have found new courage by the end of this year. I’m guessing the next item on the agenda will be cleaning up our own house by putting pressure on the Hungarian populo-fascist Orbán government, and possibly on the Polish PiS as well. Once that’s done we can turn our attention to the world outside of the EU.

So to our brothers and sisters in the “occupied territories” (as I saw the US and UK described on Twitter) I say: Know hope. Hold on for another year, and the world might have changed for the better.

Nothing’s certain, blah blah, lot needs to be done, blah blah, but it’s conceivable that all this will happen. That’s quite a difference with 2016.

<— Where the Dutch elections stand right now | Start of the formation —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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(Add your own)

1 Posted by Ali Dincgor on 17 March 2017 | Permalink

Very interesting stuff Mr. Koch. I'm glad right wing populism has been rebuffed in the Netherlands. Also, thank you for running such a website that allowed me to easily learn about Dutch politics and the state of the polls.

I was wondering whether GL or CU is more likely to be the 4th coalition partner, and how long talks may last?

2 Posted by ppk on 17 March 2017 | Permalink

GL is slightly likelier to enter the coalition, but the first weeks will be devoted to figuring out exactly that question.

Depending on how hard the parties are going to negotiate the formation process may take several months. If we have a new government before the summer holiday things will have moved at a pretty decent clip.

3 Posted by Alejandro Moreno on 17 March 2017 | Permalink

I came for the javascript quirks, I've stayed for the fascinating Dutch political content. Thanks!

4 Posted by Gerben Vos on 7 April 2017 | Permalink

I would think that the tension between VVD and GL would be too much, and CU is more likely in the end to be part of the coalition. While CU also has a strong stance on the environment, it is less powerful and more likely to bend to the VVD on other issues. Also, CU has shown that it can cooperate with D66 when it was part of the "supportive three" before (with the SGP), when the coalition didn't have enough votes in the Eerste Kamer. Although VVD and GL do work together on a local level, local politics is a lot less ideological.