European leaders across the continent last night and this morning issued unusually hearty notes of congratulation to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte for his decisive win yesterday over the anti-Islam, anti–European Union populist candidate Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party.
The celebratory messages were an implicit jab at other far-right populist leaders who have been gaining in popularity in places like France, Germany, and elsewhere on the continent. Anxious European leaders hope Wilders’s failure is a harbinger of further losses to come for other far-right populists hoping to ascend to power.
That’s because, fair or not, Wilders’s rise in the polls in recent months had turned an otherwise relatively routine election in the Netherlands into an intellectual referendum, if not a practical one, on the true power and popularity of far-right candidates in Europe.
Wilders came in a firm second to Rutte’s Freedom and Democracy Party, which picked up 33 out of 150 seats in parliament. Wilders’s Freedom Party got 20 seats. Two other parties tied for third with 19 seats each.
With far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the Front National getting about 26 percent in the French polls going into the first round French elections in April, the French leadership was the most visibly relieved by the Dutch results.
“Bravo! A good omen…” tweeted French Ambassador to the United States Gérard Araud as exit polls began to pour in.
“Congratulations to the Dutch for stemming the rise of the far-right,” tweeted French Foreign Minister Jean-Mary Ayrault (in French).
“I warmly congratulate Mark Rutte for his victory against extremism,” French President François Hollande tweeted, also in French.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, true to form, was a bit more sober, but no less biting: “The Netherlands are our partners, friends, neighbors. Therefore I was very happy that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result, a clear signal.” Merkel is up for reelection in September.
Relief that Wilders, who had led the charge in the Netherlands for a “Nexit” — a Netherlands exit from the EU — was defeated was reflected a the message from the European Commission leadership as well.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, tweeted, “Congratulations to my friend @markrutte for his clear victory yesterday night,” and appended a longer letter adding: “The people of the Netherlands voted overwhelmingly for the values Europe stands for: free and tolerant societies in a peaceful Europe.”
Also on Twitter, Spanish President Mariano Rajoy congratulated Rutte for his victory, and the Dutch for their sense of “responsibility.” In a telegram directly to the Dutch leader, Rajoy stated, “In a key moment for Europe as a whole, the Dutch people made a show of responsibility and maturity. … Europe needs stable governments committed to the European integration project.”
And Rutte himself announced that the Netherlands had fought off “the wrong sort of populism.”
Wilders lost, but influenced the election anyway
Wilders, the fourth-longest-serving parliamentarian in the Netherlands, was no newcomer to politics. But he had shocked the Netherlands, and Europe, with what seemed a dramatic rise in popularity and his increasingly virulent policy ideas about Muslims and Muslim immigration. He has, at various points, called for banning the Quran, closing all mosques, and sealing off Dutch borders to immigrants from Muslim nations.
And yet, rather than dismissing him or firmly rejecting his brand of ethnonationalism, other Dutch parties have adopted much stronger rhetoric on immigration. In January, Rutte himself delivered an unusually harsh statement, telling immigrants that those who “harass gays, or whistle at women in short skirts, or brand ordinary Dutch people racists” should “behave normally or go away.”
Even so, Wilders was always going to face tremendous opposition from other political parties. The fractured nature of Dutch parliamentary parties means coalition building is the only path to true leadership. The other parties had promised to shun Wilders and refuse to build a coalition with his party, thereby making it impossible for him to govern.
The other winner in the Dutch elections was the Greens
Winning 14 seats (up from just four in the last election), the Green Party, and its young, relatively unknown candidate, was the surprise winner yesterday. Jesse Klaver is a half Moroccan, half Dutch-Indonesian 30-year-old who was the most vocally opposed to Wilders in the election. Klaver has been compared to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — at least in beauty if not in substance — and President Obama. Some of his followers call him “Jessiah.”
“Stand for your principles. Be straight. Be pro-refugee. Be pro-European. We’re gaining momentum in the polls. And I think that’s the message we have to send to Europe. You can stop populism,” Klaver said, according to the Guardian.
The idea of an unknown gaining in sudden popularity will have been sweet news to Europe’s other upstart, Emmanuel Mácron of France, who is currently France’s best hope for the Elysée Palace given corruption scandals that have rocked the campaign of rival candidate François Fillon.
Mácron knows this, and tweeted (in French) a celebration of his own. “The Netherlands shows us that the breakthrough of the extreme right is not inevitable and that European progressives are growing in power.”
That message is, perhaps, a bit optimistic — by European standards, the government of Mark Rutte is not a progressive government, exactly, but a centrist one, even center-right, that was forced to pick up many of Wilders’s themes even in victory.
Even though it was predicted across the board, Wilders’s actual failure to win the most votes has prompted a collective sigh of relief from Berlin to Paris. And yet celebrations in Paris will be tempered until May — Marine Le Pen is still likely come in first in April’s first round of elections. And that means Mácron and Fillon still have weeks of work to do before Le Pen’s brand of populism can truly be pronounced defeated.