Mainstream, Pro-EU Rutte’s VVD Beats Populist, Anti-Immigration Wilders in Dutch Election

Even though elections all have their own particular dynamics, commentators looked to the Ides of March Dutch election as an indicator of how high the nationalist and populist tide was rising in Europe.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) not only held power but lost fewer seats to insurgent Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) than recent polls projected. Turnout was high: 82%, compared with 75% in the last parliamentary election.

Wilders was toning down his anti-EU message going into the polling, suggesting that he read voters as hesitant to embrace radical change. Rutte appears to have cut into Wilders’ support by taking a harder line on immigration. And the dust-up with Turkey over Erdogan’s ministers seeking to campaign to Turkish expats over a Constitutional referendum also appears to have helped the establishment.

Further reports, first from Politico:

Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) was projected to win 32 seats, nine fewer than at the last election in 2012. Wilders’ anti-Islam Party for Freedom (PVV) was in a race for second place with two other parties. He was predicted to end up with 19 seats, up four on last time.

The other contenders for second place, the Christian Democrats and the liberal D66 party, both made gains…

The Labor Party (PvdA), Rutte’s junior coalition partner, faced the biggest electoral loss in its history. It was forecast to win just 10 seats — down from 38 last time. The GreenLeft party posted a spectacular advance, going from four seats to 14 in the 150-member lower house of parliament.

The vote was widely seen as the first major electoral test of right-wing populism since Britain’s Brexit referendum and U.S. President Donald Trump’s election victory last year…

…[The] result prompted sighs of relief from European governments. “Large majority of Dutch voters have rejected anti European populists. That’s good news,” the German Foreign Ministry declared on Twitter. “We need you for a strong #Europe!”…

Rutte last week called upon voters to “stop the domino-effect” of populism. However, the prime minister also sounded some populist notes in his own campaign. In an advert published in Dutch newspapers, he said people should leave the Netherlands if they rejected the country’s values.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The outcome suggests that Dutch voters have elected a highly fragmented lower house of parliament, containing numerous midsize parties but no big ones. This could mean lengthy negotiations on forming a new coalition government. To stay on as premier, Mr. Rutte may have to woo at least three other parties. His last coalition partner, the Labor Party, suffered heavy losses.

The Dutch premier has portrayed the election as the quarterfinal round in Europe’s effort to stem a populist tide, with the French presidential elections in April and May the semifinal and the German parliamentary elections in September the finals. Polls in France suggest that anti-Islam right-wing politician Marine Le Pen will win next month’s first round of voting, qualifying her for a two-candidate runoff. In Germany, where the influx of more than a million refugees and migrants since 2015, has rattled the country’s political scene, the nationalist Alternative for Germany is projected to enter the national parliament for the first time.

In a sign of the Netherlands’ growing political fragmentation, several niche or single-issue parties also made gains, including the pensioners’ party 50Plus and the animal-welfare movement Party for the Animals to Denk, an upstart pro-Muslim party seeking to counter Mr. Wilders.

Any new coalition government is likely to enact stricter rules on migrants’ benefits and rights, as parties across most of the political spectrum campaigned on such promises. Although Mr. Wilders’s party made only small gains, his challenge appears to have shifted much of Dutch politics to the right.

And from the Financial Times:

The projected victory was welcomed by moderates and pro-EU politicians across Europe and has calmed their fears that the continent was poised to fall under the sway of nationalists following the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump in the US…

Mr Rutte hailed the forecast result as an example of voters saying “no to the wrong sort of populism”…

While Mr Wilders’ PVV has had a comfortable lead in polls for much of the past year, voters blanched at the prospect of backing the party at the ballot box. Although 20 seats would be a small improvement on its performance in 2012, it would be fewer than it gained in 2010….

European leaders were effusive in response to an initial exit poll that gave Mr Rutte a clear lead. Paolo Gentiloni, Italian prime minister, tweeted: “No Nexit. The anti-EU right has lost the Dutch elections. Now a common commitment to change and relaunch the Union.”

I’d very much appreciate getting reader reactions, particularly those from France, as to whether and how much the establishment success in beating back Wilders is a precedent for other European elections this year. Current polls show Marine Le Pen having a seemingly insurmountable gap between her and Macron in a second-round faceoff. While the Dutch results may not hurt her, they certainly can’t help.

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  1. Julian

    I think it would be a mistake to connect these results in any way to a prediction for the French elections, for two reasons. The most important one being that this is not a winner-takes-all style election, like that for the French presidency. In fact there is not even the guarantee that the largest party will provide the prime minister (though it usually gets to). Secondly, the Dutch political climate is, and has always been, quite temperate.

    There was no reason to assume this climate changed. I had predicted and was not at all surprised at a Trump win, but in the Netherlands there is far less discontent (probably because inequality is lower and people just are not that desperate, overall).

    There was never any fear in my mind that Geert Wilders would become prime minister, or even unduly powerful (also note that polls have consistently overrated his party in past elections, so quite the opposite of what happened with for example Trump, Brexit and perhaps France).

    That said, I think chances of Le Pen becoming president of France are very difficult to estimate. France’s economy has suffered more than the Dutch, so there’s that. I also see the French as more likely to put their vote where their mouth is (note that approval of prime minister Rutte was extremely low, yet his party (VVD) is again the biggest. The other coalition party (PvdA) which was responsible for almost no scandals or problems suffered the largest loss of seats in history. Only in the Netherlands).

    In France we see three candidates, one who is from a disfavoured political faction, one who is scandal-ridden and one who is a nutter. To be honest, these might be even worse choices than the US elections had.

    The French elections are, in any case, much scarier than the Dutch were. I did not understand the whole media hype surrounding them, as there was never any real risk of something breaking (even if PVV had gotten 30+ seats, it still wouldn’t have been an insurmountable challenge to block him from executing his sorry one-page agenda). The risk in France, on the other hand, is real, and something to watch.

  2. drexciya

    I agree on the fact that there’s less inequality and discontent in general, so an outsider cannot get that far to begin with. What people also tend to forget is the big strategic voting factor; since the PVV will never be part of a cabinet, it’s more or less a wasted vote. If you want a more right-wing (relatively speaking, compared to the US, the VVD is left from the Democrats, although that’s easy) party in the cabinet, you cannot get around the VVD.

    So they will always get a significant amount of votes from people, who don’t want to have the left gaining too much power. Still the PVV got quite a lot of votes, and it would be wise not to ignore that particular signal (around 20 seats is still quite a lot of votes, even more given the strategic voting, and a poorly executed campaign by the PVV).

    Rutte most likely gained a lot of votes with his handling of Erdogans’ idiotic antics. This, most likely, boosted the VVD a lot, since everyone seemingly forgot about all the broken promises he made. Also, they adopt a more strict tone when campaigning, which was pretty well done (although predictable). As I noted before, there’s no real alternative, unless you make the switch to a more conservative outfit. The CDA (Christian-Democrats) are moving into that area, and they got a slight boost from that.

    The Dutch Labour Party PvdA was the deserved loser, since they had a poor candidate (Asscher didn’t make a good impression, and he has a lot of bagage) and some of the cabinets’ decisions were fully going against what they used to stand for. They also lost the immigrant vote, which they used to rely on. The combination of a bad campaign (what is the PvdA actually good for?), lots of alternatives, and a poor leader couldn’t be fixed.

    Note that in the previous election they were doing quite badly initially, but after some poor performances by Roemer (Socialist Party – they got up to 25+ seats at their high in the last election in the polls), and a lot of “support” from their loyal media outlets, they got a big boost. The media made the previous election into a horse race between the VVD and PvdA. There was no way that was going to work in this election. That’s probably the main takeaway from this election; the PvdA becoming irrelevant.

  3. Foppe

    The Dutch Elections were about anything but the EU (or anything else of much consequence), though. The frame for the whole thing was ‘”we” got through the [unnecessary, but accepted by everyone except the SP as wholly necessary] austerity’, and now we must soldier on tweaking the things that could be better. In that sense, it’s not all that different from France, which of course voted for neolib Hollande expecting something leftish, but not getting any, reinforcing the notion that the left is dead. But in other aspects it’s quite different because of Le Pen’s history, party, etc., and because Wilders was pretty much MIA during the campaign season. So I wouldn’t extrapolate.

    1. drexciya

      That was my main gripe with this election campaign as well. It was so devoid of content or consequence. There were no serious discussions as well, since most of the bigger parties still want to form a cabinet together. The media don’t hold the politicians accountable at all for their failings. They are way to friendly with eachother.

      I’m also very disappointed in the fact that Denk got a significant number of votes. In the largest cities they got, relatively speaking, quite a number of votes, which just goes to show that integration has failed. Without a doubt we can expect even more outrageous statements (which already topped Wilders, which is saying something) from these Turks.

      1. Mucho

        Also, VVD and CDA took on a substantial part of Wilder’s rhetoric. In essence, he moved the Overton-window to the right.

        Also, about the austerity thing: I think both the Groenlinks and the PvdD (Green Party and Animal Party) are explicitly attacking the neoliberal frame (and are against the (so called) free-trade agreements.

        In my age cohort – 25 to 30, well-educated, city – people either voted in large part for the (neo-)liberal D66 or Groenlinks. (I voted for the PvdD myself, arguing we need less compromise and more urgency on climate matters and steadfast opposition to the CETA/trade agreements.

      1. Foppe

        We went to a US-style Multi-payer system (with a few more checks & balances) in 2006. Since then, costs have been skyrocketing, in part because of overhead (duh), in part because how the funding model encourages doctors to perform unnecessary things because they constantly have to worry whether they’ll get enough money to pay everyone, in part because apothecaries aren’t allowed to band together in their negotiations with BPharma, in part for other reasons.
        The Dutch Socialist Party has over the past 1.5y been rather busy developing and finding support for an NHS/French/German style funding system, and doing fairly well, even if we aren’t even halfway there yet. But since the SP is Socialist/Marxist, and very explicit and detailed about the source of the ills, the MSM, politicians, etc., would prefer not to talk about it, and cast the proposal as “unrealistic” etc. It has thus far led to quite a few parties adopting the stance that the deductible should be lowered/abolished, but with the current outcome, it might not happen soon. In any way, I’m sure you can guess why it’s a non-topic (but also why it didn’t get the SP a whole lot of new voters — all the serious people deride/mock it).
        Wouldn’t call it the *most* important issue, but it’s certainly more important than the overhyped and (for a whole host of reasons) not-intended-to-be-solved ‘immigration/ingtegration’ issues.

  4. c

    preliminary results

    VVD: 33 (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie; People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) Rutte
    PVV: 20 (Partij voor de Vrijheid; party for freedom) Wilders
    CDA: 19 (Christen-Democratisch Appèl; christian democratic appeal)
    D66: 19 (Politieke Partij Democraten 66, social liberals)
    GroenLinks: 14 (greenleft) biggest winner
    SP: 14 (Socialistische Partij; Socialist Party)
    PvdA: 9 (Partij van de Arbeid; Labour Party) biggest loser (Dijsselbloem) the leader and the chairman don’t want to step down after this defeat
    ChristenUnie: 5
    Partij voor de Dieren: 5 (party for the animals) does not seek to gain political power, but only to testify to its beliefs and thereby influence other parties
    50Plus: 4 (Handen af van één van de beste pensioenstelsels ter wereld! Against reforms of the pensions)
    SGP: 3 (Reformed Political Party (Reformist); Dutch: Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij, SGP)
    Denk: 3 (denk= Turkisch for equality)
    Forum voor Democratie: 2 (Forum for Democracy)

    the final results are due on monday; some seats are still up for grabs

    1. Foppe

      To clarify:
      VVD – “center”-right. (~Tories prior to / shortly after Brexit.)
      PVV – extreme right, but with a few strategic votes on social issues when they’re guaranteed not to make a difference to muddy the waters.
      CDA – “christian” “center”-right
      D66 – “center”-right (These are the most openly meritocratic / technocratic of the lot — hence they’re seen as the most progressive and repeatedly called “center-left”)
      GL – Platform comparable to Bernie’s, though with a heavier focus on sustainability etc. They’ve been neolib-center-left until recently, when its Obama-campaign-copycat Klaver found Jesus while on the road to Damascus. Too early to tell whether the change will stick, though I’m sure they’re aware that a return to form would disillusion a lot of its new-found base
      SP – socialist/marxist, comparable to left-syriza
      CU – neolib “center-left” christian party; mostly conformist but miles less bad on the social front than CDA+SGP
      PvdD – similar to SP but much stronger focus on welfare and sustainability issues
      50-Plus – mostly useless, don’t really know how to classify them. neoliberal but they do try to deliver real stuff to their base.
      SGP – strict Calvinist right
      Denk – attempt to change the cultural debate / framing on immigration issues, probably milquetoast/neolib center-left
      FvD – mostly a cross between D66 and VVD politically, but critical about “autonomy transfers” for procedural reasons, much like May. Platform promotes badly thought-out ideas to “democratize”, plus EU- and TTIP/TISA/CETA-critical.

      1. visitor

        So far I understood that the FvD was rather closer to the PVV than other parties and fell, with its leader Thierry Baudet, squarely into the “populist” category.

        Overall, a pyrrhic victory for the VVD:

        a) lost many seats;
        b) had to shift towards the positions of the PVV to maintain its lead;
        c) will have to arrange an ever larger coalition to govern;
        d) saw populist parties gain significantly (PVV, FvD);
        e) PVV is the second largest party anyway.

        It does not look good — as bad as the belated success of the green candidate to the presidency in Austria against the right-wing populist. The populist wave has not submerged everything, but the protecting strand is fast disappearing.

        There are very few parallels to the situation in France, the only major one being that, just as in the Netherlands, the PS will be wiped out and punished for its neo-liberal and austerity policies during the last five years. The Socialist candidate will at best make it to the fourth place in the first round.

        The way the campaign is going on there is highly dubious and looks increasingly like a sting to ensure that Macron, politically unmoored but staunchly loyal to the neo-liberal elite, wins and goes forth with the enduring privatization, austerity and liberalization “reforms”.

        1) Several PS members are publicly declaring their support for Macron (who has admitted publicly he is not a socialist), as well as other politicians from the right-wing party of Fillon, the centrist Bayrou (marginal, but important for swing voters between the left and right), and other supposedly left-wing personalities like Cohn-Bendit.

        2) Prime Minister Valls has remarkably refused to endorse the official PS candidate (Hamon), who beat him in the PS primaries. This is quite unprecedented.

        3) The judicial apparatus and parliament have shown incredible speed to uncover and charge Fillon for his utterly (but in French politics an absolutely common form of) corruption, and is proceeding similarly against Le Pen — but has been ignoring the increasing pointed questions about Macron’s highly suspect tax returns and wasteful utilization of public funds while member of the government.

        4) The mainstream media offer incessant coverage of Macron’s campaign and doings. Today’s headline of Le Monde is about the visit of Macron to Angela Merkel. On the other hand, mainstream media have only bad things to say about Le Pen (unsuitable to govern) and Fillon (should immediately give up), and basically ignore the other candidates (in particular Hamon and Mélanchon).

        In a sense, the parallel there is more or less the universal support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign. Too many turncoats joining Macron, highlighting the dark corners of his programme (or lack thereof), and perhaps some “affair” about his wealth or money dealings, can still sour the electorate against him.

        After all, polls have consistently shown that while a vast majority of voters intending to select Le Pen are certain to maintain their choice, only a minority of those choosing Macron are.

        1. Foppe

          Sure, but Wilders is also from the VVD, and votes with the VVD in 70-80% of cases, and nearly always when it comes to distributional issues. So that distinction is less meaningful than it seems. :)

          Agreed on the other points.

  5. Tenar

    I spoke a few days ago with a French political science professor who specializes in French elections and he thinks, based on opinion polling he and his colleagues have conducted, that Macron is the most likely candidate to win (while that does indeed seem likely at this point, I suspect he is similar to many American academics who couldn’t imagine a Trump presidency). He did provide some caveats based on a poll that he conducted for the CEVIPOF (Sciences Po) and Le Monde from March 1 to 5 (getting old, I know): 1) it is difficult for pollsters to know if they are capturing the true amount of support for Marine Le Pen and 2) compared with previous elections, her support this time around is much more stable (76% of those polled who stated that they are certain to vote, said their minds are made up, compared to 62% for Fillon – apparently when his supporters are interviewed many of them see his scandals as a conspiracy theory). Only 42% of those who support Macron, and are certain to vote, stated that they will definitely cast a vote for him – the other 58% said they may still change their minds. When they compared a theoretical second round between Macron and Le Pen, 62% of likely voters said they would vote for Macron, but 18% declined to answer which candidate they would support. So it still seems somewhat open.

    I tend to agree with Mark Blyth’s take that there are going to be many people who are going to stay home in the second round. Fillon is completely unpalatable for anyone other than hard-core Les Républicains voters and Macron isn’t likely to inspire a lot of support outside of the professional neoliberal class that genuinely likes his policies. I base this mostly off anecdotal experience with professional class center-left voters and left-wing voters – very unscientific, I know! The first will probably vote Macron in the second round even if they didn’t in the first because they believe firmly in voting for the lesser of two evils; among the latter, many have repeatedly said they will no longer be duped into voting PS (Macron isn’t technically PS, but he pretty much is) and won’t “faire barrage” (i.e. block) so that Le Pen doesn’t get through.

  6. Stephen Roop

    Fillon’s increasing legal complications are a wild card here: if his support founders, does much of it stay home or go to Le Pen? This might matter importantly in the second round. Le Pen’s numbers in recent polls have already been inching upwards in the second round.

    Not sure I agree about the core of Macron’s support. Plainly many socialist officeholders or notables have already supported him over Hamon; he has considerable appeal to younger voters though these, admittedly, are not as reliable voters.

    It still seems that, for most French voters, much of the logic around the first Le Pen in a second round holds also with the second–anyone but she. There are four big if unequal clumps of French voters–extreme right; center right; center left; and left–and three of these do not like Le Pen. That’s why Le Pen’s support, however solid, seems in all the recent polls to be stuck in a very narrow margin of 25-28% of likely voters.

    Not sure any comparisons with The Netherlands are very instructive as this is a single-district, single contest, strictly proportional-representation system.

  7. Dirk77

    Is there any country which has a population that is primarily religious and yet no single religion is dominant?

    1. DJG

      Dirk77: Why do you ask? It appears that the Netherlands is more religious than Netherlanders will admit, and no religion is dominant any longer.

      The U S of A claims to be one such country, and because of the peculiarities of American religion, I tend to doubt that you can say that Christianity is dominant. You have a peculiar range from Seventh Day Adventists and Christian Science to LDS to Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. They barely believe the same things.

      Scotland’s recent history is a decline in orthodox Presbyterianism but still a rather large number of observant people.

      The Japanese claim not to be so religious but somehow manage to combine Shinto with Buddhism, with the occasional Christian practice.

      1. Dirk77

        The commenters above said the bottom 60% in the Netherlands have fared better than in other countries so wondered how Wilders gained traction. (There also might be the culture thing. Some people like theirs.)

        Thanks for your thoughts.

        1. Foppe

          mainly affordable housing shortages, hidden poverty, hidden under/unemployment issues, sucky wages for a lot of folks, plus the fact that these are never ever discussed, and no longer perceived as political choices, but as facts.

  8. rwv

    As long as there are no systematic checks in place to verify the correct counting of every vote I do not believe in the proper functioning of the Dutch ballot system. I know some people from VVD personally; one of them loved to brag about rigging the elections -fabricating votes for a friend, who fabricated votes for him in return- for the students counsel at a school he used to attend. The other one once insisted to me that one can prove anything one likes.

    I don’t trust people like them to not rig an election if the opportunity exists, which -unfortunately- it does here.

  9. Oregoncharles

    Greenleft won 14 seats, making it the biggest gainer in the election and now the largest party of the left. It’s a pro-EU party, which it wouldn’t be here. And pro-refugee, I gather. Seems to have picked up a lot of the seats Wilders and Rutte lost.

    A note: “Liberal” in Europe means what “conservative” means here. It’s the original meaning.

    Have to go to work, so can’t join the discussion otherwise – nor do I know much about either Dutch or French politics.

  10. Some Guy

    Much better commentary from the comments above then you get in any mainstream media outlet, but that is par for the course I guess.

    A few thoughts, the media focusses on the right, but the big action in this election was on the left.

    With the old umbrella left party (PvdA) crushed down to 6% of the vote (from 25% previously), the big question is if they are down for the count or if they will rebound to their former glory. Given the decades long decline in vote share for the big 3 parties (PvdA, VVD, CDA) hitting a fresh new low of ~40% this go-round, a full rebound seems unlikely, especially given the drubbing these old psuedo left parties are taking worldwide.

    Some of the vote went to the D66 party which has been around a long time (since 1966, natch) and has often been a place for centrist minded voters to temporarily park their vote when the usual big parties are out of favour. These voters are probably the most likely to return to the fold. Of course, with D66 getting 12% of the vote (up from 8%) – twice the votes of PvdA, maybe they will just consolidate their position replacing PvdA as a home for centrist voters. Doesn’t really matter since these are both old line, ‘can you really tell the difference between them’ neoliberal options in the big picture.

    The biggest vote gainer was the Green party up to an all time high of 9% (up from 2% in 2012) under leader Jesse Klaver who cites Bernie Sanders as his biggest inspiration (but nonetheless the media cites his growth in support as a rejection of populism, because, for the purposes of the Dutch election, populism is redefined to mean being anti-EU)

    Commenter ‘drexciya’ has mentioned this a couple of times, but few have picked up that in the cities, almost half of the Turkish ethnic vote migrated from PvdA to new party DENK. In Amsterdam DENK got more votes than PvdA. Imagine the Democratic party getting outvoted in Los Angeles by a Hispanic party and this gives some (exaggerated) idea of the result. True, they only got 2% of the vote total, but enough to get seats in parliament. Maybe they fade away and are forgotten. Or maybe this is the start of a political battlefield with native parties on one side and immigrant parties on the other (you could say this is true of the U.S. but it is nowhere near as explicit as with PVV and DENK). That road leads to ‘everyone must pick a side’ sectarian politics like you see in Northern Ireland.

    On the right, there wasn’t a ton of movement from the last election, but what there was was in the dreaded (by all goodthinkers) populist direction. VVD won a pyrrhic victory dropping from 27% to 21%. That 6% bled off partly to Wilders’ PVV (up from 10% to 13%) and partly to FVD (2% as a new party) which, as a new nationalist, anti-EU entry, gives the anti-EU forces some bench strength since, despite their relatively low vote share, FVD is more of an actual party than PVV which is more of a one man Wilders show.

    The rest of the decline in vote for the previous front-runners PvdA and VVD either went to single issue parties (Parties for seniors and animals both made modest gains rising from 2% last election to 3% this time) or went back to its natural home in the CDA which got 13% of the vote, an unsurprising rebound from a lousy result (by its historical standards) at 9% in the last election in 2012.

    I don’t think this particular election will mark any substantial change in the direction of Dutch politics but despite the headlines, populist parties did continue to make inroads on the old establishment parties, swelling both in their vote totals and in the number of parties taking on populist views that are represented in the legislature. And this during a period of relative economic strength. If there is a recession or major terrorist event or renewed flood of refugees before the next election then the trend seems likely to accelerate, but it is still the Dutch we are talking about, so don’t expect any fireworks or huge changes – ever.

    I didn’t mention implications for the French election, since they’re probably aren’t any. The countries are simply too different (which is of course why the EU and the Euro are failing).

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