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The Dutch general election: Politics pushed to the right

Muhammad Mahmood | Published: March 25, 2017 21:09:34 | Updated: October 17, 2017 03:33:26


Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, right, and far-right politician Geert Wilders at a meeting in parliament after the general election. —Reuters photo

There is a sense of jubilation across Europe among European  political establishment leaders that Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, fended off a challenge from the far-right,  anti-Islam and anti-EU populist Geert Wilders. Prime Minister Rutte exuberantly declared that ''good populism'' had won over  " bad populism". European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it was a victory for tolerance and boost for the European Union.  His message is that the  defeat of the far right party, led by Geert Wilders,  displayed areaffirmation of the Dutch electorate's  commitment to the EU. German Chancellor  Angela Merkel was equally upbeat describing it as  a very pro- European result and a good day for democracy.  French President  Francois Hollande with his focus on the forthcoming French presidential election, where the far-right  party ( Front National)  led by Marine Le pen is leading the polls, was also relieved and said that it was a clear victory against extremism but Nicholas Bay, secretary general  of Front National  was encouraged  by the electoral gains made by Wilders. Spanish prime  minister Mariano Rojoy congratulated the Dutch people for discharging their responsibility. 
While the Netherlands has generally been known for its tulips, canals and dairy products, of late the country has also become known for the rise of extreme far-right political forces. The Netherland is a country of about 17 million people and boasts as the 18th largest economy in the world (6th largest in the EU). The economy grew by 2.1 per cent in 2016, higher than the EU average and better than 1.6 per cent in the USA during the same year. The economy is expected to grow by 2.0 per cent in the current year (2017) but forecast for 2018 is rather very bleak.
 Prime Minister Rutte has been in power since 2010 and pushed through tough austerity measures following a recession in 2011-12. These austerity measures have hit hard the poor and income inequality is on the rise. Household consumption (the single best proxy for standard of living) is down by 5.0 per cent on average than a decade ago. The Netherlands also has the most indebted households in the Eurozone with about 30 per cent home owners having negative equity. The UK is the second largest trading partner of the Netherland and Brexit has now created some degree of uncertainty  how the future trade relations with the UK will shape up.  All these are causing economic uncertainty affecting people's attitude regarding their economic future.  Wilders has cleverly exploited the current pessimistic  economic outlook to his favour by blaming the immigrants and the EU.
The general election that took place on March 15, 2017 elected 150 members  of the House of Representatives and parties are given seats based on what percentage of the vote they receive.  A party needs a minimum of 0.67 of the popular vote to gain a seat. Twenty-eight parties  participated in the election. The voter turnout was 82 per cent, the highest in 30 years. The election was projected as a test of whether the Dutch wanted to end decades-long  political liberalism by voting in the far-right Party  for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders  with anti-Islamic and anti-EU  policy. Geert Wilders is one of the longest serving politician in the country and he stands out from his likes in other European countries  in  his uncompromising position on Islam, taking Islamophobia to a whole new height.
The results now show that Prime Minister Rutte's  People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) has won 33 seats giving him the single largest majority in the parliament while Geert Wilders party  (PVV) won 20 seats giving him the second single  largest majority.  He has increased his votes  to 13 per cent from 10 per cent in the previous election. While the Prime Minister's party lost seven seats, yet he told his cheering supporters ''VVD will be the biggest party in the Netherlands for the third time in a row". On the other hand,  but Wilder's party increased its seats by five which made him to declare ''we are not a party that has lost. We gained seats. That's a result to be proud of". He did not win the election but  he did push politics to the right.
The irony is  Prime Minister  Rutte himself  ran an election campaign on the slogan that "bad populism''  can only be defeated by ''good populism''.  This is also a popular position now adopted not only by the conservatives but also by the social democrats in other European countries. This is just a lighter form of populism and the difference between ''good'' and ''bad'' populism is a matter of degree. Prime Minister Rutte defends Christian tradition and Dutch values against  perceived Islamic threats when majority of Dutch voters are concerned about the future of health care and the welfare state. He even suggested that there are real Dutch  people and probationary Dutch people - a code word for immigrants with Islamic roots. He asked them  (immigrants with Islamic roots)  to act normal or leave the country. He will have to form a coalition government and his one most likely partner is the Christian Democratic Party (CDA) which is another mainstream populist party, a great defender of Christian values and tradition, and the party won 19 seats.  
The main casualty of this election is the centre left  Labour Party which gained nine seats and was thus reduced to rubbles losing 29 seats from the last election. The biggest gain has been for the Green-Left winning an extra ten seats  over four seats won in the 2012 election.
One must not forget the number, the three very right-wing  parties VVD, CDA and PVV won 72 seats combined and these are the parties that ran their  election campaign based on nationalistic appeal and protection of culture and Christian tradition and values. But parties that are considered to  hold traditionally left political views  on the economy won only 37 seats  in the wake of a wipe out of the Labour Party. Many political observers point out that politics in the Netherlands has moved to the right to such  an extent, the term left in a political sense has lost its meaning. They also emphasise that the emergence of Islam and race as the central topics of political debate in the Netherlands is nothing new - not even an emergence,  but a continuity with older colonial modes of self- identification.
The re-elected Prime Minister has already told immigrants and their off-springs born in the Netherlands to fit in or get out. He will have to lead a coalition government and will possibly need three other parties to join in and one of his  likely coalition partners will be CDA with VVD in the driver's seat of course. However, some observers even now argue that Geer Wilders does not represent a populist wave; he has been in the parliament for a very long time. He can rather be considered as a part of the political landscape in the Netherlands in particular and Europe in general.  So,  does his defeat really mean much?  Sadly enough possibly not much. With Prime Minister Rutte now ready to  pursue  "good  populism'', Wilders is having  the last laugh, after all. 

The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.
muhammad.mahmood47@gmail.com

 

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