No country for old moderates

The Dutch election has been interpreted as a victory for moderates over populists. But there are worrying signs hidden in the results. 

In terms of TV entertainment, the Dutch elections are much better set up than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Rather than sleepless night with results dripping in during the early hours, the Dutch electorate gets a fairly accurate exit poll at 9 pm, followed by a primetime parade of victory speeches, and an early night.

The conservative VVD party of prime minister Rutte lost seats but became the largest party: cue victory speech. Increasingly traditionalist Christian Democrat party CDA won seats: victory speech. Pro-EU and pro-direct democracy party D66 won seats: victory speech. GroenLinks ended below these parties but won more seats than ever with their Trudeau-esque leader Jesse Klaver: victory speech. Geert Wilders' PVV won seats and became the second party in parliament: victory tweet.

“I thought I had dreamt it all, but when I woke up it turned out to be true”. The head of the Labour party PvdA, Lodewijk Asscher, did not have a victory speech: the former government party lost 29 of his 38 seats in an unprecedented defeat. In previous elections where there was a clear left and right divide, PvdA could present itself as the experienced alternative to the VVD with a real chance of governing. But in this election, the fight seemed to be between right and righter, with some charming alternatives to the left, and no real place for the centre left.

Research institute Ipsos found that most of the PvdA supporters from the last election this time chose GroenLinks, smaller new parties, D66, and perhaps most disappointingly, to not vote at all. As a result, the PvdA is now preparing for a period of soul-searching out of government. And as the other parties gear up for the ritual dance that is the formation process, a right-wing government with VVD, CDA, D66 and one more party now seems like the only viable outcome.

Wishful thinking

The politicians congratulating Rutte included those in France and Germany, awaiting their own elections. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called it a ‘very pro-European result’, French candidate Emmanuel Macron said the Netherlands ‘has shown that the victory of the extreme right is not inevitable’. For them, the Dutch result has shown that the public has woken up to the danger of populism and is ready to defend mainstream politics.

This may be wishful thinking, however. Geert Wilders won seats with very limited campaigning, and perhaps more worrying is that a lot of his nationalist and anti-migration language seeped into the rhetoric and policy ideas of the VVD and CDA. Unconstitutional proposals from these parties include a ban on the funding of mosques from abroad, rendering Dutch members of terrorist organisations stateless, and stopping the direct implementation of international human rights treaties into Dutch law.

The Dutch elections suggest that newly energised European electorates will either go for an alternative on the right (VVD and PVV went head to head in the polls for years) or a similarly energised new movement on the left. Traditional centrist will need to work hard on their story if they want to have a chance to give their victory speeches, while still keeping the anti-democratic drift of the mainstream in check.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Programme coordinator, European Power

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