Βy NAOMI O’LEARY
THE HAGUE — A defeat for “the wrong kind of populism.”
That’s how Prime Minister Mark Rutte described the Dutch election result — implying that there is a right kind, and that he deployed it to defeat Geert Wilders.
It wasn’t exactly a romp for Rutte, whose conservative-liberal VVD won 33 seats, down from 41 at the last election in 2012. But compared to the speculation a week earlier that he would be forced into second place by Wilders’ far-right Party of Freedom (PVV), it felt like a huge relief for the ruling party, and the rest of establishment Europe.
Now Rutte almost certainly will lead the Netherlands’ next coalition government. For that, he can thank, in part, a last-minute stroke of luck not of his own making: a diplomatic spat with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which gave Rutte a chance to play elder statesman and tough guy. And in part, it was thanks to his own ability not so much to defeat Wilders’ anti-immigrant rhetoric as to absorb and wield the same message to build momentum in the closing days of the campaign.
Behind the late upswing, however, was the trend that began to point in Rutte’s favor with the inauguration in January of President Donald Trump.
Initially, it was a confidence booster for Wilders’ supporters, who had been early adapters of Trump’s challenge to the status quo. Wilders was delighted to share articles from international media that called him the “Dutch Trump,” and cast his campaign as part of a new populist wave — never mind that he has been in parliament since 1998, making him one of the longest-serving members of the body. He copied Trump’s sloganeering, vowing to put the “Netherlands first” and making the country “ours again.”
The peak of Wilders’ support in polls during the campaign coincided with Trump’s inauguration. The drop began almost immediately afterwards. At first, Wilders kept up his compliments of Trump, praising the so-called Muslim ban as it was chaotically rolled out.
As his support continued to dwindle, he went silent on Trump. He hasn’t mentioned the U.S. president on Twitter — his main medium of communication — since February 2.
“I think Wilders made a mistake,” said Tim de Beer of pollster Kantar, which found only 15 percent of Freedom Party voters supported Trump’s policies. “Trump is ultimately too radical for the Netherlands.”
The viral success of the “Netherlands second” video, which lampooned Trump, marked the moment the tone of the campaign shifted.
“People were responding to the fear of Trump’s policies with humor. That was really a striking moment, it marked the beginning of a change in the campaign. The opposition, the liberals, Social Democrats and Greens began to gain ground,” de Beer said.
A similar backlash had happened earlier with Brexit. After the U.K. voted to leave the EU, the sterling crash and political turmoil that followed didn’t go unnoticed. The chaos boosted the EU in the eyes of Dutch voters; the government think tank SCP logged a rise in positive attitudes to the EU within the country. Even Wilders toned down his focus on the EU compared to his previous campaign in 2012.
“There was an immediate response after Brexit happened. I think in our bones we felt this might not be good for us,” said Han ten Broeke, a member of parliament for Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).
“Even before Brexit was triggered we saw that it meant havoc for the U.K. and we don’t want that. It is not in our interests, it is not to our advantage. I think many people who look at this say: we’re not going to experiment with that.”
“After Brexit and the American election, the Netherlands has said no to the wrong kind of populism,” Rutte told the crowds at his victory speech.
Trump and Brexit also gave pro-EU Dutch opposition parties the perfect bogeymen to run against, and parties ranging from the Greens to D66, a market-friendly liberal group, cast their own campaigns as a chance for Dutch voters to halt the march of populism.
Even without these external factors, Wilders’ own campaign never really hit top gear. For a variety of reasons — sparse campaign funds, a tiny team of staff, a security scare — he could not match his larger opponents. His election manifesto was a single-page of bullet points that included the line “no more money to development, windmills, art, innovation, broadcasting etc.”
He restricted his media appearances to ones he could control and was absent from the first series of television debates, allowing the leaders of other small and medium-sized parties like Alexander Pechtold of D66 and Sybrand Buma of the Christian Democratic Appeal to take some of the limelight.
It also meant less air time for Wilders’ pet issues such as immigration and Islam and gave ample debating time to issues like healthcare and the economy.
By turning the focus to his country’s strengths, Rutte could ask the electorate: Do you really want to risk all this?
“In the Netherlands people have been responsive to [the message] that we should not experiment, that we should continue with the policies of recovery,” Rutte said following his victory. “This is one of the best-performing economies in the Western world.”
Wilders showed little ambition to govern, which would inevitably mean working with other parties in coalition. His decision to publish an image of liberal leader Pechtold that had been photoshopped to show him taking part in a pro-Sharia law rally raised many eyebrows.
Hampered by security concerns — he lives under 24 hour police protection due to threats from radical Islamists — Wilders held only a handful of campaign events, and his ability to connect with real voters during the ones he did attend was further impeded by the media scrum he attracted.
This reduced Wilders’ opportunities to make a lasting impression on Dutch voters to two TV debates on the nights preceding the vote — major events watched respectively by 2.3 million and 3.3 million people, in a country with just under 17 million inhabitants. He neither fumbled nor aced them. But it was too late to reach out beyond his core electorate: The 13 percent that ultimately voted for him was the same as in the 2014 European Parliament election.
Even as Wilders’ campaign was drifting, his rhetoric was being coopted by Rutte and the Christian Democratic Appeal party, meaning three parties were competing to talk tough on immigration and promise to “protect Dutch culture.” The shift to the right went so far that a Dutch lawyers association said the manifestos of five political parties included proposals that could break the law.
In the case of Wilders’ Freedom Party, such violations were blatant: shutting all mosques and banning the Koran goes against constitutional guarantees for religious freedom. But Rutte’s promise to strip the nationality of Dutch people who join terrorist organizations was also unlawful, as was the Christian Democratic Appeal’s idea to ban foreign funding for mosques and Islamic associations. There were also improper promises made by two smaller parties, ForNetherlands and the Calvinist Reformed Political Party.
Populism that wins
It was not until the diplomatic row with Turkey, though, that the election campaign got a clear narrative — with Rutte seizing the initiative in the decisive final days of the campaign.
With 28 parties on the ballot, Dutch voters have a wide choice. Those with deep convictions, like Wilders’ supporters, decide early in the campaign, while the moderates delay their choice and can easily be swayed, meaning the mood of the electorate on the final weekend before polling day is vital.
Erdoğan’s insistence to hold a referendum rally in Rotterdam for the Dutch Turkish diaspora gave Rutte the perfect opportunity to look strong and dominate the final days of the campaign. The prime minister blocked one Turkish minister from entering the Netherlands and expelled his replacement when she arrived by car, earning the admiration of even some of his fiercest rivals.
“It turned out to be something very important in the campaign,” said ten Broeke of the Freedom Party. “I think many people then recognized that when push came to shove we were also willing to draw that line in the sand on an issue that was so much intertwined with our identity and our values.”
“There’s nothing wrong with populism as such if populism means you take seriously the anxieties and the worries people have and you turn them into solutions, that’s the kind of populism that can win you elections,” he added.
For pollster de Beer, Rutte showed mainstream politicians across Europe how to defeat populists, by combining an optimistic overall message with the willingness to adopt a tough tone on emotive issues like immigration. “The populist wave can be stopped in Europe by stressing the word optimism, and by being clever about stressing the things that people have, rather than what they are afraid to lose,” he said.