The state of Dutch politics: Is it accurate to say that the Dutch defeated populism?

As British voters face the prospect of a general election in less than four weeks, two months after the Dutch election results of 15 March, there still has been no new government. Proportional representation in the Netherlands means that coalitions are often the only way to form a government, and so Prime Minister Rutte of thePeople’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)is currently discussing the possibilities of forming a coalition with the Christian Democrats (CDA), Liberal Democrats (D66) and the Green Party (GroenLinks). The VVD and CDA are right-wing parties, and even though their politics are very different from the policies of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, it will be interesting to find out what the course for the Netherlands for the coming four years will be.

Did the Dutch defeat populism?

In March, media all over the world proclaimed that the Dutch had defeated far-right populism. International news outlets, such as The Guardian and Huffington Post, showed that despite the fear of a repetition of the Trump vote in the US, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) had lost the elections to current PM Mark Rutte. It was “a good day for democracy”, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who saw the result as a “clear signal” and French President Hollande congratulated MP Rutte with his “victory over extremism”. Internationally, the Dutch had defeated right-wing populism. “Woke to a Dutch victory for moderates over extremists, bridges over walls, open over closed up”, tweeted CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on the morning of March 16. Unfortunately, this is not the full story of Dutch politics. As Cas Mudde wrote in The Guardian, there were two Dutch elections: one shown in the international media and one in the national media.

International coverage of the Dutch elections

In international news outlets, the coverage of the Dutch elections has been simplified and represented in extremely black and white terms. It was shown as a battle between right-wing populism, embodied by Wilders, who represents extremism, islamophobia and euroscepticism, and PM Rutte, who stands for all that Wilders is not, for building bridges and openness. Both, however, are right-wing parties. When I asked Dutch Samantha, who has lived in the UK for over 20 years, what she thought of the British coverage on the Dutch elections, she replied: “Our system is much more complex than the good guy and the bad guy. It takes effort and research and facts to do it right”.

It could be argued that this is what happened to Dutch politics in international media; the complex political situation in the Netherlands was simplified for international readers. It became a battle between the good and the bad guy, and a lot of attention was given to the bad guy. The Dutch electoral system is much more colourful than this; there were 28 parties participating in the last elections and international media have only been paying real attention to Wilders.

How the media gave Wilders a voice

Wilders’ name dominated international and national media in the months running up to the elections. This without having a proper election programme (his programme was published on one A4-sheet and for context we had to look at “1400 years Jihad”). The fact that he refused to participate in debates put an even bigger spotlight on his personality, said Dutch student Thijs, who lives in Winton: “the Dutch media paid attention to why he [Wilders] wasn’t participating, and by doing so a lot of attention was given to Wilders – perhaps not directly to his ideas, but still.” His extreme policies, the lack of election programme, his absence in debates, his tweets: Wilders managed to hog the media spotlight many times and, we, the media, made Wilders the celebrity politician he very much likes to be. Indeed, he did not top the ballot, yet through the incessant media coverage he managed to spread his message without much effort. Consequently his Freedom Party became the second biggest party in Dutch Parliament, with twenty seats, an increase of five seats relative to 2012.

The Dutch media tried, as good or as bad as it got, to give all parties media attention. Yet the battle between Rutte and Wilders dominated Dutch national media as well. What might have caused Rutte’s win was that he showed ‘muscles’ during the diplomatic row between the Netherlands and Turkey, when Rutte’s administration blocked two Turkish ministers from attending a rally for the Dutch-Turkish community in order to gain votes for Erdogan’s referendum in April. In response to the diplomatic row that followed, Rutte presented himself as ‘strong leader’ and said that “the Netherlands will not allow blackmail”. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, though this has strengthened Rutte’s position in the run-up to the elections.

A shift towards the far-right

Rutte also consistently positioned himself as the only one who could compete with Wilders. But for Thijs, and many others, Rutte’s own policies have become increasingly more aligned with far-right populism: “Rutte’s populism is not necessarily the good kind of populism. Especially when it comes to immigration, Rutte’s policies have shifted more towards Wilders’ ideas”. An example is the open letter that Rutte published in all Dutch newspapers in the run-up to the elections, when he wrote that there was “something wrong with our country” and that people should “act normal or go away”. This emphasis on Dutch nationality was also played out by Sybrand Buma, leader of the right-wing Christian Democrats (CDA), when he launched a Dutch traditions game. It seems like parties are increasingly moving towards populist views in order to win voters from the populist right and left – with success.  For Sophie (Dutch, 30) the image that international media sketched of the loss of Wilders, is not-accurate for Dutch politics: “the “defeat of populism” – that gives a distorted picture, I think”. Wilders’ and Rutte’s right-wing parties managed to sweep in 53 seats out of the Dutch 150 seated Parliament in total, and even though Wilders’ is not included in negotiations about the still-to-be-formed coalition, it indicates that there is a large amount of support for his far-right ideas.

Hopefully, once coalitionnegotiationshave been completed, we will know what the future holds for the Netherlands.

Mirjam Liefbroer