BERLIN – Geert Wilders’ larger than expected defeat in Wednesday’s Dutch election sets up a disappointing year for nationalist populists, who only last year appeared to have centrist elites on the run. But while it’s fine to celebrate Dutch good sense, it’s also useful to keep in mind that the problems that nearly handed Wilders a win are not going away.
A year ago, Wilders’ anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party, PVV, appeared poised to win a large plurality in the election despite having just one member (Wilders) and no local political offices or campaign machine. It was almost certain even then that Wilders wouldn’t get a chance to govern, since other big parties had refused to cooperate with him after a minority Cabinet’s failed attempt to work with the PVV in 2011. His election victory, however, would have further energized fellow nationalists in France, Germany and Italy, already encouraged by Brexit and Donald Trump’s election.
Now that Wilders, according to tentative vote results, barely managed to win second place and only 20 seats in the 150-member parliament, that can hardly be held up as an inspiring example; being beaten by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a center-right politician known for his tendency to flip-flop, is a particular humiliation for the Dutch nationalist, one of the pioneers of the global nationalist movement.
From a practical rather than symbolic point of view, the Dutch parliament will have an almost two-thirds pro-EU majority. Given the Netherlands’ strong economic ties with Britain, that’s a post-Brexit vote of confidence on the EU and in Germany, the country’s biggest trading partner. Essentially, old centrist parties and the surging GreenLeft, propelled to a strong performance by its charismatic leader Jesse Klaver, can simply ignore the minority that either wants the Netherlands out of the EU or demands major reforms of the bloc.
The high turnout that helped Rutte to victory shows that a populist threat can mobilize voters more or less happy with the status quo. It’s a good sign for the second round of the French presidential election in May.
Still, it’s useful to remember how Rutte won this election. This political chameleon successfully invaded Wilders’ territory by demanding that Muslim immigrants “act normal or leave.” He sealed his advantage by flying into battle with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wanted the Netherlands to open its doors to his proxies campaigning ahead of an April referendum designed to hand Erdogan dictatorial powers. The unceremonious removal of one of the proxies, a female Turkish government minister, from Dutch territory was a Wilders-style move — only Rutte, unlike his populist rival, could actually make it because he had the executive power.
The new Dutch parliament will not have a pro-immigration or pro-immigrant majority. Anti-immigration sentiment runs deep in Dutch society; I saw it on a recent trip to cover the election campaign. It’s not a flash-in-the-pan protest, a chance wind in Wilders’ sails. A number of other parties, including Rutte’s VVD, are in favor of tighter immigration controls and a more demanding approach to integrating newcomers, which would make it harder for Middle Easterners and North Africans to keep their Muslim identity. Multiculturalism — or the uniquely Dutch version of it that cultivates indifference to how other distinct communities live — is out.
The pro-immigration Dutch left, and its boy wonder Klaver, is talking about making sure foreign-born people feel they’re part of society. That requires more than the time-honored live-and-let-live approach. There’s a divide between lighter- and darker-skinned Dutch that needs a conscious effort to bridge, and while centrist and leftist forces can celebrate their collective victory over Wilders, they don’t agree on how to fix the underlying problem. Immigrants themselves won’t help them much: They are not inclined to trust any politicians, even those from their own midst. That explains the poor showing of the immigrant-led DENK Party.
The worst thing that can happen is that the integration problem will be swept under the rug in the wake of the Wilders defeat. If so, in the next election cycle it may resurface in the form of a less extravagant and more electorally attractive far-right challenge. The right-wing intellectual Thierry Baudet, who only formed his party last September, managed to get into parliament on Wednesday; there’s a lot of room for universally acceptable politicians on that flank, and plays will be made for the space.
Brexit and Trump made many people worry that all rules are out the window and the populist wave is unstoppable. Continental Europe’s electoral systems, however, are designed to blunt radical challenges to level-headed leadership. The political fragmentation and the better representation it provides is in itself a powerful obstacle to the success of Wilders, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France or the AfD in Germany. It’s an advantage the continental democracies have over the United States and Britain, and it may be enough to protect the centrist status quo this year. But changing demographics in Europe means centrist politicians can’t count on it for many election cycles to come. As a reminder, Wilders tweeted Wednesday night: “Rutte is not rid of me yet.”
It will take a clear new understanding of the EU’s functions and potential in order for pro-EU forces to keep winning. A lot will depend on how the EU handles Brexit: The Dutch may be turned away by a punitive approach on the bloc’s part and encouraged to consider the Nexit option if Britain does well initially as a standalone nation-state.
It will also take progress on integration — or consensus on tougher border policies — to take the immigration issue off the agenda for the next elections, not just in the Netherlands but throughout Europe. If none of this happens, not much stands between Europe and Trump-style upheavals.
Russian writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.