The humiliation of the Dutch establishment
The victory of Geert Wilders shows voters are desperate to hit back against the elites.
To say the victory of Geert Wilders in yesterday’s Dutch elections came as a shock might be the understatement of the century. Not even his aides in the PVV (Party for Freedom) were fully prepared for the earthquake to come. The tiny, cramped venue where it held its election party last night was booked just four days ago, after Wilders enjoyed a last-minute surge in the polls.
With almost all the votes now counted, Wilders’s PVV has won 37 of the 150 seats in the Dutch parliament, with 24 per cent of the vote, trouncing his nearest rivals, a coalition of the Labour and Green parties. Make no mistake: this is a humiliation for the Dutch establishment and another political earthquake in Europe.
Before yesterday’s elections, European elites would have told you that a ‘sensible’ country like the Netherlands was immune to populism. The 2017 elections were heralded across Europe as the death of Dutch populism, when the PVV lost to long-serving centrist prime minister Mark Rutte. Wilders’s party slumped further in 2021, scoring just 11 per cent of the vote. With the peroxide-haired right-winger seemingly sent packing, moderation and centrism had apparently prevailed. Anti-establishment anger had been quelled. Or so they thought.
Even in recent days, the prospect of a ballot-box rebellion had been written off by European media. On the day the Netherlands went to the polls, a BBC News feature on the elections mentioned Wilders only in passing. Its two tips for the next Dutch PM came in third and fourth place. And just last week the Financial Times declared that these ‘elections are tapping into a mood for dry moderation’. ‘The Dutch don’t do wild political leaps’, it insisted. Such complacency has now been shattered.
These elections are as much a win for Wilders as they are a loss for the centrist establishment. The centre-right VVD, which has held power under premier Mark Rutte for 13 years, was knocked back into third place. Perhaps more significant has been the failure of Frans Timmermans, former vice-president of the European Commision, who led a newly formed Labour-Green alliance to defeat.
The failure of Timmermans is a stinging blow to the EU (Wilders is a staunch Eurosceptic who has promised an in-out ‘Nexit’ referendum). It also shows that opposition to climate policy is now a significant driver of European populism. After all, as Commission vice-president, Timmermans was the face of Brussels’s stringent climate policies, including the so-called European Green Deal.
The EU’s green austerity played a major role in stoking the farmers’ protests that have erupted in the Netherlands over the past few years. The Dutch government, under pressure from Brussels, introduced tight limits on the nitrogen emissions caused by fertilisers and cattle excrement. According to the government’s own estimates, these limits could lead to the closure of as many as 3,000 farms. This has led to years of agitation from farmers.
And it’s not just agriculture that could be flattened by climate policy. As a Politico profile of Timmermans this week notes, the much-vaunted European Green Deal could be about to set off a wave of deindustrialisation – on a scale not seen for 50 years. Politicians who think they can get away with impoverishing their citizens, while hiding behind waffle about Net Zero, are in for a very rude awakening.
Wilders has also benefited from the stumbling of his populist rivals. Contrary to what the media claim, Dutch voters have often voted for anti-establishment parties when given the opportunity in recent years. Earlier this year, in the regional elections, the upstart Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), buoyed by the farmers’ protests, won not only the popular vote, but also the most seats in every single Dutch province. In 2019, the right-populist Forum for Democracy (FvD) won the popular vote in provincial elections and, in 2020, it could claim to be the ‘biggest party in the Netherlands by membership’.
Both parties have since hit major setbacks. The BBB failed to capitalise on its early popularity – not helped by its leader admitting back in July that she had no desire to be prime minister. Meanwhile, since the Covid pandemic, the FvD has tumbled down a conspiratorial rabbit hole. Its leader, Thierry Baudet, spent much of a recent parliamentary debate defending his scepticism of ‘the official narrative’ about 9/11 and the moon landings. As hard as it is to believe, this helped make the hard-right Wilders seem relatively sensible by contrast.
In any case, the BBB and FvD’s brief stints in the sun clearly demonstrated an appetite for a break from mainstream ‘liberal’ centrism. Voters have long shown themselves willing to shop around for different flavours of populism, for different ways and means to hit back at a complacent, indifferent elite. When it came to this election, it seems that Wilders was the beneficiary of his rivals’ failures.
None of this is to say that Wilders is a worthy beneficiary of populist anger. His infamous calls to shut down every mosque and to ban the Koran are prejudiced and deeply illiberal. And while it is true that many mainstream politicians are too cowardly to even talk about contentious issues like mass immigration and Islamic extremism, Wilders should not be hailed as some kind of noble truth-teller for his broadsides against Moroccans and other Muslim migrants. Indeed, some of his own supporters have freely admitted to journalists that his obsessive Islam-bashing can go too far.
Still, that voters were willing to plump for Wilders shows us how furious the Dutch are with the political establishment. For all the complacency about the Netherlands being immune to populism, voters are apparently desperate to hit back at the elites, using whatever weapon they have at their disposal. Populism in Europe is here to stay. And there is tremendous potential here for those of us who want to see this democratic revolt pushed in a more positive, progressive direction.
Picture by: Getty.
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