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As Coalition Talks Begin In The Netherlands, It Is Worth Looking Back At The Elections For Lessons

29/03/2017 11:03 BST | Updated 29/03/2017 11:03 BST
Barcroft Media via Getty Images

During the Dutch election campaign, the Dutch PM Mark Rutte's comment about fighting the "quarter finals to beat the wrong sort of populism" stuck with the international media. It was a comfortable analogy for an election cycle that only really interested non-Dutch media within the larger context of "war against populism". The possibility of seeing the right-wing populist Geert Wilders coming out on top - as the next populist victory after Trump and Brexit - was the main thing that motivated international reporting. He didn't, and in the spirit of the football tournament, journalists half-heartedly celebrated the "defeat" of populism and packed their bags to rush toward the "semi-finals" in France.

On the face of it, the Dutch elections demonstrate that right-wing populists do not win elections on their own. Indeed, Trump won on a Republican ticket thanks to the votes of mostly traditional Republican voters, while the Brexit-referendum may have been called under pressure by UKIP, but was really a Tory project. Even in Austria, the one place where the populist candidate Norbert Hofer had a chance on his own, he lost to a non-charismatic green candidate in two consecutive presidential races. These examples suggest it is highly unlikely for Marine Le Pen to win the fifty-percent-plus-one needed to prevail in the second round of France's presidential race.

And yet, while these elections confirmed that populists still find it difficult to impossible to win in the classical sense (and head governments), they also delivered a pyrrhic victory for those wishing to stop the rise of far-right populists.

The first reason is that Wilders did not need to "win" to make his mark on the Dutch public conversation and to normalise Islamophobia. Instead of confronting Wilders's divisive rhetoric on Islam and integration, Rutte's VVD appropriated many of Wilders's ideas. It used the spat with Turkey on the weekend before the elections mainly to demonstrate Rutte's hard line on the question of "loyalty" of Dutch citizens of Turkish origin. When other parties adopt Wilders's idea, he can easily claim he had "won".

Moreover, even as Wilders only made scarce public appearances during his campaign, he still monopolised the electoral debate. PM Rutte continuously described the elections as a choice between Wilders and himself, but other parties also positioned themselves first against the man with the funny hair and only then articulated their own ideas and policy.

This climate easily feeds Wilders's populist argument: that he represents the "real" people against a disingenuous, corrupt elite. At the same time, the results of the elections have only exacerbated the potency of this argument. The fragmented parliament makes coalition-building increasingly difficult, as any possible combination without Wilders's PVV would require the cooperation of at least four different parties. As coalition talks began yesterday, the cleavages between young and forward-looking GreenLeft and the conservative CDA could not be starker. While they all agree on not being Wilders, they represent diverse priorities and constituencies that will struggle to form a coherent government. If they are to defeat populism in the long run, they will need to stop using Wilders as their only Bogeyman and find values they can all agree on. Otherwise, their dysfunctional alliance will only highlight Wilders's claim to be representing a coherent view against "career politicians" without any real spine.

Establishing an alternative is also the real challenge for other European countries, whether the fight against France's Front national, Germany's Alternative for Germany or Sweden's Swedish Democrats. Each country will have a different road to the ballot box, where the election system will define both strategy and outcome differently. However, all countries face uphill battles against a far-right that has donned a populist mantel as the representatives of "common sense".

Here as well, the results of these elections offer both a cautionary tale and some hope. The fragmentation of the new Dutch parliament is also the result of a new acceptance of identity-based voting that replace the dominance of large parties. The collapse of the Dutch equivalent of the Labour party and the overall decrease in support for the conservative (if still largest) VVD gave way to the rise of smaller parties defined less by a coherence of a political programme and more by appeals to specific groups of voters. This applies to urban, pro-European voters who flocked to GreenLeft and Democrats 66 to the same extent as it does to older conservative voters who supported the CDA or minority groups voting for Denk. In the same vein, much has been written about men and women who cast an identity vote when opting for a populist far-right party.

Even though this same voting pattern cannot be replicated in other countries because of differences in electoral systems, the rise in identity voting does not necessarily work in favour of far-right populists. In most European countries, majorities still do not see their political identity as aligned with visions and programmes of the far-right. There is support for different kinds of alternatives if only they are pitched to voters' real priorities. To do so, proponents of liberal democracy must realise that the struggle against populism does not mean to emulate right-wing populist appeal to the lowest common denominator of a unitary "people", but to prove to different groups in society they can still work together towards the same goal. When fighting against the far-right, politicians need to not only speak of rejecting the far-right on election day, but articulate what society should look like the day after.