Dutch Electoral Outcome is Bellweather for Wider Trends in EU – Right and Ultra-Right Win, But Social Democrats Still Matter     Print

Reflecting a general trend in Europe toward economic austerity and nationalism, voters in the Netherlands swung to the right on Wednesday by electing their first liberal (i.e., conservative) presumptive prime minister in almost a century while giving huge gains to xenophobic politician Geert Wilders.

The leading vote-getter -- and presumable prime minister -- is Mark Rutte, whose VVD party campaigned for huge cuts in public spending, tighter rules on immigration and a cooling of relations with the EU. His stance on the challenges of minorities and (mainly Muslim) immigration is much more conservative than the previous Dutch consensus, but it does not go nearly as far as Wilders' demand that Islamic immigration be cut off. It now remains to be seen what kind of coalition government Rutte will form.

In the first election in a eurozone country since the economic crisis, conservative parties made significant gains – as have done in recent years in a trend including Germany, France, Britain and, most recently, Hungary. The special salience of Holland is that this society has been a microcosm of two Europe-wide tensions: questions about multiculturalism and assimilation of minorities (notably Muslims) and questions about how to cut back on excess of “welfare-ism” in a long-prosperous and tolerant society. This aspect was summed up recently in an article, “The Return of the Bourgeosie,” in Der Speigel.

The election outcome showed Dutch voters reacting against what they perceive as government over-spending – a mood that has exacerbated anti-Muslim feelings among many Dutch people who feel that these immigrants are a growing budgetary burden. Both winning conservative parties favored curbs on Muslim immigration (and Wilder even seeks a cut-off). The Netherlands is relatively well-off in the eurozone, with relatively low unemployment. But its multicultural assimilation policies are perceived as having led to excesses and even violence by Muslim extremists. Nonetheless the social democrats, with their adept leader, Job Cohen, were not completely disavowed. That fate was reserved from the Christian Democrats, whose long political success has now become associated with lack of clarity on the pressing issues of the times, according to John Vinocur in The New York Times.

The outcome reflected a surge for Wilders’ Freedom party, which combines right-wing nationalism with leftist economic ideas. It nearly tripled its seats from nine to 24 in the 150-seat Parliament. The victorious classically conservative liberals of the VVD, making an extraordinary comeback, emerged at the head of the list (for the first time in decades), with 31 seats. The Dutch Labour party made a strong showing, but still came in one seat behind the VVD – a far worse outcome than had been expected a few months ago when the former mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, seemed to be surging at the head of Labour.

The VVD took 31 seats to Labour’s 30. But this result also leaves the winning party with the lowest number of seats. Given the Dutch coalition tradition of including all significant party leaders in the horse-trading that will now ensue, it will be difficult for Rutte – who has described the situation as “a complicated puzzle” -- to ignore Wilders, says the BBC's Gavin Hewitt, despite international hostility to the Freedom Party being in government.

Rutte has said that he wants a government formed by next month. However, that looks unlikely and it is not at all clear who he will govern with.

NEW DEVELOPMENT: "Time to show the Dutch how little Wilders has to offer" -- Der Spiegel, June 16 

The three main parties in the Dutch elections were headed by emblematic personalities.

“Man of the left,” Job Cohen, 62, has been depicted as a having particular skills in smoothing out tensions between the Dutch and the Muslim immigrants who increasingly populate the Netherlands’ biggest cities. As mayor of Amsterdam, charismatic Cohen spent the past nine years pursuing a “muscular approach” to cultural integration.

Mark Rutte, 43-year old leader of the VVD and former businessman, has prompted many to liken him to the UK’s new Prime Minister, David Cameron. Written off as a lightweight in 2006, he gained credibility by sticking to his party’s themes of reducing taxes and cutting government spending. He also promises to clamp down on crime, implement a “restrictive” immigration policy and cool relations with the EU.

Finally, there is the Freedom Party’s Geert Wilders (46) who wants a total stop to Muslim immigration and mosque-building, and a tax on Islamic headscarves. Populist Wilders combines this far-right nationalism, however, with leftist economic ideas.

Sarah Geraghty