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Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.
Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders.

Doug Saunders

Limits of the far right: Three lessons from the Dutch election Add to ...

The invasion of the yellow-haired screamers has, for the moment, been held off at the mouth of the Rhine, its brigade of very bad ideas blocked from making a continental landing by a Zuiderzee of Dutch common sense.

What Wednesday’s Dutch election offered us was a lesson in the limits of the far-right populist movement, and a lesson in the best ways, and the worst ways, for citizens and politicians to resist it.

1. This wasn’t a special election. “Anti-immigrant anger threatens to remake the liberal Netherlands” – that was the Washington Post’s headline a week ago. It could have been the headline before the 2012 election, the 2010 election or, in fact, the 2002 election.

Dutch politics changed in 2002, when a single-issue candidate ran against the country’s racial and religious minorities. He was Pim Fortuyn, Mr. Wilders’s predecessor and role model, and he came in second with 17 per cent of the vote, more than Mr. Wilders has ever achieved; some think he would have won even more had he not been assassinated nine days before the vote.

That was a dark moment in European politics: 2002 also saw Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen’s overtly fascist and anti-Semitic father, victorious in the first round of the French presidential election; only three years earlier, the extreme-right Freedom Party of Austria had won enough seats to form a government. Anti-minority rage was more intense at the turn of the century than today; we’ve forgotten the recent past.

Since then, somewhere between about 5 per cent and 15 per cent of Dutch voters have consistently been willing to cast a ballot for the politics of intolerance. Mr. Wilders and his party shocked the country in 2010 by winning 15.4 per cent of the vote and 24 of the 150 parliamentary seats, his high-water mark. In 2012, after several of his MPs quit the party in protest against Mr. Wilders’s autocratic management, he won 10 per cent of the vote and 15 seats. This week’s result (13 per cent of the vote and 20 seats) should have been more or less expected.

2. You don’t need to play to the extremists to win. The conservative Mark Rutte will likely return to the Prime Minister’s office after the VVD won the most votes in a third election. But he has repeatedly disgraced himself, and hurt his party’s standing, by giving credibility to Mr. Wilders.

First, in 2010, he allowed Mr. Wilders’s PVV to be a supporting party in his coalition, breaking the long-established “cordon sanitaire” in which all other parties refused to work with explicitly racist movements. This gave Mr. Wilders the power to extract concessions from the government (including a promise, never delivered, of a burka ban) and to bring down the government, which he did in 2012.

Then Mr. Rutte tried parroting Mr. Wilders’s messages of intolerance, by delivering angry messages to Dutch Muslims and immigrants in hopes of winning over voters. This only seemed to embolden the extreme right, and it saw Mr. Rutte’s party drop from 41 parliamentary seats to 32 after many voters departed for more moderate parties. This has also been the pattern in France, where the mainstream conservative Republican Party has parroted the messages of Ms. Le Pen, only to see its support plummet and hers rise.

3. Their voters are not committed. Most people who vote for Mr. Wilders don’t believe his conspiracy theories about brown-skinned people; they’re just angry at mainstream politics. The results prove this: The biggest winner on Wednesday was the centre-left Green Left Party, which saw its support quadruple to 14 seats; it and other “alternative” moderate parties sucked votes away from Mr. Wilders and from Mr. Rutte.

Of those who did vote for Mr. Wilders on Wednesday, only half had supported him in 2012. “This means quite a soft support base for Wilders,” says Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who predicted a Wilders loss. The Wilders voters, mostly old and uneducated, contain a sliver who really believe his hateful message, and a much larger wedge who just want something different.

On Wednesday, those voters found it elsewhere, in young parties that wanted no part of his message – and political parties across Europe should have been taking notes.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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