National Column: The Dutch election and left, right populism

by Thomas Walkom

Hold the champagne. Wednesday’s Dutch election wasn’t quite the victory over populism it is said to have been.

Indeed, the results in full suggest that Dutch resistance to immigrants, particularly Muslim immigrants, remains high.

The rest of the world rarely pays attention to elections in the Netherlands. It is a small country. It has no nuclear weapons. It is usually governed by a coalition of political parties that are largely unknown to outsiders.

But this election was different. It was billed as a bellwether event that would indicate where the anti-immigrant right in Europe stands.

In Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders it featured a villain of almost cartoon proportions. The strikingly blond Wilders vowed to ban the Qur’an, close mosques and pull Holland from the European Union. His platform called for an end to Muslim immigration and the expulsion of Muslim asylum seekers already in the country.

In the lead-up to the election, his party was ahead in the polls. The fact that it didn’t come first Wednesday was greeted with cheers by more liberal political leaders in the rest of Europe.

“A good day for democracy,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But Wilder’s Freedom Party still did well. It came a strong second, winning five additional seats in the 150-person legislature, for a total of 20.

More important, other parties felt compelled to ape Wilders, at least in part.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy ran on a platform of economic liberalism and cultural nationalism, warning immigrants to adopt Dutch values or leave.

In the waning days of the campaign, Rutte prevented Turkish politicians trying to drum up votes among their compatriots for a referendum back home from electioneering in Holland.

It was a blatant attempt by a prime minister on the ropes to pander to the anti-Turkish mood. And it worked. Rutte’s party lost eight seats but still managed to come first with 33.

The Christian Democratic Appeal, another conservative party, campaigned on a nationalist platform that included banning dual citizenship and requiring schoolchildren to sing the national anthem.

That, too, worked. The Christian Democrats saw their seat total rise from 13 to 19, virtually guaranteeing them a central role in whatever coalition government emerges.

Much has been made of Jesse Klaver’s Green Left party, which saw its seat share rise from four to 14.

The 30-year-old Klaver is of Moroccan and Indonesian heritage. He supports immigration, the EU and efforts to combat climate change. With his movie-star looks and dark, wavy hair he has been called Holland’s Justin Trudeau.

His success, as well as that of the pro-Europe D66 party, which went from 12 to 19 seats, underlines just how complicated the new populism is.

There is a left populism (although its adherents don’t always use the term). Left populists reject the traditional social democratic parties, in large part because they see them as complicit in the right’s austerity agenda.

In his election, the venerable Labour Party, which had been part of Rutte’s governing coalition, saw its seat share collapse from 38 to nine.

The less venerable Socialist Party saw its seat share drop by only one, to 14. But the Socialists have followed a more explicitly populist agenda, criticizing the EU’s central bureaucracy and opposing CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union.

In Canada, they would be treated as cranks. But in Holland, they won as many seats as Klaver’s Green Left party.

In short, populism continues to thrive in Europe. It takes many forms. As in Canada (think Kellie Leitch), right populism is influencing mainstream conservatism. Left populism focuses on the economic. To date, it has had less success.

We shall see what happens with the Dutch, as they try to cobble together a functioning coalition government out of all of this. On Wednesday, an animal rights party won five seats, up from two. That also is part of the populist revolt.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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