Rutte’s liberals eclipses Dutch populists as voters go to the polls

Mark Rutte, if polls are correct, will lead his VVD to victory on March 15 — and another term as prime minister. (ANP)

Everything’s coming up Rutte.

Mark Rutte, that is — the prime minister of The Netherlands who will almost certainly find his way to a third term as prime minister after tomorrow’s election.

Even earlier this year, when Geert Wilders’s hard-right Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) held a substantial lead, it was always virtually assured that Rutte would return as prime minister. Consistently, even as the PVV topped polls, Rutte’s center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) continued to follow behind in second place, leading the race among the PVV’s mainstream opponents. All along, Wilders’s goal was never forming a government, but the hollow victory of placing first among a half-dozen parties bunched together between 10% and 20% in the polls.

Over the last two weeks, even that has changed to Wilders’s detriment.

The VVD eclipsed the PVV in polls at the end of February, and one shock poll from Ipsos on the eve of the election showed the PVV sliding to fifth place. At a time when Rutte is embroiled in a high-profile diplomatic spat with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (over whether Turkish ministers should be holding campaign rallies in The Netherlands for next month’s Turkish constitutional referendum), Wilders still seems to be losing steam.

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Both inside Europe and beyond, the Wilders threat was always smaller than the amount of coverage he’s received. Even when the PVV was leading, no other major party was willing to work with Wilders and the PVV’s toxic brand. Even with the highest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives), the PVV would fall far short of the majority it would need to form a government. Mostly, that’s due to the PVV’s hardline views on immigration, Islam and the European Union. But it’s also because Wilders proved an unreliable ally to Rutte when he withdrew the PVV’s support for Rutte’s minority government in 2012 over spending, forcing snap elections — a gambit that backfired when the PVV lost nine seats.

What’s very much true — and always has been true — is that support across all parties in tomorrow’s election in The Netherlands could be so dispersed that no party wins more than even 17% of the vote. It could usher in the most fragmented parliament in postwar history, and it will force Rutte to navigate coalition negotiations that include four or even five parties. Don’t hold your breath for the kind of quick deal that followed the 2012 election, the ‘purple’ coalition between Rutte’s liberals and the social democratic Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA, Labour Party).

Labour’s support has collapsed in the ensuing five years. Junior coalition parties are rarely rewarded by voters, but many Labour supporters believe the party far too willing to compromise with Rutte on spending after Labour waged a popular campaign against budget austerity. (It is still projected to win between nine and 14 seats in the election under a new leader, Lodewijk Asscher.)

If the VVD and the PVV finish first and second, respectively, as most polls still forecast, the race for third place is murkier. The conservative Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal), the center-left/liberal Democraten 66 (Democrats 66) and the leftist GroenLinks (Green Left) are all surging, and the CDA and D66 are widely tipped to enter government after coalition negotiations. GroenLinks is likely to make the strongest gains of any party (more even than Wilders) after the successful campaign of its fresh-faced 30-year-old leader, Jesse Klaver.

If there’s any consensus among the Dutch electorate, voters are choosing from a group of five or six parties, each dedicated to European integration, liberal democracy and moderate policy prescriptions — not fear-mongering xenophobia. No matter what happens tomorrow, Wilders will have a smaller role in shaping Dutch policy than, say, the more circumspect D66 leader Alexander Pechtold, who could become Rutte’s deputy prime minister in a new coalition. Pechtold may not have the international profile that Wilders has acquired with his ‘Make The Netherlands Ours Again’ histrionics, but he could be in a position to push the next government to a more pro-immigrant and pro-European orientation.

None of this, most especially the PVV’s apparent collapse, should be shocking.

Partly, it’s because something very similar happened in the 2012 election. The Socialistische Partij (SP, Socialist Party) led polls throughout the summer, only to collapse in late August and early September as voters started paying more attention to the campaign. The party’s leader, Emile Roemer, struggled in a series of debates to defend his extreme views on the European Union and economic policy, and doubtful voters shifted en masse to the more centrist Labour instead. The Socialists, still under Roemer’s leadership, aren’t doing much better in 2017, by the way (though polls suggest they will win between 12 and 16 seats).

Wilders suffered the same fate as voters began to take the election campaign seriously. Under the pressure of leading polls for so long, higher scrutiny followed Wilders’s higher profile. For example, Arjen Lubach (the Dutch version of Jon Oliver) skewered the VVD’s lack of policy specifics in a withering 20-minute takedown. Even Wilders’s own brother, in a jaw-dropping interview with Der Spiegel, admits that he doesn’t think highly of the PVV’s brand of extreme politics.

There’s only so much room for discontent in a country that is one of the world’s most peaceful and prosperous. On just about every conceivable metric, the Dutch electorate is one of the wealthiest, happiest and safest on the globe. Just to take one measure, the country’s GDP per capita (on a PPP basis) outranks every other country in Europe — except Luxembourg (a banking haven), Norway (oil-rich), Ireland (a tax haven) and Switzerland (another banking haven). Even the poorest parts of the country still feel quite affluent, in no small part to a generous social welfare safety net. Wilders can rage all he wants about ‘Nexit,’ but there’s no appetite in The Netherlands to leave the European Union or even the eurozone.

Meanwhile, Rutte has co-opted some of Wilders’s tough talk on immigration throughout the campaign. In January, Rutte proclaimed that immigrants should either ‘be normal’ or go away. It’s not like Rutte is going around referring to ‘Moroccan scum’ (as Wilders does) or is even calling for veil bans (as German chancellor Angela Merkel suggested in December). But it was a sharp shift in focus for Rutte, who comes from the more moderate and socially liberal wing of the VVD, to start scolding immigrants who ‘reject [Dutch] values.’ Pechtold, in particular, has reserved some of his harshest criticism for Rutte’s rhetoric on migration.

Meanwhile, the spat with Erdoğan in the final days of the election, might also be having a rally-around-the-prime-minister effect across The Netherlands. As Erdoğan makes increasingly unhinged challenges about Dutch ‘fascism’ and ‘nazism,’ Dutch voters could rally to Rutte at Wilders’s expense. Even as Wilders argues that ongoing protests prove that Turkish immigrants should ‘go home,’ and tensions rise over Turkish immigrants, the focus on immigration could ironically prove a net loss for Wilders.


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