The Netherlands went to the polls on Wednesday to elect a new Parliament, and the results are in. Now, I’m sure many of you are wondering: why should I care about the Dutch elections? The simple answer is that Europe is still too important politically to ignore, and given European nations’ close cultural ties political developments in one country tend to have an impact on their neighbors. The elephant in the room here is the French elections next month. But before we get to France, lets take a closer look at the Dutch result.
The above graphic, which can also be found here, gives a number of insights to the Dutch election. First, what has been hailed as a “mainstream triumph” is anything but. The leading center-right party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy led by the Prime Minister, lost eight seats, just under a forth of the seats it held. The Labor Party, bulwark of the center-left, has essentially collapsed going from 38 seats to just nine. Indeed, the main takeaway from the election is just how fragmented the new Parliament is. A number of new parties entered a Parliament, and no party, or even grouping of similar parties, holds a clear majority. Coalition-building for the new government will prove exceedingly difficult.
Another major takeaway is the defeat suffered by the left in general. Most of the Labor Party’s lost seats were picked up by parties on the right not the left. The Dutch electorate has clearly shifted right and the results reflect that. That Geert Wilders’ far right Party for Freedom didn’t do better is more down to the wide array of alternatives rather than any discomfort with his policies. More clearly, Dutch voters seem comfortable with Wilders’ policies but not his personality. His has labelled himself as the “Dutch Trump” but the Dutch didn’t want a Trump. But they shifted to the right nonetheless.
Which now brings us to France. What do the Dutch elections tell us about the upcoming French elections? According to many prominent news outlets, the Dutch result portends the turning of the tide against the rise of populism and the far-right. But when discussing France there are a few things to remember and the most important is what I just discussed in the last paragraph: the presence of alternatives. Electorates across Europe are shifting to the right, as the Dutch vote shows. But in France’s presidential election, the only mainstream candidate on the right, Francois Fillon, has been formally charged with embezzlement and is now under criminal investigation. As I have discussed before, France’s left is in disarray as well, with the main candidates being the far-left Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon and the farther left Communist party pick Jean-Luc Melenchon. The left in France has moved farther left as the populace move right.
The only alternative to the far-right Marine Le Pen is Emmanuel Macron. Macron however, is, again, not backed by any party and has a Socialist background. Marine Le Pen thus has no rival on the right, at a time when the right is ascendant. Macron is currently described as the front-runner in the race, but I am not so sure. Le Pen has never described herself as the “French Trump” and has established her own identity. The BBC has a, rather long but quite informative, piece describing her past, personality, and political beliefs. She is not a blustering, bellicose Donald Trump, as Geert Wilders tried to be. This makes her much more acceptable to moderate voters, especially given the aforementioned lack of alternatives. But still, while France’s National Front as a whole is far less “toxic” than it was in the past it still attracts many whose ideas are quite detestable. The party is no longer dominated by bigots and Holocaust deniers, but they are still members. That fact will be on every voter’s mind on election day.
The Dutch elections were a victory for the right, with the leading far-right party becoming the second largest party in Parliament. The Dutch elections confirm the right-ward shift in European politics. The main task for the mainstream parties, if they want to stay in power, is to recognize and accept the general disillusionment voters have with the establishment. The trouble is, they are the establishment. I, for one, would be quite impressed by any politician who admitted that there was too much distance between their party and the people they claim to represent. The answer to the wave of populist anger sweeping Europe is not simply to adopt the policies of the far-right and hope for the best, as many politicians in Europe have done. People are not looking for firebrand radicals, but sympathy and genuine care for the issues they face. But in the absence of that care the lack of sympathy turns to anger, and thus enters those firebrand radicals.