Dutch elections: Not a populist revolt

This time the polls overestimated rather than underestimated support for the populist option.

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    Dutch elections: Not a populist revolt
    There could be a 'right-green' coalition, bringing in the election's biggest winner, the Green Party led by Jesse Klaver, writes Luyendijk [Reuters]

    Not a populist revolt American or British style, but fragmentation Israeli style. That is the result of March 15 elections the Netherlands.

    The country is not heading for the "Dutch Spring" that Geert Wilders, the leader of the staunchly anti-Islam, anti-immigration and anti-EU Party for Freedom (PVV) had predicted.

    There is not going to be a European Union referendum, let alone a Nexit. Instead the Netherlands is heading for probably the most complicated coalition formation in living history.

    The result will be a government of at least four parties, making the kind of tough and unpopular decisions that face the country more difficult than ever before. This could come back to haunt the parties now celebrating their victory.

    What do the results mean?

    WATCH: Geert Wilders concedes defeat in Dutch elections (2:32)

    This was the first general election in a Western country since the United States President Donald Trump was elected president and the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU.

    For once, foreign media took an interest in the Netherlands and descended in great numbers on the country, lured by opinion polls promising a neck-and-neck race between Wilders and the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

    Had Wilders come first, the narrative of a "populist wave sweeping over the West" would have been vindicated. Only 30 years ago the Netherlands was a byword in much of the world for tolerance and liberalism.

    The psychological effect of the PVV being the biggest party in the country would have been huge. A Wilders' victory would also have boosted Marine Le Pen's campaign to become the next French president and take her country out of the EU.

    Though the exact results are still to come in, Wilders ended up with no more than around 14 percent of the vote. Indeed, if 1 percent had gone the other way Wilders would have ended fourth rather than second.

    The big story coming out of this Dutch election, then, is the further and possibly final disintegration of the two parties that have dominated Northern European politics since World War II: The Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats.

    That coalition government will probably take a long time to form and will comprise at least four parties. As the Israeli experience shows that is a recipe for stagnation since there will be one coalition partner objecting to tough decisions and threatening to walk out.

     

    Thirty years ago the Dutch Labour Party and the Christian democrats still had more than two thirds of the vote between them. This time the Labour Party and the Christian Democrats did not even get one third of the vote taken together.

    In their place have come a wide range of parties. There are now two green parties in the Netherlands, one pro-EU and one anti. There are two left-wing parties, the decimated Social Democrats and the now much bigger Socialist Party. There is a single issue party for senior citizens and two parties for strict or even fundamentalist Christians.

    This election also saw the breakthrough of a populist party for immigrants, DENK. It is led by two Dutchmen of Turkish descent who use the same kind of conspiracy theories and personal attacks on opponents that served Trump so well.

    Coalition options

    WATCH - Dutch elections: Left-wing party gaining ground (2:44)

    The question is now who will govern. Unlike the US, the UK or France, the Netherlands has a system of proportional representation, meaning that the 21 percent of the vote garnered by the VVD of incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte translates into 21 percent of the seats in parliament.

    In other words, the Dutch do not elect a prime minister or president. They elect a party which will then try to form a coalition with other parties - not even once in the past century has a single party won an absolute majority.

    That coalition government will probably take a long time to form and will comprise at least four parties. As the Israeli experience shows, that is a recipe for stagnation since there will be one coalition partner objecting to tough decisions and threatening to walk out.

    That said, two likely options present themselves: There could be a "right-grey" coalition of centre-of-right parties plus the single-issue party for senior citizens.

    There could also be a "right-green" coalition, bringing in the election's biggest winner, the Green Party led by Jesse Klaver.

    OPINION - Dutch elections: What is the Wilders effect?

    The man all the foreign journalists had come for, Wilders, did not look happy after the results came in and he had every reason not to. Many Dutch observers believe Wilders has peaked and is unlikely ever to get beyond 20 percent. Since all other parties have excluded forming a coalition with him, Wilders is going nowhere.

    On the other hand, Wilders has never shown any serious inclination to actually govern anyway. Unlike Marine Le Pen in France he is not building an actual movement, preferring to keep tight control over the party Wilders is himself the only member of.

    Wilders' electoral programme for 2017 was nine bullet points long. Number two said: "Netherlands independent again. So out of the EU".

    Number seven: "No more money to development aid, wind turbines, art, innovation, the public broadcaster and so on".

    Until very recently there seemed to be a real possibility of Wilders' PVV party becoming the biggest in the country. But alas, the polls were wrong - again. Only this time they overestimated rather than underestimated support for the populist option.

    Joris Luyendijk is a Dutch news correspondent and author of Hello Everybody!: One Journalist's Search for Truth in the Middle East.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.


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