The peak of populism
The result of the Dutch elections seems to have decreed an easing of the nationalist winds that blow in many parts of Europe and even across the Atlantic. However, it does not appear that the leaders of these movements, first and foremost being the defeated Wilders, wish to leave the continental political stage. Now the results in France and Germany are being awaited

See our 2017 Elections Special


To borrow a familiar oil-industry catch-phrase, is the populist surge in European politics starting to peak? The results of this week's elections in the Netherlands seem to suggest that this may be the case. The clear victory of Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, against his biggest rival and still hot favorite to win barely a fortnight ago, the populist firebrand Geert Wilders, does not necessarily mean that voters will respond in the same way in the imminent presidential elections in France, where opinion polls are currently giving the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, the lead in the first round of voting, nor in Germany later this year. But it does suggest that the nationalist sentiment that led to the Brexit vote in the UK and Donald Trump's election to the White House last year is unlikely to secure as big a foothold in the old continent of Europe. As Emmanuel Macron, the former French banker and finance minister and centrist frontrunner expected to beat Marine Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election in May, tweeted soon after Mr. Rutte's victory, the Dutch result showed that “the breakthrough of the extreme right is not inevitable”. The vote in the Netherlands this week opened a fraught European electoral season and was widely seen as an important test of support for nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-Euro parties that have been gaining ground across Europe. As a result, the elections in the Netherlands commanded this time far more international attention than in the past when Dutch polls and the country's proportional representation system leading to convoluted coalition governments were largely ignored by the outside world.

Record turnout and Labor defeat

The significance of the vote also does not seem to have been lost on the Dutch themselves. They turned out in record numbers to vote with a participation rate of more than 80 per cent, the highest in 30 years. Mr. Wilders, who had been riding the crest of the post Brexit and Trump populist wave, seemed poised to win the biggest number of seats in the new 150-seat Dutch parliament but ended with 20 seats compared to Mr. Rutte's 33 seats. Mr. Wilder's Party for Freedom (PVV) won more seats back in 2010 although he did improve his score over his performance in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Although Mr. Rutte's conservative VVD party lost 8 seats, it was expected to lose many more barely two weeks ago when Mr. Wilders was forecast by some polls to win around 28 seats. Although the maverick nationalist would have be unable to form a coalition government had he emerged in the lead - all the other parties had made it clear they would not entertain entering into coalition with Mr. Wilders – he would have still exerted enormous pressure on the domestic political scene and provided a strong boost for the campaigns of Marine Le Pen in France and Frauke Petry's insurgent Alternative for Germany as well for nationalists and anti-EU populists in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. The large turnout seemed to have helped Mr. Rutte's party as well as a number of pro-European parties including the center-right CDA and the liberal centrist D66 which both secured 19 seats each, barely one less than Mr. Wilders. The left-wing Greens also did well virtually quadrupling their presence in the new parliament with 14 seats compared to barely 4 in 2012. The biggest loser was the Labor Party, VVD's coalition partner for the last 5 years, which lost three quarters of its seats securing only 9 seats in the new parliament at the expense of smaller left-wing parties. The Labor Party seemed to pay the price among its traditional constituents for the coalition government's austerity policies that have nonetheless placed the Netherlands today on a strong and stable economic footing. All this has left the Netherlands even more politically fragmented than before making the task of forming coalition governments all the more difficult.

Populism and nationalism in decline?

The country as a whole seems to have firmly turned its back on Mr. Wilders form of extreme populism calling for a ban on immigration, the closure of mosques, and taking the Netherlands out of the EU and the Eurozone. In fact, 80 per cent of the population are strongly pro-European according to recent opinion polls. Also playing in Mr. Rutte's favor was the fact that his peroxide blond populist challenger was no novelty on the Dutch political scene as Donald Trump and Brexit were last year. He has been around as a member of parliament for the past 19 years and at one stage was a coalition partner with Mr. Rutte before falling out and adopting an ever more abrasive form of populism. At the same time, the novelty of Brexit and Donald Trump have started to wear off and have left nationalists in both the US and the UK confused over the ultimate outcome of their choices. The early days of Mr. Trump's unconventional presidency have been chaotic to say the least. The economic consequences of Brexit are still unknown as is the fate of the UK's negotiations with the EU. And Scotland is now threatening once more to leave the UK union because of Brexit. All this uncertainty across the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean seems to have taken away the shine of last year's spectacular populist victories in the UK and US even among Dutch voters who had been leaning towards Mr. Wilders’ party. Interestingly too there seems to have been a striking contrast in the Netherlands to the UK Brexit referendum vote and the US presidential election. In both the UK and US votes, older voters showed a higher propensity to back the anti-establishment choice. In the Netherlands, the over 65 year-olds have been the least likely age group to support Mr. Wilders’ PPV and compared with other populist parties in Europe, such as the National Front in France, support for the PVV has traditionally been relative young and concentrated in poorer rural areas.

The nationalist sentiment that led to the Brexit vote in the UK and Donald Trump's election to the White House last year is unlikely to secure as big a foothold in the old continent of Europe

The reactions of the Old Continent and the French horizon

That said, populist and anti-establishment parties are by no means about to melt down in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. Populist politics are here to stay as Mr. Wilders made clear after his party's disappointing showing in Wednesday's election warning Mr. Rutte that he had not seen the last of him and that “the patriotic spring” would still happen. Whether one likes it or not, extremism or at least anti-establishment and anti- elitism is becoming mainstream in Europe. Under the circumstances, the results of the elections in the Netherlands have provided widespread relief in European capitals and at the European Commission. The Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni tweeted: “No Nexit. The anti-EU right has lost the Dutch elections. Now a common commitment to change and relaunch the Union”. Martin Schulz, the German Social Democrat leader and former president of the European Parliament, also tweeted: “Geert Wilders could not win the election. I am relieved. But we have to fight on for a free and open Europe. “The next and even bigger test will be the French elections in a few weeks’ time. Marine Le Pen will probably not succeed in the second and decisive round of voting even if she wins in the first according to the consensus of recent polls. But she will continue to exert influence on French politics from the outside just as Mr. Wilders will continue to do so in the Netherlands. Indeed, Mr. Rutte may have ultimately pulled off his strong electoral showing by embracing a tougher line on immigration and integration to stop voters defecting to Mr. Wilder's party and taking on vigorously the Turkish president in the last days of the campaign. The Netherlands vote may have given the impression that support for populism may be starting to peak in Europe, but just like peak oil demand it may also be far too early to say for sure.