Dutch general election: a finger in the wind, not a litmus test

After Brexit and Trump’s triumph – and with Marine Le Pen making waves – some saw this contest as continuity versus chaos. But the pattern did not fit

One down, two to go. As the first major election since Britain opted to leave the EU and the US elected Donald Trump, the Dutch general election was widely seen as a litmus test for the strength of anti-establishment populism ahead of similar European votes this year.

A win for Geert Wilders’ anti-Islam, anti-EU Freedom party was to have been the third domino to fall in a series that could include a win for Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, a strong showing by the anti-migrant AfD in Germany – and the possible disintegration of the EU.

The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, cast the Dutch election in that light this week, saying that – following the upsets of Brexit and Trump – he saw it as the “quarter-final” in a five-round competition, in which “the semi-finals are the French elections, and the final the German election”.

It suited Rutte to frame the election as a head-to-head battle between his centre-right, liberal VVD and Wilders’ PVV, allowing him to present it as a clash between status quo and populism, continuity and chaos.

But there are several reasons why the pattern did not really fit – and why a Wilders victory, while undeniably a powerful symbolic blow, would not necessarily have set in motion a chain of events to threaten the bloc’s survival.

The Dutch poll differed from Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum. Those were one-on-one, winner-take-all contests for which the victor needed 50% – or in the US poll, very nearly 50% – of the vote.

In the Netherlands, 28 parties were standing in parliamentary elections, six of which – with ore than 95% of votes counted – will end up with 10 or more MPs in the 150-seat lower house. Rutte’s VVD was by far the largest party on 33 seats, with Wilders’ PVV trailing on 20.

The result was always going to be a coalition of at least four, possibly five, parties that will take several months to form and have to govern by compromise and consensus. And all main parties had vowed not to work with Wilders.

Mark Rutte says Dutch people have rejected ‘wrong sort of populism’

So even if the PVV had ended up as the largest party, it would almost certainly have been locked out of government. If by some miracle that was not the case, in order to pass new legislation it would have needed, as well as the lower house, the Dutch senate on board – where it currently has nine out of 75 seats.

Wilders may prompt comparisons with Trump and Brexit – in hairstyle, campaign slogan (“Take our country back”), presentation and a marked predilection for communicating by Twitter – but it was never clear how much of his programme he could have implemented in practice.

Nor were the Dutch likely to vote to leave the EU any time soon. The prospect of a “Nexit” referendum had gained currency abroad, but the other parties would not have backed it and there is no evidence a majority of voters would either.

The far right in France and Germany would, certainly, have hailed a Wilders win as a nativist, anti-establishment triumph.

But despite loudly welcoming both Brexit and Trump as the beginning of a “patriotic revolution”, the Front National in France and AfD in Germany saw no improvement in their polling afterwards.

The French presidential election, taking place over two rounds in April and May, resembles the UK and US votes more closely: unlike the Netherlands, this will be a one-on-one, winner-takes-all contest – and the French are electing a president, not a parliament.

Though wildly unpredictable, the second round runoff looks set to pit Le Pen against the centrist independent Emmanuel Macron. Current polling gives Macron a 20-point lead, but a Le Pen victory remains very possible.

That would prove a seismic shock, not least to markets which fear the far-right candidate will deliver on her campaign promises: taking France out of the euro and putting the terms of a “new relationship” with the EU to a referendum.

Neither the EU nor the euro would survive that. Crucially, however, the French will also be electing their parliament in June – which could make it difficult, if not impossible, for a President Le Pen to organise a Frexit referendum.

Supporters of GroenLinks during react to good news on election night in Amsterdam,.
Supporters of GroenLinks - the Green party – in Amsterdam react to good news. Photograph: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/EPA

France’s constitution contains the phrase: “The Republic is part of the European Union.”

Changing that constitution requires the approval of both the lower and upper houses, plus a referendum on the change.

At present, the Front National has two of the 577 MPs in the lower house. For a majority, it would need to win 287 more in June’s parliamentary elections. (It also has two senators in the upper house, out of 348.)

Moreover, while a French president can in principle call a referendum without the backing of congress, he or she cannot do so without the permission of France’s constitutional court – which would be unlikely to give it.

And even if, against all odds, Le Pen did manage to call a referendum on France’s exit, nothing yet suggests a majority of voters would back it (or, indeed a move to abandon the euro).

Geert Wilders casts his vote.
Geert Wilders casts his vote. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

It is difficult to underestimate the strength of the psychological blow a Le Pen victory would deliver to Europe.

The bloc would be rocked to its foundations. But it is unclear how many of her EU plans she will be able to put into practice.

In Germany, similarly, the advance of the rightwing, populist Alternative für Deutschland, riding high on on Europe’s migrant crisis, once looked unstoppable. But it peaked at 15% in September and is now down to 8%.

On that form, while it may well win seats in the federal parliament for the first time, its chances of taking part in coalition talks in September look slim – especially since the larger centrist parties have refused to work with it.

However many – if any – dominos fall this year, the end of the liberal world order may not quite be nigh.


Jon Henley European affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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