Last week, national elections in the Netherlands drew international attention as the world waited to see if the country’s far-right Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, would mark the first major populist win in Europe. It did not. Somewhat unexpectedly, Wilder’s party lost to current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.
Wilders is perhaps the most populist of the new European populists. He has made a name for himself speaking out, sometimes outrageously, against Islam, calling for an immediate halt to Muslim immigration and denouncing the Qur’an as a “fascist book.”
Mainstream media hailed Wilders’ defeat as a sign of things to come for populist movements across the continent, especially in France and Germany, which both hold national elections this year. CNN declared, “Europe’s far-right populists fail first test.” Fortune’s headline claimed the “Dutch just stopped the advance of Europe’s populists.” French President François Hollande called it a “clear victory against extremism.”
But how true is this? Of course, the numbers don’t lie. Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom (PVV) got 12 fewer seats than Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VDD). Ostensibly, Rutte won—he’s expected to remain prime minister—and Wilders lost.
But in a broader sense, the rise of Wilders and his party, despite their election-day loss, shows how influential populism has become in Europe. As a political force, populism is here to stay.
Second Place Is a Gain for Wilders’ Party
In a parliamentary government, political change is often incremental and nuanced. It’s not a black and white, win/lose dichotomy. Look at the numbers for last week’s national elections in the Netherlands. Out of 150 parliamentary seats, Rutte’s party won 33. Wilders’ party came in second with 20 seats. Two center or center-right parties, Christian Democratic Appeal and D66, each won 19.
Wilders’ party may not have won as many seats as feared, but it did gain five. While Rutte’s VVD emerged the winner, it lost eight seats compared to the last election in 2012. This isn’t an insignificant outcome. Wilders put a dent in the VVD.
What’s more, he managed this among intense media scrutiny and, quite frankly, the most outlandish and radical anti-Islamic statements from just about any politician in Europe. Not only has Wilders called for banning the Qur’an, comparing it to “Mein Kampf,” he also wants to close mosques and has said that if Muhammad were alive today he would be hunted down as a terrorist.
Wilders’ rhetoric has gone way further than France’s populist candidate, Marine Le Pen, who has been much more careful than Wilders in how she talks about immigration and Islam. Yet Wilders’ party still came in second place.
Rutte Tacked Right to Retain His Seat
What’s more, Rutte, whose party had been trailing Wilders’ PVV in the polls for months, only began to take the lead in polling when Rutte pivoted to the right. Although he avoided any of the overtly anti-Islamic rhetoric that’s made Wilders so famous, he still emphasized Netherland’s national and cultural identity, making populist statements such as, “If you don’t like it here, you can leave,” and “Behave normally or leave”—words meant to win over Wilders supporters.
Then, just a few days before the election, a diplomatic crisis with Turkey boosted Rutte’s poll numbers by giving him a unique opportunity to demonstrate his nationalist bona fides. Rutte’s government revoked the entry of Turkey’s foreign minister and sent back another Turkish diplomat who had crossed the border from Germany, after both had declared they would speak at political rallies for Turkish expatriate voters in the Netherlands. These rallies, meant to influence an upcoming constitutional referendum in Turkey that would increase the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have been occurring throughout Europe and have been restricted in parts of Germany and the Netherlands.
This crisis gave Rutte the chance to stand up to a Muslim-majority country on the eve of the election, which appears to have improved his party’s polling and performance. A reported 86 percent of the Dutch population approved of how he handled the crisis.
While populism isn’t taking the Netherlands by storm, neither is the movement defeated. Rutte had to play to his audience to win, and that audience wants a politician with “Netherlands First” views. That’s the temperature of the country right now, and politicians like Rutte know it.
Center-Right Parties Are on the Rise
The rise of populism in the Netherlands has likewise undermined the Labour Party, which up until this election was part of a coalition government with Rutte’s center-right party. Labour lost a significant number of seats, dropping from 38 to only nine. In fact, the top four winners of the election were all center or center-right parties.
This reflects a similar phenomenon in France, where the Socialist Party is polling in fourth place behind three candidates who could all be described as center, center-right, or far-right. France’s Socialist Party is reportedly losing votes to Le Pen’s National Front party, which is taking over the Socialist Party’s traditional role of promoting economic protectionism for France’s working class.
Rather than demonstrating a clear rebuke of Wilders’ party, the Netherlands election seems to indicate a divided electorate, but one that broadly agrees that the country’s future lies somewhere on the right of the political spectrum.
We Can Predict that Predicting Will Be Difficult
What, if anything, does this predict about the French and German elections later this year? It’s hard to say. Nobody thought Donald Trump would win the U.S. election, which has led many to conclude that a similar surprise win by a far-right candidate could happen in Europe as well. Far-right candidates like Le Pen took Trump’s win as a sign that, together with Brexit, populist momentum in the West was building.
Wilders’ loss in the Netherlands might seem to contradict this. But the Netherlands is different than the United State, and France is different from the Netherlands. Each have their own histories and political landscapes that influence how voters behave, making it hard to predict the outcome of one election based on another.
Even though Wilders’ party didn’t claim an outright win, there’s no doubt that the rise of far-right parties in Europe is having, and will continue to have, a large effect on the candidates, their platforms, and the outcomes of elections throughout the coming year. Centrist politicians like Rutte will keep feeling pressure to appeal to populist sentiments, and populists like Wilders will keep gaining ground.
It would be unwise to treat the Dutch election as a bellwether for France and Germany’s elections. Nor should the Netherlands feel themselves freed from the clutches of populist nationalism. If anything, their elections indicate a country—and a continent—leaning hard to the right.