Relief! The Dutch voted against xenophobe populism. A clear victory against extremism, Francois Hollande called it. The nationalist Geert Wilders didn’t win. That’s what’s making the rounds. The fact that Wilders didn’t become the strongest party in town is significant. But let’s not drink too much of that Kool-Aid.
The closed-society populists didn’t per se lose. Wilders defined this election. He was front and centre of it. Issues of immigration, globalisation and Europe dominated the campaign discourse. And other parties rushed to join in, moving more to the right. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s open letter, where he told immigrants to “doe normaal” (act normal) or go away, went in that direction.
Wilders won seats, the government parties lost seats. Labour tanked in this grand coalition. It lost around three-quarters of its seats, while the liberals lost eight. Now, Wilders PVV is the second largest party. It will be the parliament’s main opposition.
So this election didn’t stop the populists in their tracks. It slowed them down. It bought time. Time that will have to be used to win back the disenfranchised, dissatisfied and disillusioned. And this in a time where the political landscape is more fragmented than ever. Thirteen parties are entering the parliament. The new government is likely to be a coalition of four to six different parties. Agreeing on and sticking with an agenda for change will be difficult. But it’s imperative.
The election showed that politics is becoming political again. The field is wide open. Yes, it always was a bit more so in the Netherlands with its culture of multi-party government. But all over Europe we are witness to this phenomenon. Grand coalitions and the constant battle for the middle ground – with centre-right parties flirting left and centre-left parties flirting right – have drained politics. If everyone’s huddled in the centre, the extremist fringe looks like the only alternative.
Second, the election proved again that national elections are becoming more European. This election was a European election. All of Europe watched it, all of Europe discussed it, and Europe was part of the election debate. It also saw a record turnout of Dutch voters abroad. Twice as many Dutch from abroad voted in this election compared to 2012.
More importantly, however, it showed again that you can mobilise and motivate voters with a clear open-society, pro-European, constructive patriotic orientation. This pattern is hardening. Van der Bellen did it. Jesse Klaver just did it (almost quadrupling the Greens’ seats in the Dutch election). Macron is doing it. During the week of the Dutch election he went to Berlin with a pro-European message. And the Social Democrats in Germany are trying to do it. The Pulse of Europe citizens’ initiative demonstrates that people care about Europe and are willing to stand up for Europe. EU flags aren’t just swung in Ukraine. They are now swung every Sunday at 2pm in countless European cities, where citizens make their voice heard for a strong European Union.
This is part of the recipe on how to win elections currently – bringing together an open, tolerant, empathetic, pro-European vision with a grounded, civic, positive pride in your own country’s culture and way of life. It’s bringing together the outside and inside and forming it into an “us, together”. It’s a positive vision against the negative vision of the populists. And in doing so, it follows the advice of the great Dutch humanist Erasmus, namesake of the European student exchange programme: “Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.”