World

Relief washes over European leadership after Dutch vote

Populist leader Geert Wilders applauded his party’s second-place finish.

JERRY LAMPEN/EPA

Populist leader Geert Wilders applauded his party’s second-place finish.

LONDON — The sighs of relief among the European leadership were almost palpable Thursday after Dutch voters turned out in record numbers to deny the populist leader Geert Wilders victory in an election seen as a barometer of far-right nationalism’s appeal on the Continent.

In the first electoral test in Europe since Americans voted in Donald Trump as president, Wilders, a professed “Dutch Trump,” did worse than expected, as many voters rejected his cocktail of feel-good nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and antipathy for the European Union.

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Instead, the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who adroitly co-opted Wilders’s tough line on immigration without cleaving to its extremes, won the most votes. Rutte’s party lost seats but remains the largest bloc in parliament.

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called it “a good day for democracy.” Her chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, was somewhat less restrained, writing in Dutch on Twitter: “Netherlands oh Netherlands you are the champion!”

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That the appeal of populists might be declining had been foreshadowed in presidential elections in Austria in December, when voters rejected Norbert Hofer, a leader of the far-right Freedom Party, which has Nazi roots, in favor of the more soft-spoken, 73-year-old former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen.

Analysts said the British vote to quit the European Union, known as Brexit, and the ascent of Trump had led many Dutch voters to weigh their options more carefully, and might have motivated more moderates to get to the polls. Rutte himself offered that theory on the night of the election.

Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a London-based research organization, said the “Trump factor” had played a role in “making people think twice about voting for a populist, as people have seen that if you elect a populist you can get all kinds of wacky policies.”

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“At the same time,” he added, “we have seen a drop in populism in Europe since Brexit, as citizens have realized that, while a protest vote is fun, it can lead to the uncertainties of Brexit, which are not funny at all. That helped shift the mood in the Netherlands.”

The turnout in the Dutch elections was astonishing: about 82 percent, among the highest in decades. That was in sharp contrast to the 32 percent of voters who turned out in a referendum last April that rejected closer ties between the European Union and Ukraine.

The vote in the Netherlands was seen as a test of the political winds leading up to critical elections in France and Germany, where far-right parties have sought to capitalize on anti-immigrant sentiments and on a growing anger against the status quo.

According to an unofficial tally by the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation, Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy won 33 of the Dutch parliament’s 150 seats, while Wilders’s Party for Freedom came second with 20 seats.

In a post on Twitter, Wilders gave a positive spin on the results, writing: “We were the third largest party of the Netherlands. Now, we are the second largest party. Next time we will be number one!”

In his victory speech, Rutte praised his compatriots as having avoided the populist trap that ensnared the United States and Britain.

“The Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said ‘Whoa’ to the wrong kind of populism,” he said.

In France, where the rise of Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader, has sent shudders through the establishment, President François Hollande saw the Dutch vote as a “clear victory against extremism.”

For all the celebrations, however, analysts warned that it was premature to herald the death of populism in Europe, saying that many local factors made it hard to extrapolate the direction of coming elections on the Continent.

Wilders offered a particularly incendiary and extreme version of populism, experts said. He railed against “Moroccan scum” and called for the banning of the Koran, which he compared to Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Those views seem to have been too much for many in a country with a deeply embedded tradition of social liberalism and tolerance.

By contrast, Le Pen has tried, at least on the surface, to moderate the tone of her message to appeal to more mainstream voters.

In the Netherlands, Rutte also capitalized on a last-minute spat with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after ministers from that country were barred from campaigning among Dutch voters of Turkish ancestry for a referendum on the strengthening of Erdogan’s powers. Rutte’s nationalist credentials were buttressed by having confronted the Turkish president.

Even if Wilders had been able to win a plurality of the seats, he would have faced little chance of assembling a government. In the Dutch system of proportional representation, as many as 13 parties could have positions in the 150-seat lower house of parliament, and mainstream Dutch parties had vowed not to form any coalition with Wilders’s group.

While the Dutch election was a welcome relief to Europe’s battered elites, they were still far from declaring that the tide had turned.

Grant, of the Center for European Reform, said that the twin challenges of immigration and suspicion of the European Union as an emblem of economic austerity continued to fan the fires of populism on the Continent.

Looking ahead, he said that his biggest existential fears for the European Union resided not primarily in France or in Germany but in Italy, where the populist Five Star Movement, which wants to hold a referendum on abandoning the euro, appears to be gaining in appeal.

Unlike Wilders’s Party for Freedom, the Five Star Movement is not wedded to ideology, left or right, and is not so viscerally anti-immigrant.

“If the Five Star were to win in Italy, that would have serious consequences, as they could lead to Italy leaving the euro and destabilizing the eurozone,” Grant said.

Warning against premature glee among liberal internationalists over the Dutch results, he noted that immigration problems and economic challenges in Europe were not going to disappear.

“Moderates have won a battle,” Grant said. “But the war will continue for years and years.”

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