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The Justin Trudeau of the Netherlands is schooling the left on how to tackle far-right populism

EPA/Robin Van Lonkhuijsen
A breath of green, fresh air.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This week’s election in the Netherlands had one clear loser: Geert Wilders and his far-right Party of Freedom, which got fewer seats than forecast. And it also had a clear winner: not only Mark Rutte, the incumbent prime minister (who could take months to stitch together a coalition government) but Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old leader of the left-wing Green Party, nicknamed “Jessiah” by his supporters.

Thanks to his passionate campaigning, the young leader—whose resemblance, in both look and demeanor, to Canada’s Justin Trudeau is uncanny—was able to bring his party from four to 14 seats in just one electoral cycle—a ”historic result,” according to the chairwoman of the Green Party, which was founded as a merger of various leftist groups, including communists, pacifists, and radicals.

During and since the campaign, Klaver’s has been a rare positive voice in a Europe beset by the apocalyptic rhetoric of the far-right. The Green Party leader, who is of Moroccan and Indonesian descent, said after the elections that his party’s strong result was a message to all of the continent’s left. “We stopped populism here in the Netherlands,” he said on CNN, “and that is good news, because of the upcoming elections in France and Germany.”

The way to beat xenophobic populism, he suggested, is to fix social and economic problems. When he spoke with Freedom Party voters, Klaver said, he found that “when you talk to them the conversation always starts with Islam, or migration, or refugees, but in a couple of minutes the conversation will turn and it’s about houses, it’s about income inequality, and it’s about the health care bill they can’t afford.”

The Green Party, he suggested, had done well because it offered a counterpoint to the right’s fear-based vision. ”I think Geert Wilders is so popular because people don’t trust center politics anymore—you saw the same in the UK with Brexit and the same with Donald Trump in the US. So what the green left has done is, there is an alternative for the center parties, but this alternative is not filled with fear and anger but hope and empathy, and true belief in the future.”

“This is the way to go ahead for the leftwing parties in Europe,” he said. “We are pro-European. We are pro-refugee. We are pro-civil society.”

Klaver’s optimism may be justified: It took him only a few months to quadruple the votes of his party, and his message stands on a clear platform. That platform is at once unapologetically leftist—it includes higher taxes on the rich and abolishing CEO bonuses—but also uncompromisingly future-oriented, with more European integration, environment-friendly policies, and “empathy” for immigrants. “That’s a problem for social democrats. Most of the time they choose to go back,” he told The Guardian about the UK’s Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, calling Corbyn’s program “back to the future.”

“That is the big difference between us,” he went on. ”We have a very modern programme and it is all doable. It is very ambitious, but we can manage it.” It’s not yet known whether the Greens will get a place in Rutte’s coalition, but their electoral success is something that Europe’s struggling left might just be able to build upon.

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