It was with a sigh of relief that the world’s progressives greeted the Dutch general election results on March 15, exactly one week ago. The international press had descended on The Hague to see if the openly Islamophobic, EU-hating, far-right leader Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) would further the dawn of populism in Europe. Despite “the Dutch Donald Trump’s” strong early lead in the polls, however, current prime minister Mark Rutte came out ahead by a decent margin.
“The Netherlands says ‘ho’ against the wrong kind of populism,” Rutte told a blissful crowd of supporters of his center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) party. Meanwhile, the international press rejoiced: The land of windmills, tulips, and tolerance had broken a worrying global trend. Europe could sleep quietly tonight. And so did this Dutch journalist.
Waking up in Amsterdam the next morning, however, I couldn’t help but feel a nagging discomfort. Wilders’ Party of Freedom did not become the biggest in the election—which Rutte had christened the “quarterfinals” of European politics, comparing it to the political “semifinals” and “finals” in France and Germany later this year. But in reality the country hadn’t actually stopped the “wrong kind of populism” he was talking about. And that may not bode well for the rest of Europe.
After months of media hype about what would happen if a xenophobic extremist like Wilders won the election, it’s not surprising that any other outcome was so quickly heralded as a victory. In reality, Wilders won 20 of the total 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives (gaining five seats extra, growing his party’s representation by a third).
Crucially, to counter Wilders, mainstream conservatives had to mimic his populism. Parties like the center-right VVD and the Christian CDA jumped on the train of conservative identity politics. Prime minister Rutte recently told people who do not follow the rules in the Netherlands to “act normal or leave” in a public letter. Meanwhile, the leader of the CDA Sybrand Buma said he wants to introduce the Dutch national anthem at school and limit immigration.
What’s more, two new parties were able to gain traction in this election, further polarizing society in the process. The first is an anti-European, nativist movement called the Forum for Democracy (FvD). Supported by the Dutch alt-right, the FvD is often considered an intellectual alternative to Wilders. Its leader, the controversial 34-year-old Thierry Baudet, has a PhD in law and the academic heft to intellectually underpin his extreme right views. Quite recently he talked about the “homeopathic dilution of the Dutch people,” a potential allusion to racial theories popularized by the Nazis. Baudet’s party got nearly 190,000 votes last week, resulting in two seats in the House of Representatives.
The second new party is Denk (Dutch for “Think”), representing mostly Dutch voters of Turkish or Moroccan heritage who feel marginalized by the current political climate. Denk officials blocked journalists from their door on election night, and still refuse to condemn the behavior of Turkish president Recip Erdoğan, who recently called the Dutch Nazis and fascists. The party won three seats this election.
The latter example obviously is not part of the Dutch shift to the right. But it does show a concerning trend in which minorities isolate themselves from the rest of society. Predictably, the party has also become a target for Wilders; it represents a very useful tool during tirades about the evils of multiculturalism.
With the afterglow of election night fading fast, Europeans need to be honest with themselves: The Dutch election was a pyrrhic victory and nothing more. On CNN, young Green Left party leader Jesse Klaver claimed that Dutch had stopped far-right populism in The Netherlands. But these kinds of exclamations are not only naïve, they’re dangerous.
Yes, Klaver’s progressive Green Left party did gain a lot of support (they went up from four to 14 seats). But the Dutch left in general got crushed (the Labour Party went from 38 to nine seats).
Don’t get me wrong: for progressives worldwide, it’s undisputedly good news that Wilders at least did not win the election. But populism and polarization clearly did. And going forward, it’s likely that other European progressives will be faced with a similar Sophie’s choice: Compromise your values in order to keep conservative voters, or stick to your original platform and possibly lose.
In Germany, the Eurosceptic, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party might get 10% of the votes according to recent polls, nearly twice as much as it did in the last federal election. According to the AfD platform, Islam does not have a place in Germany, and the party’s leader wants to shoot migrants who try to cross the border illegally.
The AfD doesn’t have nearly the support of the leading Christian CDU. But there is enough populism in the air that even German chancellor Angela Merkel—the new leader of the free world—said in December 2016 that she favors a burqa ban. This is the same leader who, in 2015, decided to welcome over a million refugees using the famous slogan “Wir schaffen das”—,“We will make it happen.”
At the same time, France’s conservative Republicans appear to trying to beat Marine Le Pen’s extreme right National Front party at their own game. The party picked François Fillon as its leader—a man who thinks that the European Union is inefficient and useless and believes that France is not, and should not be, a multicultural society. A corruption scandal involving government jobs for his family may have dimmed Fillon’s chances of winning, but that fact that this hardliner is the “center right’s” candidate speaks volumes about the state of French politics.
Yes, optimists would point out once again that in both these countries progressives have also been re-energized recently, just as they have been the Netherlands. In Germany, the left wing candidate Martin Schulz—a former president of the European Parliament—attracts thousands of young voters to his rallies. In the meantime, the young French progressive Emmanuel Macron holds a slight edge over Le Pen. His pro-European, liberal, and inclusive message also prevailed in last Monday’s debate: “The trap you are falling into, Madame Le Pen, with your provocations, is to divide society. To make four million people who’s religion is Islam enemies of the Republic.”
But even if Schulz and Macron win both their elections, the damage may already have been done. Across the continent, extreme right populist views have been normalized by the political establishment in effort to protect mainstream votes. And so there is no reason to assume this shift in politics won’t continue for the foreseeable future.
Follow Christiaan Paauwe on Twitter at @Chrisatepaauwe. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.