In Dutch Vote, First Of 3 Key European Elections, Populism Takes Second Place

Mar 16, 2017
Originally published on March 16, 2017 1:54 pm

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte dealt a sharp defeat to right-wing nationalist Geert Wilders in what was seen as the first of three electoral tests of populism on the European continent this year.

Rutte's center-right VVD party took 33 out of 150 seats in the lower house of the Dutch parliament. Wilders' Party for Freedom got 20 seats and came in second.

The left-leaning Dutch Labor Party, took a major hit, losing 29 seats. The GreenLeft Party gained 10.

A new coalition government will be formed, but most Dutch political parties have said they won't work with the Party for Freedom.

Wilders had hoped to notch a third big populist victory in the West since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union last summer and Donald Trump won last November in the U.S.

Wilders ran on an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam platform, which included vows to close all mosques and ban the Quran. He had led in the polls for nearly two years before slipping in the last week or so before the election.

"The Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said 'whoa!' to the wrong kind of populism," Rutte said Wednesday.

Still, Wilders' party picked up five additional seats in parliament — and the man known for his bleached-blonde pompadour vowed he would not go away.

"It's not the 30 seats I hoped for, but we have gained seats," Wilders said. "This patriotic spring will happen."

Even as he voted Wednesday, he warned, "The genie will not go back into the bottle."

Many Dutch who voted for parties other than Wilders' exhaled when they awoke to the news of his defeat this morning. Waiting for a bus in The Hague, Tamara Venema said she was happy to see Rutte come out on top and the Netherlands not follow the path of the U.K. and the U.S.

"I'm very glad that happened, because I was afraid Wilders would win and — after Trump and after Brexit — we were going to be the next polarized country," she said.

In the end, Wilders' policies and rhetoric – he had called Moroccans "scum" and suggested the Netherlands deport some – proved too extreme for voters in a small country that was built on foreign trade and immigration and has been traditionally viewed as liberal and tolerant.

Wilders' second-place finish also played well in European capitals. Wilders had repeatedly said he wanted to pull the Netherlands out of the EU. French President Francois Hollande called Rutte's win a "clear victory against extremism."

The next electoral battle focusing on populism will take place in France, where Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, is running for president. The first round of voting is set for next month.

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The man known as the Dutch Donald Trump was dealt a sharp defeat in elections yesterday in the Netherlands. Far-right politician Geert Wilders and his party lost out to the party led by the current prime minister, Mark Rutte. Wilders has been around Dutch politics for a long time, but he had ridden a new wave of anti-immigrant sentiment into the mainstream of Dutch politics. This vote was also seen as the first of three electoral tests of populism in Europe this year. For more, we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who is in The Hague this morning.

Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: First off, just walk us through the results.

LANGFITT: Yeah. Well, Rutte's ruling VVD party - they're kind of center-right here - they got 33 seats out of 150 in the lower house of Parliament, so they won. Wilders' Party for Freedom came in second with 20. And remember, this was after Wilders had been leading in the polls for nearly two years until his slipping in the last couple of weeks. So based on all the expectations for him, this definitely was a big underperformance.

MARTIN: So what's been the reaction in the Netherlands and beyond, around Europe?

LANGFITT: Well, of course in Holland, the vast majority of people voted against Wilders, and there was a collective sigh of relief. As you were saying, he ran this anti-immigrant, anti-Islam campaign. And when I was at the polls yesterday morning, a lot of people were very worried that he was going to win. This morning, I talked to a woman waiting at a bus here in The Hague, and her name is Tamara Wittimer (ph). And she said she was really happy to see Rutte win and happy to see that the Netherlands was not following the U.K. and the U.S.

TAMARA WITTIMER: I'm just very glad that happened because I was very afraid that Wilders would win and that we were - after Trump and after Brexit, we were going to be the next polarized country.

LANGFITT: And Wilders, you know, he also - he wants to take the Netherlands out of the European Union. So there's been relief in capitals across Europe today. French President Francois Hollande called it, quote, "a clear victory against extremism."

MARTIN: So what about the populist politicians around the EU who have also been kind of situated in the mainstream recently? How big of a setback is this for them and their movement?

LANGFITT: I think it's pretty big. You know, the next big vote - and it's far more important - is the first round of voting in France coming up in April. And we have Marine Le Pen, head of the National Front. She's been running an anti-immigrant, anti-EU campaign herself. She's been doing pretty well. And there's no question in my mind that she would have used a Wilders victory to say - hey, this is a sense of momentum. And she's not going to able to do that, you know. If you remember, of course, Trump pointed to the Brexit vote. He called himself Mr. Brexit. And so what I think you're going to see is not quite having the oomph that she'd like going into this first round.

That said, the problems that gave Wilders and populists a footing here in the Netherlands, it's not going away. There has been legitimate frustration over refugees - a lot of refugees came in here - feeling some of them got preferential treatment. And so I think that here in the Netherlands, certainly, that the ruling party and the coalition he puts together are going to have to listen to some of the voters.

MARTIN: Yeah. So just briefly - in seconds - you've been reporting in the Netherlands for more than a week now - traveling around, talking with voters. Does this result surprise you?

LANGFITT: No, it doesn't. I was just up in a town in northern Holland where a lot of - they'd opened a big refugee center in a tiny village. And I expected people to be very anti-refugee, pro-Wilders. And they weren't at all. They actually had become friends with the refugees, and they thought Wilders was way too extreme in his rhetoric.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from The Hague in the Netherlands.

Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.