Are the Elections in the Netherlands a Litmus Test for Global Populism?

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Dutch far-right candidate Geert Wilders’ PVV party has seen a slump in the polls, but, following the U.S. election, many warn of deceptive data.

By Massoud Hayoun

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Geert Wilders is guarded by police as he speaks to the crowd on March 8th, 2017, in Breda, Netherlands. (Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Next week’s Dutch general election offers particularly high stakes following President Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s vote to exit the European Union: Analysts say the outcome will indicate whether a right-wing populist wave is indeed spanning the globe.

The Dutch populist party has taken a hit, some say in response to the early fumblings of Trump’s presidency. But, following discrepancies between polls predicting the outcome and the actual results of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, many observe that numbers occasionally do lie.

Many note striking similarities between the right-wing populist contender for Dutch prime minister, Geert Wilders, and Trump—chiefly, a distaste for immigrants and a preference for Twitter over traditional media to convey unconventional policy points.

Wilders — who, unlike Trump, is a career politician — was convicted in December of inciting discrimination against Dutch of Moroccan origin with a chant at a rally calling for “fewer” of them. Weeks later, he tweeted “#2017in3words No More Islam,” causing an uproar in the international press.

That Wilders’ agenda is on the ballot is a cause for concern for the Netherlands’ communities of color and religious minorities.

“It’s actually the first time I’m kind of scared of what will happen, and that’s especially after Brexit and Trump winning the election in the U.S., and seeing what kind of consequences that had for people of color in America and globally,” says Mariam El Maslouhi, a Dutch anti-racism and women’s rights activist who co-hosts the Netherlands’ popular first podcast by women of color, Dipsaus. Maslouhi spoke to Pacific Standard on the phone from the Hague, where she is a social worker.

Wilders’ Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), which translates to Party for Freedom, has seen a slump in recent polls. The PVV was down in polls by four seats from the previous week — with a total of 25 seats in a 150-seat parliament, Bloomberg reported, citing data from Dutch pollster Peil.nl.

“About a month ago, Wilders’ PVV was seen as a serious candidate for becoming the biggest party; it would possibly become bigger than the conservative-liberal [Volkspartij voor Vrijheid party] of Prime Minister Mark Rutte,” says Ruud Koole, a political science professor at the Netherlands’ Leiden University. “About 80 percent of the Dutch population will not vote for the PVV of Wilders. Populism is important in the Netherlands, but it will not be overwhelming.”

“It’s actually the first time I’m kind of scared of what will happen.”

But the all-around unpredictability of recent Western politics—whether it was Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the U.S. presidential election, or Britons’ vote to exit the European Union—has tempered forecasting for next week’s election.

“The expectation is that he will not be doing so well, or at least not as well as was expected a few months ago. On the other hand polls have been very wrong recently when it comes to predicting the populist vote, so Wilders is hoping the same thing to happen in the Netherlands,” says Floris Vermeulen, head of the political science department at the University of Amsterdam.

The prime minister’s Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD) — People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy — has pledged not to form a coalition, with Wilders’ PVV, but some say that will hinge on whether Wilders can garner enough votes that he can’t be totally disregarded by the ruling party as it forms its coalition.

The VVD “are considered Wilders-light,” Maslouhi says. The VVD-led government approved a burqa ban in November, and, while it affected just a few dozen women across the country who wore the garment, it was seen as a lightning rod for anti-Islam sentiment.

“The prime minister has said he won’t govern with Wilders or his party, the PVV, but I frankly don’t believe him saying that because they have governed together before,” Maslouhi adds.

“Will he be so big that there will be no way to ignore him in the next coalition? If this indeed happen we can expect populist politicians and their parties to do equally well in other, more important upcoming European elections,” Vermeulen says.

Still, a Wilders loss would “lower the existing expectation of a populist wave that will hit Europe after it hit the U.S.,” says Leiden University’s Koole. France and Germany will also hold elections this year with increasingly popular populist candidates.

For now, not many in France are even paying attention to the Netherlands’ election for it to provoke a domino effect there.

“Public opinion at large in France is not really following the Dutch elections very closely,” says Karim Emile Bitar, a senior fellow at the French think tank Institut de Relations International et Stratégiques, on the phone from Paris.

“However, political analysts are following the Netherlands closely, particularly those who follow the French extreme right-wing Marine Le Pen and the National Front. There are a few similarities. People are wondering, for instance, what would happen in case Wilders is leading significantly.” Bitar highlights that, in France, center-left and center-right parties have traditionally worked together in a so-called Republican Front to bar extremist outliers from coming to power.

“The other question being followed is the question of the attitudes toward the European Union, because these elections are also sort of a referendum on whether the country should maintain close ties with the E.U.,” Bitar says, adding that Le Pen, formerly a vehement proponent for France’s exit from the E.U., seems to have softened her tone to pander to social conservative voters who worry of the potential political and economic ramifications of an exit.

A consensus on the potential meaning of the elections is unclear, Koole adds. “The dominant theme of the Dutch elections is not clear thus far: It is about identity politics related to issues like migration, refugees, the E.U., but also about social-economic concerns — age of retirement, care for the elderly, flex jobs — and sometimes a combination — Eastern European workers working in the Netherlands for much lower wages, driving Dutch workers off the labor market.”

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