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Cause for Concern: Why We Shouldn’t Feel Relieved After the Dutch Elections

By Adam Ostolski

Far from being a cause for celebration, the results of the Dutch elections demonstrated that the ideas and rhetoric of the populist Far-Right are gaining ground in terms of political influence, and that the power of those opposing them, on the Left and Centre, is diminishing. Rather than denied, this reality needs to be recognised and tackled head-on.

No sooner had polls in the Netherlands closed than cries of relief started to flow from all over the continent. Contrary to the predictions, the Far-Right did not come first in the electoral race. Pundits and politicians of different countries and convictions celebrated the victory of the establishment over the populist threat. French President François Hollande congratulated the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, on the occasion of his “clear victory against extremism.” A step further went Paul Krugman, feeling justified to reconsider his understanding of the rise of Trump in the following tweet: “Given the Dutch election: maybe Trump product not of unstoppable populist wave but of media hype over email pseudo-scandal and FBI malfeasance.”

This is only a sample. Many similar voices appeared, in traditional and social media alike, affirming that a catastrophe was evaded, that the populist wave was finally halted, or even that there had not been any populist wave at all.

Admittedly, there are some causes for celebration for progressives. In particular, the great success of the Green Left party gives a clear answer to the question “Has the future got a Left?” (as the late Zygmunt Bauman had put it). But the big picture is anything but reassuring. There are at least three serious reasons not to be relieved with the results of the Dutch vote.

First, far from being a “clear victory” against, or a halt to “the wrong kind of populism,” as Mark Rutte himself put it in his victory speech, the electoral campaign was an opportunity for the right-wing populists to advance their cause. And advance it they did. Geert Wilders did not come first in the electoral race, to be sure, but he succeeded in imposing the tone and topics of the debate. Taking into account that Wilders could not realistically expect participation in government, he gained something more important than seats and office. By forcing Rutte to adopt much of his anti-immigrant rhetoric, Wilders secured greater legitimacy for both his policies and politics. As a growing body of evidence suggests, efforts to ‘contain’ the Far-Right by adopting parts of their message by mainstream parties of the Centre-Right and Centre-Left alike are not likely to succeed. Neither UKIP nor the Front National have built their position in the national politics of their countries by winning seats in national parliaments. The credit for much of their success goes to the mainstream parties trying to contain them by way of imitation.

A fertile ground for the right-wing populists to succeed requires at least two conditions. First, growing discontent on the part of important groups in society affected by welfare cuts and a loss of control over their lives as a result of globalisation. Second, a legitimate discourse connecting this discontent with the threat of ‘others.’ It has to be noticed that Rutte provides not only the latter, but also, and more importantly, the former, especially in the area of pension and healthcare cuts. If there is a demand for a good kind of populism to combat the wrong one, Rutte’s is not the one we need.

The second reason for concern is that the political representation of the Left has shrunk. Instead of four left-wing parties with 59 seats the Tweede Kamer (or should it be House of Representatives? J.) has now five parties with 45 seats. The well-deserved gains of the Green Left did not make up for the losses of the Labour Party (PvdA) who just had to pay the bill for the participation in Rutte’s government. Deserved as it may seem, the apparent “PASOK-isation” of social democrats is no good news. Certainly, the lessons from both the Dutch parliamentary elections and the Austrian presidential election last year are clear: it is a green, progressive, bold, and unapologetic alternative which is able to stop the forward march of far-right. But, as we have also seen in Austria, in order to really be able to do it, the Greens will need allies, better strong than weak ones.

The third, and most important, reason not to be relieved with the result of the Dutch election are those who are relieved. In times like ours, there is nothing more depressing than untimely consolations. Believing that the Far-Right lost the election, that the populist wave was halted, or that there had not ever been a populist wave in the first place, is a refusal to confront the seriousness of the challenge. Foreign Policy magazine went as far as to announce the existence of a “reverse domino effect” in Europe, wherein isolated populist victories (Trump, Brexit) remain insular insofar as they act as a sobering factor on voters in other countries. Admittedly, support for the European Union membership has grown in a couple of countries in the wake of Brexit. Arguably, the victory of Trump might have helped to mobilise voters in Austria to rally behind Van der Bellen. But there is no such general law as a “reverse domino effect” – this is just a wishful fantasy, exactly like the original hypothesis of a “domino effect” was just a fearful one.

Right-wing populism can be stopped only if some parts of what it represents, albeit in a distorted way, are taken seriously: the need for social protection and the demand for genuine democratic agency. For now, it seems the establishment all over Europe has chosen otherwise: to emulate right-wing populists and try to learn and speak their language about immigration and minorities, while effectively not addressing any of the legitimate concerns underlying their support. The Dutch election, and particularly the last years’ elections in Austria, do indeed provide some instruction on how to combat right-wing populism. But an earnest decision must be first made to fight it back, not to explain it away.