Has the far-right really lost in Dutch election?

By Qiu Zhibo Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/20 11:08:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Last Wednesday, the Dutch election caught global media attention and made European politicians anxious. At last, the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), led by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, won, ahead of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV), led by the "Dutch Trump" Geert Wilders.

The Dutch election is widely regarded as an indicator for the rising populist nationalism in Europe, which may have implications on the French election next month and the German election in September. Thus, the VVD's victory is seen as a "triumph" over "Black Swans events," started with Brexit and followed by Donald Trump's election victory.

However, we have to further examine the factors and results which may reshape Dutch and broadly speaking, European politics. Did the far-right really lose the election? Despite the PVV's failure to win, the country is inevitably moving further toward the right.

A close examination of the election results reveals that it is too early to claim a total "victory." Above all, we need to familiarize ourselves with the Netherlands' complicated political system. Unlike the US' two-party system, the Netherlands is a multi-party state with over 11 major parties competing for 150 seats in the parliament. As it is rare for a single party to garner 76 seats to become a majority government, a coalition is often formed between three to six parties. This is a political system designed to deter any populist attempts. The strength of the system is high political participation and social equity and change to the political structure is unusual.

The incumbent VVD claimed a "great victory" for winning the most seats - 33, which is actually eight fewer than the previous election in 2012. It is hardly a landslide victory as we would expect in other political elections. More alarmingly, the previous second largest party, the Labour Party (PvdA), astonishingly "suffered a historic defeat" as quoted from BBC with only nine seats, a total loss of 29.

The catastrophic loss of the left-wing party is an indication that the Dutch political environment is more right-wing oriented than before. In Europe, the left-wing parties are often social democratic parties, favoring "from cradle to grave" free healthcare and education for all, including newcomers and immigrants. In the aftermath of the refugee crisis, Europe's flagship welfare states are enduring severe morality tests. People start to wonder whether it is morally sound to spend taxpayers' money on refugees' social welfare.

As reported by the mainstream media, the anti-immigration PVV "only" got 20 seats. However, in contrast to the previous election, it is a gain of five seats. Similar to the recent US election, the voter turnout rate in the Netherlands is 80.2 percent, the highest in 30 years. The PVV is followed by  the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the liberal D66 party with 19 seats each.

There are a few options for the coalition government. However, it will be dominated by conservative parties, instead of a more balanced power structure of center-right versus center-left in the previous government.

External political events, such as the Netherlands' diplomatic crisis with Turkey, also have impacted the election results. Facing the Turkish ministers' request for political rally inside the Dutch border, the incumbent VVD's leader, Rutte, held a more right-wing position against the Turkish government only a few days before the election. It has been interpreted as a more disciplined rather than tolerant approach toward the Muslim community in the country.

In recent months, more Dutch parties, including the VVD, have moved further right. For the VVD, the more right-wing conservative approach is an effective and inevitable approach to protect its electoral base, as the political agenda is dominated by the far-right party's anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. The conservative party becomes less politically correct and more populist in their words and policy positions.

Some argue that Trump's election lowered the popularity of the far-right parties in Europe. However, Trump may only be one of the factors. The ultimate reason is that the incumbent European parties are all moving toward center-right and right, in order to compete with the far-right parties. The political spectrum has, as a whole, moved toward the right.

To some degree, the far-right party has successfully dominated the political agenda and media headlines during and after the Dutch election. Furthermore, it anchored the core topic of this year's European politics and election - immigration and refugees from Muslim countries. It replaced the traditional political issues such as social welfare, EU integration, environment and human rights. Each political party in Europe now has to answer and prioritize the only urgent political concern of their voters - what to do with the refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries?

Wilders and his anti-Islam party may not have won the election; however, as a Dutch celebrity said in a CNN interview, "most other parties seem to adopt his speech and his ideas." It is not a relief for European politicians; instead, it would be actually more worrisome for these populist sentiments which seem to be unstoppable and irreversible.

The Netherlands is one of the most liberal and culturally diversified democracies in Europe. It is hard to imagine that the extremist right-wing party could gain such popularity. Prior to the election day, a CNN headline asked "Why are Dutch voters so angry?" People are confused, anxious and angry with the status quo, particularly with more immigrants from Muslim countries. Similar sentiments spread from the US to the Netherlands and more European countries.

So, where is the fear from?

It can hardly be explained from the economic perspective, that immigrants threaten the job opportunities of blue-collar workers or the social perspective, that undereducated and closed-minded countryside rednecks are more likely to oppose immigration, as it was widely "believed" in the case of Trump's victory. The situation in the Netherlands is completely different. The economy is robust and unemployment rate remains low. Furthermore, terrorist attacks are rare. So why do people still feel insecure and angry? And the fear is not only among the poor, but also well-educated middle class people. When people talk about immigration, the issue of national identity will often pop up. For some Dutch, it is quite clear. If the immigrants cannot accept the Dutch values, they should leave the country. They fear that the expanding Muslim community may jeopardize or even replace the Dutch national identity.

The Turkish community challenges the Dutch national identity, which explains why people have mixed feelings with the Muslim community. 400,000 Turks currently live in the Netherlands, and many of them have dual nationality. So they can vote in both Dutch and Turkish political elections and referendums. A few political events have made Dutch natives more suspicious of the national identity of some Turks in the Netherlands.

Last summer, over 5000 Turkish immigrants and descendants marched on the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam to show their support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with violent assaults on reporters. According to CNN, it was "a refusal of Muslim immigrants to integrate into Dutch civic life." For some Dutch voters, it proved that the anti-immigration and anti-Muslim party is right. They suspect that the Dutch-born Turks are more loyal toward Turkey rather than the Netherlands. Moreover, some Dutch worried that more Muslim immigrants will eventually make the Netherlands less Dutch.

Another factor which has been neglected by mainstream media is the daily experiences of native Dutch with refugees and immigrants on the street. Indeed, no major terrorist attack has stricken and caused severe casualty in the Netherlands. However, Dutch people are sharing their negative experiences with immigrants every day on Facebook, from robbery, thefts to unfriendly assaults on women on the street.

When we talk about extreme right-wing leaders, we often describe them as demagogue who fan the populist sentiments. However, when a country is immersed in emotions like anger and anxiety, we have to ask ourselves: do these leaders "create" their crowds or are they simply the emotional outlets of angry and anxious voters?

For liberals, it is too early to celebrate the "victory." Instead, it is vital for them to hear and understand the voices of right-wing voters, which have been suppressed and silenced for a long time. Their concerns and emotions should be addressed; otherwise, they will continue pushing other voters toward the far-right parties.

In a society of moral diversity, we might have to rethink about our definition of universal values. The current definition, as given by the West, is based solely on the progress of Western societies in the past few centuries. The definition itself is inherent, not universal, as it does not include the moral understandings shared by non-West civilizations. The refugee crisis is a good opportunity for Western society to reflect on their definition of "universal values" and broaden their understandings of people with different moral foundations. Can those "values" be adopted and shared by all people around the world? Have they ever asked about their opinions and feelings?

After all, people are, by nature, different and civilizations are created and maintained by distinguished moral value systems. We need to recognize and respect our differences, only by then can we treat each other properly and with respect in accordance with the moral standards of all sides.

The author is an independent researcher and political consultant. Previously, she worked at the UN Headquarter in New York. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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