2018-12-26 10:43:20 UTC
Paul Waldie - EUROPEAN CORRESPONDENT
Voters in the Netherlands have delivered a major boost to the
European Union, turning away from firebrand populism and
electing a decidedly pro-European parliament.
After weeks of bitter campaigning, Wednesdays election
delivered a blow to Geert Wilderss anti-immigration Freedom
Party and major gains for the Green Left, a pro-EU party led by
a charismatic 30-year-old with Moroccan heritage.
The clear shift toward a more centre-left Netherlands
government that embraces immigration and Europe will be a sigh
of relief for many across the EU. And it bodes well for
candidates in France and Germany who share similar beliefs and
are leading in public-opinion polls in the run-up to elections
in those countries.
Mr. Wilders had been trying to capitalize on the same forces
that led to Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Hed been
leading the polls for months, calling Moroccans scum and vowing
to close mosques, ban the Koran and pull the Netherlands out of
There had been fears across the EU that he would win the most
seats on Wednesday, causing political turmoil in the
Netherlands and bolstering the cause of far-right parties in
France and Germany. In a sign of how intense the campaign had
become, more than 84 per cent of voters turned out, a stunning
figure even for the Netherlands where voter turnout is
routinely well above 70 per cent.
But Mr. Wilderss message failed to gain much traction and the
Freedom Party was expected to end up tied with the Christian
Democrats and D66, both pro-European parties, with 19 seats in
the 150-seat legislature. And Green Left was only slightly
behind at 16 seats. However, all four were running well behind
the Liberals, who were on track to top the seat count at 31,
according to exit polls and early results.
Together D66 and Green Left will now have the largest block of
seats in parliament and both parties are expected to be part of
a coalition government with the Liberals, led by Mark Rutte,
the Prime Minister in the outgoing government.
Mr. Rutte said voters had opted not to take any risks on
someone such as Mr. Wilders. It is also an evening in which
the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the U.S. elections, said
stop to the wrong kind of populism, he said, amid a crowd of
well-wishers who gathered at a hotel in The Hague Wednesday
night to celebrate the results.
I think this is very good news for Europe, added Jeanine
Hennis-Plasschaert, a Liberal member of parliament who is the
countrys Defence Minister in the outgoing government. All of
us have been witnessing Brexit and also Trump. So I am
convinced that Germany, France and all the others with
elections coming up will be able to act accordingly.
Mr. Wilders, who lives in seclusion because of death threats,
fired off a tweet saying: We won seats! Weve passed the first
hurdle! Rutte is not rid of me yet!
And indeed there are still plenty of worries for EU leaders.
Mr. Wilderss party did win four more seats, not as many as had
been predicted only a few months ago but an indication that he
remains a powerful figure in the country with a core base of
And the two big establishment parties the Liberals and the
Labour Party suffered drops in support. The Liberals lost
nearly 10 seats while Labour went down by close to 30. Analysts
said both parties, which had governed in a coalition since
2012, had been punished for a series of austerity measures
introduced after the financial crisis that hit in 2008.
Instead, voters turned to a wide selection of other parties,
particularly the Green Left. Led by Jesse Klaver, the Greens
were heading toward quadrupling their seat total to 16, the
biggest gain of any of the 28 parties contesting the election.
Mr. Klaver, whose father is from Morocco and mother is of
Dutch-Indonesian heritage, had been cast as the counterweight
to Mr. Wilders by strongly supporting the EU and immigration.
Mr. Klaver is often compared to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
but his politics are much closer to Democrat Bernie Sanders,
whom he considers a kind of mentor.
In a brief interview this week, Mr. Klaver called Mr. Wilders
dangerous. I think we have to make sure that we beat all the
populists. Not only here in the Netherlands but all over
Europe, he said. I think its time for a new period here in
Europe. And the populists for too many years they were too
powerful and I think lets quit with it.
He and others pointed to the impact of Mr. Trump, suggesting
the U.S. Presidents election and early days in office had
turned off voters and hurt Mr. Wilders, who had aligned himself
with Mr. Trumps message.
Mr. Rutte also received a boost from a recent diplomatic row
with Turkey over the Netherlands decision to stop two Turkish
cabinet ministers from addressing a rally in Rotterdam for
Turks planning to vote in a referendum in that country on
constitutional changes. Turkeys President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
has called the Netherlands actions Nazi like and hit back
with diplomatic sanctions. Mr. Rutte won support for appearing
decisive and standing up to Turkey.
Mr. Rutte also benefited from the growing strength of the Dutch
economy. Unemployment is at a five-year low and the countrys
economy is forecast to grow by about 2 per cent this year. Over
all, the euro-zone economies have been turning around in recent
months, with unemployment falling and growth ticking up in most
of the 28 countries. That could also help lift pro-EU
candidates in France and Germany, such as En Marche! leader
Emmanuel Macron and German Socialist Martin Schulz who have
been leading in some opinion polls in their respective races.
I am relieved, but we need to continue to fight for an open
and free Europe, Mr. Schulz said Wednesday after the Dutch
results began to come out.
Judith Tesser was relieved too. She campaigned for the Liberals
and smiled broadly as the exit polls showed her party led the
seat total and was heading back into power.
People trust the things we do and they believe in our way of
working, she said, amid cheers and boisterous music at the
downtown hotel. And she dismissed Mr. Wilders, saying he is all
talk and no action.
Our people here, we are really very tolerant, she said
gesturing around the ballroom. For us, black and white,
whatever religion, everything is the same. We live together, we
share everything together, we work together. Populist people
will always be around. But for us, its just statements and
nothing more than that.