Dutch elections: what it means for Europe

Europe is a cornucopia of cultural diversity — and so is its populism. Now the results of the Dutch polls on 15 March show that also its political variety can be an asset when immigration and a crisis of the religious and cultural identity top the campaign themes.

In Europe all eyes were on the 18.6 million nation in the early hours of Thursday when the final distribution of the 150 seats in the Parliament were released. With 374 e diciamo municipalities scrutinized over 388, the leaders of the 28 parties running were: the incumbent liberal VVD with 33 seats down from 41; the far-right PVV party far from the forecasted 26 but still with 20 up from 15; the Christian Democrats and the Democrats 66 both again with 19 seats each; the Socialist Party with 14; the Labor Party PvdA with only 9 seats from 38; and the Green Party with 14 seats up from only 4. It will take some heavy lifting to patch together a governing coalition.

What gave, however, this election an importance that it would not have had otherwise in one of Europe’s oldest and most "boring" democracies reflected in a turnout as high as 77,7%?

Firstly, meet Henk and Ingrid. For the Dutch, it is a way of referring not just to the man and the woman on the street, but to those living hand-to-mouth, to the ordinary and forgotten Dutch that couldn't be more invisible to the élites. Geert Wilders, the one-leader of the one-man far-right Party for freedom (PVV) campaigned hardly to garner their support.

In Spijkenisse, in mid-February, Wilders toured the small town followed by a swarm of journalists from all over, to whom he explained in English the simple message he was delivering to the Henks and the Ingrids who went about their business in the marketplace, pausing as he came by to listen or shoot a selfie. "If you want to regain your country, make the Netherlands your own home again, then you can vote only for one party, the PVV.”

Regain from whom? "In Rotterdam one in seven people is Muslim — there are mosques, Islamic schools — [for them] women are less than men (…) We are proud of having gay marriages, women's rights — How do you break that? You bring in Muslim immigrants who don't' share our values (…) How could I be spreading hatred if I want to prevent that gay marriage is brought back to zero? What is true is that you have countries where they kill gay people".

The Henks and the Ingrids are those religious Dutch who feel that their traditional and homogeneous communities — in terms of values, ethnicity and Christian religion — have long started to morph into a multi-ethnic and secular society in which they feel strangers.

The gap runs between big cities and rural and small-towns Netherlands, and overlaps with that between the Protestant or secular Northern and the Catholic Southern municipalities. "The mentality in the South is different. A 90% of the people there are Christian, mostly Catholic," said to Eastwest Jo Senden, a financial professional who grew up in a southern town.

 "After mining began to be abandoned in the 60s, Holland — then one of the six EU members — converted the South to an industrial economy — steel and automotive (BAF, and then Volvo, Mitsubishi, BMW, etc.) — and succeeded in putting back to work the unemployed. Holland paid a high price for that conversion, which yielded, however, an enormous economic advantage in the following decades. But now the young are leaving for the North.”

Eindhoven, where Philips was founded in 1891, is a vibrating hub of technological innovation attracting talent from elsewhere in the Netherlands, Europe and non-European countries. Here immigration is not an issue as it is in the rest of the South, "where people used to work in factories, be kind and smiling, and take care of each other, helping each other in the community, until a number of Turkish people arrived. Now there are classrooms with only three Dutch children."

A local observer explained to BBC that in those municipalities one can tell who votes for which party by observing the houses. "Those with bikes with baskets parked outside vote left. The ones that now have shutters vote predominantly for PVV."

Paradoxically, what could have been a turning point for Wilders played into the incumbent’s hands. Only five days before the election, Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan sent two of his Ministers to the Netherlands to canvass Turks living there ahead of a referendum designed to grant him more power.

Fearing that rallies of Turkish immigrants could bias voters — towards the extreme-right — the government chose to forbid the presence of Erdogan's ministers in the country. Mr. Rutte's tough stance against Erdogan’s propaganda lead to clashes between Turkish demonstrators and the police, but helped him regain the support of many prospective PVV voters, who might have not liked so much Mr. Wilders’ anti-EU and anti-euro positions, and the fact that “he did not have a program”, as Mr. Senden recalled.

The lesser than expected support for PVV, with a very high turnout parly likely to offset it, should not hide the complexity of the immigration issue in the Netherlands. Over 80% of the Dutch people expressed some concern over immigration, and half argued that African migrants should be returned to their countries of origin.

“The Dutch seem to be less concerned than their European counterparts with migrants’ ethnicity, skills and qualifications, but they are among the top five European countries in demanding that immigrants learn the native language and adopt Dutch customs,” reads a study by scholars at the Florence European University Institute. It is not that the Dutch are turning against immigration,” the study concludes, but rather that "the salience of the immigration issue what has been driving support for Wilders."

According to Dutch writer and historian Ian Buruma via the New York Times, “the Dutch have long prided themselves on being the most tolerant, most progressive, most enlightened country in the world, a beacon of multiculturalism, a haven for pot smokers, a place where gay equality and the right to euthanasia were championed, and immigrants and refugees from all parts of the world were welcomed.”

That description applies, however, best to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, and in fact in Amsterdam won the Green Party. Its young leader, Jesse Klaver, who many liken to Canada's Justin Trudeau, was the real winner in this polls. "Watch for him, because many young people will vote for his party," said Mr. Senden a few hours before the polls. Few expected, though, that he would more than triple the seats.

There was surprise among the green supporters, deception among Wilders’ nationalists and relief that his anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-EU did not progress more. “The Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American election, said No to the wrong kind of populism,” said acknowledging victory Mark Rutte on Wednesday night.

But Europe be advised: important electoral themes like immigration should "not be defused with economic or political palliatives", or the toll paid will be politically unstable governments and societies.


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