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Two cheers for democracy in the Netherlands


Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party appears before his supporters in The Hague, Netherlands, 15 March 2017. © REUTERS/Yves Herman

The Dutch election result may not be quite the unalloyed victory against the far-right that some have made it out to be, says Dinyar Godrej.

‘This was an evening when... the Netherlands said “Stop” to the wrong kind of populism,’ said a beaming Mark Rutte last night to a crowd of supporters, as it became clear that his centre-right party the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) would remain the largest in Dutch Politics and he would continue for another term as prime minister.

Much international attention had focused on the Dutch elections post-Trump, as there had been for a while the chance that an Islam-hating autocrat in the flamboyantly-coiffed form of Geert Wilders might pull off a surprise victory.

We could now breathe a sigh of relief that the far-right had been kept at bay and, predictably, approbation from European leaders followed for the Dutch populace which had rejected extremism by flinging this particular viper from its bosom.

However, what is being seen as a victory for the middle ground and good sense is a bit more complicated.

That these elections were important was underlined by the strong 80 per cent turnout , with polling hours extended in some cities to allow people to cast their votes.

The campaigning had got dominated by the three Is – Islam, Immigration and Identity. These are issues that are not usually at the top of people’s concerns when choosing which politicians they want to represent them; those tend to be more grounded matters such as social provision and job security. But obsessing on identity creates an emotional charge and the campaigning circus duly went for it.

This highjacking of the issues was a victory for Wilders whose divisive discourse of cultural panic seeped further into the mainstream. Rutte himself pulled a pre-election stunt that many interpreted as an offering to Wilders’ audience of angries by publishing an open letter that ran as full page advertisements in all the major newspapers asking immigrants to ‘behave normally or go away’.

Of course it was couched in high-minded pieties of working together to build society but the constant appeal was to ‘our values’, a pre-decided given of imagined decency that all Dutch people supposedly share which the new Dutch of immigrant origin supposedly don’t.

And what are the kinds of things that the later, according to the letter, get up to? These range from dumping rubbish on the street, hanging around in threatening groups to harassing gay people and women in short skirts and accusing the ordinary Dutch person of being racist. These people need to fit in and not reject Dutch values.

If Wilders was accused of creating ‘us versus them’ division, here was an oh-so-decent form of it. The us here were the presumed indigenous white Dutch populace who have a monopoly on decency and behave normally at all times (which sometimes extends to abusing women wearing headscarves but let’s not mention that).

The them were these foreigners (incidentally also citizens) who just refuse to assimilate and get up to all kinds of illiberal behaviour. It seemed to escape Rutte, the sitting prime minister, that unacceptable behaviour of all kinds needed condemnation and, where applicable, the enforcement of existing laws against it, not this kind of nudge-nudge wink-wink ‘we know who the decent people are’ kind of approach. But maybe this is what Rutte considers the right kind of populism where a dominant social majority lays claim to the high ground of values.

That this discourse also works against the desired social integration by reinforcing a ‘we know best’ mentality in the dominant social group should be apparent to Rutte. A far cry from the embrace of diversity needed for truly open societies. Minority groups, particularly Muslims, already suffer from well-documented discrimination in one of the areas where it hurts most – the jobs market .

But the ploy of creating a sense of victimhood within a group that has social power is an old one to try and get the more economically disadvantaged members of it onside, and thus disrupt any class solidarity that could break social boundaries.

So now we have another coalition with a predominantly centre-right make up waiting to be formed. The previous one delivered a series of cuts to public provision which is likely one of the reasons that the Dutch labour party (PvdA) got decimated in this election for being part of it. In the run up to the election Rutte suddenly pulled a bunny out of a hat by announcing that his party would allot two billion euro for care homes on the basis of the country’s economic growth. So after presiding over the filleting of care, here was a promise to graft some meat back on in the future.

Still, populism got defeated, right?

Sure, in terms of Wilders not being in the lead in a political landscape with proportional representation where many parties are in contention not just two. Yet it still says something that his party is now the second largest in the country, gaining five extra seats since the last election. And his continued role as provocateur is assured.

Rutte’s VVD actually lost more seats which could be seen as being fairly typical of a party already in power. And they actually got a late boost by a diplomatic spat with Recep Erdoğan, Turkey’s dictator in the making.

If there is a ray of unalloyed hope, it’s in the Greens (GroenLinks) registering the largest gains of any political party, a sign that the debate is not just about spurious identity politics. Though what kind of part they could play in a mainly rightwing coalition if they were in it remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, a real challenge both politically and socially will be to start washing off some of the contagion that has spread through the mainstreaming of Wilders’ hateful messages during this election.

Look out for our April edition on the theme of Populism.

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