European leaders need to reflect carefully about their electoral strategies if they do not want to damage the liberal, open societies they intent to protect by their own rhetoric.
By Britta Petersen*
A collective sigh of relief went through the capitals of Europe after the result of the Netherlands elections were announced earlier this month. The right-wing populist candidate Geert Wilders did not win. In fact, his one-man Party for Freedom (PVV) bagged only 13 percent of the votes and for the first time, the fire-breathing xenophobe remained mum for a while.
Instead, the conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his liberal party VVD managed to come out first again in an election that saw the highest participation of voters since 30 years: 81 percent of the Dutch people went to the polling booths.
French President Francois Hollande, whose country is next in row of elections that have the potential to change the face of Europe, said the result is “a clear victory against extremism.” Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni interpreted the vote as a loss of the “anti-EU right.”
France will vote for a new President on 23 April and while the unpopular Hollande does not even contest, the leader of the right-wing populist Front National (FN), Marine Le Pen stands a good chance to come out first. But, Wilders’ defeat has blown a hole into the narrative of a populist tsunami that could sweep the old continent after Donald Trump became president of the United States.
While European leaders are relieved for good reasons, lessons from the Dutch elections are not as straightforward as they seem; and the last thing that mainstream political parties in Europe can afford now is complacency.
Lesson #1: There is no such thing as a “domino effect” after Brexit.
True. The Dutch elections continue a trend that was visible earlier in the Austrian presidential elections, where the right-wing populist candidate lost by a whisker. This shows clearly that there is no such thing as a rush to the exit in the European Union.
Brexit remains a distinctly British, if not English phenomenon.
The large participation in the Dutch elections also shows that voters, who might have otherwise stayed at home, clearly understood what is at stake today in Europe: A political system that guaranteed peace, prosperity and freedom for 70 years.
Very few want to get rid of the EU. That does not mean they are happy with it. Dutch voters not only rejected the European Constitution in a referendum in 2005, but also an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement in 2016. While the turnout in these referenda was significantly lower than in this years’ election (roughly 60 percent in 2005 and 30 percent in 2016), a good number of people have little sympathy for what is considered as a Leviathan in Brussels and remain sceptical about further European integration.
Winning them back will require a bigger effort than most political parties in the member states have so far been willing to make. It will also require profound reforms of the European Union itself and this process has even just begun.
Lesson #2: Only a minority of voters subscribe to a far-right ideology.
Dutch voters clearly put their foot down on a further radicalisation of the political climate in their country. However, it is likely that they will keep on using right-wing populist parties as a valve to express discontent with their governments, as the disappointing result for the Dutch social democratic party PvdA shows. The coalition partner of Premier Rutte was almost annihilated with 5.7 percent of the vote (as compared to 24.8 percent in the previous elections).
While Rutte managed to convince the Dutch with a conservative programme and straight-forward crisis management vis-a-vis a belligerent Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan — who tried to woo Turkish-Dutch voters for his own constitutional referendum by lashing out against the Dutch government — the social democrats were almost invisible in the coalition and therefore irrelevant for most voters.
Lesson #3: It’s the social democrats, stupid!
This decline of the social democrats not only makes it harder for Rutte to form a new coalition government — although the green party GroenLinks gained from this development — these gains cannot compensate for the losses of social democrats because green parties all over Europe have a much weaker outreach to labour class voters who tend to vote for right-wing populists when they feel their interests are no longer represented by traditional organisations of the labour movement.
French Socialist President Francois Hollande’s lack of popular appeal is a good example how right-wing populists gain from the decline of the traditional democratic left. But, all is not lost, yet. The newly elected candidate of the German social democrats, Martin Schulz, currently rides a wave of popularity that poses a serious threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s prospects of staying in power after the German elections in September this year.
The newly elected candidate of the German social democrats, Martin Schulz, poses a serious threat to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s prospects of staying in power.
Schulz has become a credible alternative for traditional social democratic voters who feel economically threatened by globalisation by little more than personal history. His rise as a candidate from a humble family background without higher education to a serious threat to the mighty Angela Merkel has not changed the political programme of his party SPD. But, being different is already enough to breathe hope into his formerly paralysed party.
Schulz shows that many voters would be happy to vote again for social democrats if they are not perceived as part of the ruling government and present a political alternative. But, personal appeal will not be enough. Social democrats have to get out off the fold of “TINA” (There is no alternative) liberal policies that have dominated the last two decades and present programmes that suggest different political solutions to the current crisis of low economic growth and the decline of the middle class in Europe.
Lesson #4: Populists can rule Europe without governing it.
Mark Rutte might be a beacon of hope for Europe at the moment because he managed to stop the right-wing march to power. However, his success comes at a price. Throughout his election campaign, he appealed to xenophobic instincts of his voters. This culminated in a ‘letter’ to the Dutch population that contained the highly problematic appeal: “Act normally or leave!”— a tainted message for migrants. ‘Normal’ according to Rutte, means things such as shaking hands in a meeting, while it would not be considered ‘normal’ in the Netherlands to “throw garbage” and “hang out in groups.”
He certainly did not elaborate on the question what “leave” would mean for third or fourth generation migrants with Dutch passports. And he did not address the burning issue for all European societies. The question what “tolerance” actually means, after it might have become acceptable or even “normal” to be gay or a single mother. If being called Ahmed or wearing a headscarf is not acceptable, tolerance surely goes not very far. Again, that’s certainly not what Rutte said, but what everybody who wanted to understand, did.
Historian Pepijn Brandon from the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam concludes that Ruttes PVV as well as the Christian conservative party CDA have “completely taken over the language of right-wing populists.”
As a result of this development, that started long before Rutte in the Netherland with the slain populist leader Pim Fortuyn, a xenophobic discourse that was formerly taboo has become in fact a new normal. This is true for most other countries in Europe as well.
The treatment of refugees in Europe, where Angela Merkel’s initial “welcome culture” has long been replaced by a policy of deterrence and deportation, shows how the space for liberal politics has been shrinking as a result of continued anti-migration agitation.
Another field where right-wing populists are yielding enormous influence without being formally in power is support for the European Union itself. To the extent that the well known “commitment to progress towards an ever closer union among the peoples and member states of the European community” from 1981 has been all but stalled.
Lesson #5: Winning an uphill battle is not enough.
European leaders need to reflect carefully about their electoral strategies if they do not want to damage the liberal open societies they intent to protect by their own rhetoric. It is good that the right-wing tsunami has been stopped in the Netherlands. France and Germany will hopefully follow suit.
But, it is not enough to win an uphill battle. In politics, Sisyphus cannot be considered a happy man. We do not want to see the proverbial stone of liberte, egalite, fraternite that has been successfully pushed up the mountain by generations of Europeans roll down in an avalanche of frustration and fear. The aim must be to win back control over the European narrative itself that has been a story of freedom, peace, inclusion and prosperity — and needs to remain so. It is time for European leaders to say: Yes, we can!