First came the sighs of relief — and now come hard questions. Has the march of far-right populism in Europe been halted? Or is it still a force to be reckoned with?
Congratulations poured in Thursday from leaders across Europe after Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right party garnered the largest share of parliamentary seats, blunting a challenge from firebrand Geert Wilders, who’s been called the Netherlands’ Donald Trump.
But Wilders, a stridently anti-immigrant, anti-European Union figure with a trademark shock of bleached-blond hair, still drew substantial support in Wednesday’s vote, with his party scoring the second-largest bloc of parliamentary seats.
The vote in the Netherlands had been closely watched as a potential bellwether. Elections are set later this year in France and Germany, where antiestablishment populists have also surged to greater prominence over the past year — a phenomenon driven in large measure by anxiety over immigration from Muslim-majority countries.
“I think the lesson from this election is that the mainstream can stop the populist rise, but they have to take seriously the concerns of the populists, and they have to address them,” said Pieter Cleppe of the European Union policy think tank Open Europe.
The series of European votes comes against the backdrop of an increasingly bitter public row between Europe — the Netherlands in particular — and its NATO ally Turkey, a consequential clash that could portend a split over the very issue most roiling Europe: refugees and migrants.
Analysts point to the fact that far-right figures like Wilders do not necessarily need electoral victories to influence policy and inflame public sentiment. He is expected to remain in his role as a flame-throwing outsider, neither seeking a role in the governing coalition to be formed, nor being courted for one.
Rutte, expected to lead the next Dutch government, portrayed the vote as a rejection of what he called “the wrong kind of populism.” Wilders had derided Moroccans living in the Netherlands as “scum,” called for the country’s borders to be closed to asylum seekers and demanded a ban on the Koran.
But during the campaign, Wilders was seen as moving the needle on political discourse, a pattern likely to continue.
Over the past week, Rutte took a hard line against Turkish politicians holding rallies in the Netherlands aimed at wooing support from the 400,000 Turks in residence, many of them eligible to vote in Turkey’s constitutional referendum next month.
Wilders took credit for forcing the government to take a stand and keep the Turkish ministers away, and the Dutch daily newspaper Trouw in turn cited an assist from Ankara in helping Rutte’s party win the largest share of votes.
Turkish officials offered sour non-congratulations. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, denied permission to go to Holland over the weekend for a rally, said in comments carried by the Anadolu news agency that there was no difference between Rutte’s party or that of the “fascist” Wilders.
“They are of the same mentality,” the Turkish minister said. Turkey has already threatened to abrogate a pact with the European Union that vastly slowed the migrant influx via its territory.
Commentators predicted the immigration issue will continue to be divisive and high-profile, both in the Netherlands and campaigns elsewhere. During the campaign, Rutte unleashed his strongest language yet regarding assimilation by Muslim arrivals, admonishing them in an open letter this year to either act “normal” or leave.
An election triumph for Wilders would have been read as an ominous portent for the European Union, still shaken by Britain’s vote in June to exit the 28-member bloc. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warmly praised the Dutch result as a victory for “free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe” and declared the result “an inspiration for many.”
This was the first European election to take place following Britain’s “Brexit” referendum and also the first since Trump rode an antiestablishment wave all the way to the White House. Rutte painted his country’s vote as bucking an international trend.
“After Brexit, after the U.S. elections, the [Dutch] people have said no,” he said.
That theme was quickly picked up in congratulatory messages. In France, where the far-right National Front has gained in popularity, President Francois Hollande called the Dutch result a “clear victory against extremism” in all its forms.
"The values of openness, respect for others and a faith in Europe’s future are the only true response to the nationalist impulses and isolationism that are shaking the world,” said Hollande, a Socialist who is not seeking reelection, due at least in part to his deep unpopularity.
In Germany, where elections are scheduled for September and the far-right Alternative for Germany could win seats for the first time, Chancellor Angela Merkel warmly congratulated Rutte, calling the vote a “good day for democracy.” Her chief of staff described the Netherlands as a “champion.”
With 95% of the vote counted, Rutte’s People's Party for Freedom and Democracy looked set to secure 33 of the 150 seats in parliament, with Wilders’ Freedom Party coming in second with 20 seats, a gain of five over its 2012 tally.
But Wilders struck a defiant note, calling his showing a sign of his movement’s growing strength.
"We are not a party that has lost,” he said. “We gained seats. That’s a result to be proud of."
That emphasis on an improved performance was echoed by far-right allies elsewhere in Europe.
“It’s a real success,” Nicolas Bay, secretary-general of Le Pen’s National Front, told French radio.
Party leaders began coalition talks Thursday, but the process was expected to be a protracted one, with Rutte needing to find at least three partner parties to secure a majority of seats and form a government.
In all likelihood, Wilders’ voice will continue to be heard.
“He wants to influence the debate and, indirectly, policy,” Cleppe said. “His struggle was to try to influence politics from the opposition — to a certain extent, that’s working.”
Special correspondent Boyle reported from London and Times staff writer King from Washington.