Netherlands Election Aftermath: Did “Good” Prevail?
Members of the political establishment worldwide breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the results of the 2017 Netherlands National election: the conservative leaning People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) lead by Mark Rutte, the current Prime Minister comfortably had defeated far right populist Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV). The racially charged messages of fear and division offered by Wilders had seemed to falter, and the tide of populism begun with Brexit in Europe and continued with Trump in the recent US presidential election seem to stall.
Some commentators, however, have argued that this interpretation of the Dutch election might be more a result of wishful thinking than a more considered account of the events. In his article published by The Guardian, Cas Mudde argues: “There were always two Dutch elections: one in the international media, framed as the latest iteration of an overarching struggle… and one in the Dutch media, which tried to capture the full range of political developments.” While the international media seemed set on labelling the parties running as either “populist” or “establishment”, the media within the Netherlands chronicled the increased use of populist-style authoritarian and nativist rhetoric across many of the “establishment” Dutch parties.
Describing the tonal shift in the speeches of the mainstream VVD and Christian Democratic (CDA) parties, Mudde writes: “The leaders of both parties pretended to defend ‘Dutch’ and even ‘Christian’ values against an alleged threat of Islam… and their secular, leftwing fellow travelers. Even as a majority of the Dutch people worried about healthcare and the welfare state…” Seemingly cognizant of the resemblance of his campaign messages to Wilders, Rutte declared in his victory speech that Dutch electorate had put a stop to “the wrong kind of populism.” If there is such a thing as “good” and “bad” populism, and the only difference is how extreme the xenophobic and nativist views in question are, Mudde wonders if Rutte’s election using a watered-down populist message means “Wilders might have the last laugh after all.”
For Mudde, the 2017 Netherlands election was never the binary conflict between populism and establishment that the international media wanted it to be. Instead, the divisions between the parties running appeared to be the degree to which they flirted with populism. Geert Wilders the candidate was rejected even as his victorious opponents came to more closely resemble him. Ultimately, Cas Mudde’s article raises the question: was the Dutch election a rejection of populism, or an evolution of it?