Hans Brinker and the Dutch election: Populist nationalists lose, but also win.

Author:Lucardie, Paul

Has the Dutch voter, like the legendary Hans Brinker, saved us all by putting his finger in the dike to stop the wave of nationalist populism engulfing the Western world? A superficial glance at the results of the March 15 election for the Dutch lower house of parliament (Tweede Kamer) might suggest that. Whereas many polls and pundits had predicted that the Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV) led by Geert Wilders would gain close to 30 seats (out of 150) and become the largest party in parliament, in fact PW obtained only 20 seats, much fewer than the Liberal Party (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, WD) (see table 1).

A closer look, however, reveals that the picture is rather more complicated. Parties at both ends of the nationalist-to-cosmopolitan spectrum did well in the election, at the expense of parties that either defended the status quo or took an ambiguous middle-of-the-road position on this spectrum. Nationalist parties sought to protect national identity and sovereignty, restrict immigration and strengthen national defence and security, whereas cosmopolitan parties worried more about climate change, solidarity with refugees, diversity, privacy and civil liberties. Nationalism isn't necessarily combined with populism, but it can be, as in the case of the PVV.

Issues such as Dutch identity, immigration and integration dominated much of the campaign. According to the polls, citizens regarded these as the most important political problems at the end of 2016, though they were closely followed by health care, income and job security, and governance. (1) If economic issues had gained priority, the outcome could have been quite different. After all, the Dutch economy was in better shape in March 2017 than at the time of the last election in 2012: the Gross Domestic Product was rising again, while unemployment and the public deficit were shrinking. Yet the two parties that had formed a coalition in 2012, the WD and the Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA), and--against the expectations of many observers--had managed to resolve their conflicts and provide a stable and relatively effective government, both suffered serious losses.

The (rather conservative) WD remained the largest party and lost fewer seats than expected, possibly because of the firm way its leader, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, handled the diplomatic conflict with the Turkish government in the weekend before the election. When a Turkish minister went to...

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