Dutch vote may have slowed the rise of the far-right, but it remains a powerful force across Europe

Associated Press — March 17, 2017

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 centre-right party garnered the largest share of parliamentary seats, blunting a challenge from firebrand Geert Wilders, who’s been called the Netherlands’ Donald Trump.

Wilders, a stridently anti-immigrant, anti-European Union figure with a trademark shock of bleached-blond hair, suffered a serious setback – but 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 anti-establishment 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.

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