Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the free-market centre-right Party for Freedom and Democracy speaks to his supporters after the parliamentary poll results in The Hague. Picture: Patrick Post/AP
Relief as voices of moderation and tolerance win over exclusionary and xenophobic politics in The Netherlands, writes Shannon Ebrahim.

The Netherlands’ election this week was arguably one of the most important in the nation’s history. Never has Dutch politics been as fragmented. The potential for Geert Wilders' right-wing populism to garner enough votes to set the agenda would have changed the face of politics and the social fabric of the Netherlands for decades to come. A Wilders win would have also had ramifications for other upcoming European elections - in France next month and Germany in September.

We can all share a collective sigh of relief that the voices of moderation and tolerance have won over that of exclusionary and xenophobic politics, with the centre-right Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of the incumbent Mark Rutte trouncing Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV). Wilders had campaigned to close mosques, ban the Qur'an and Muslims, and called Islam an ideology of a retarded culture.

With voter turnout estimated at 81%, the highest in three decades, the Dutch electorate were mobilised and made their voices heard.

Sighs of relief could be heard across European capitals that the anti-EU candidate had lost at the polls. It was clear which way Wilders would have steered the Netherlands - having strategised with far-right French leader Marine Le Pen and the right-wing Nigel Farage of Britain. A PVV success would have been a clear boost for the fortunes of right-wing parties across Europe, which seek to pull up the drawbridges and overturn the policies of diversity and multiculturalism.

The nature of Dutch politics, which is based on proportional representation, is such that no one party ever has enough votes to form a government alone, making coalition governments the norm.

Rutte will now have to enter into negotiations with the other parties who fared well, such as the D66 and the Christian Democratic Appeal.

Although Wilders’ PVV took a substantial block of seats, none of the parties will be prepared to enter into a coalition with him to form a government.

While the forces of populism in the Netherlands may have been kept at bay for the time being, and Wilders will not set government policy, the reality remains that a sizeable portion of the electorate gravitated towards him, largely out of a sense of frustration. This strain within European politics cannot be ignored, and will surely raise its ugly head in the future.

The challenge for Dutch politicians now will be to address the root causes of this frustration and anger, and respond to it effectively.

A vote for Wilders was a way to express frustration that the working classes are not being listened to by the political elites. It is the same anti-establishment, anti-system frustration, borne of social and economic insecurity that brought President Donald Trump to power in the US. A PVV vote was also an expression of fear in losing the Dutch national identity to an increasingly multicultural society.

At the heart of the matter is that the traditional parties have been unable to protect workers, and the result is that many no longer trust the long established parties on either the left or the right. For centuries Dutch politics has been based on compromise between the political parties. But it is precisely this type of centrist compromise that has a sizeable number of Dutch voters fed up.

At the last election in 2012, the left-wing Labour Party went into a coalition with Rutte’s centre-right VVD, both leaders having campaigned that they would vote the other party out of power. But when neither party could form a government, they formed a coalition, leaving the electorate feeling that no-one was represented.

Since the 1990s, the differences between the political parties have become less and less, to the point where many can hardly differentiate their ideological differences. This has left many Dutch feeling disillusioned at a time when social insecurity is heightened by increasing levels of immigration and refugees.

This explains why Wilders was able to easily whip up support much the same way as the populist leader Pim Fortuyn did in 2002, with his hard line views on Islam and immigration. Fortuyn was the original populist who discovered there was a constituency in the Netherlands for these ideas. He became a major populist force in the country among those who felt they were not genuinely represented in the political system. After Fortuyn’s murder in May 2002, Wilders was easily able to take up the mantle of populist politics, which was on the rise across Europe.

For now the tradition of Dutch politics - which is built on compromise, moderation and a shared sense of the public good - will remain the status quo. But the undercurrents of disaffection and alienation from mainstream politics will also remain. If this constituency is not engaged the ugly face of exclusionary and populist politics could mobilise.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.

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