Sam van der Staak is the Head for Europe at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
The people of the Netherlands are heading to the polls on March 15, and international attention toward the small European country is at a historic high. Will Brexit and the election of Donald Trump leave their trace on Dutch politics? Will a victory for the Dutch far right herald anti-establishment victories in France and Germany later this year, possibly bringing down both the euro and the European Union?
These fears are all understandable enough. In fact, though, a strong showing by the far right is likely to have a contrary effect. If anything, it will almost surely produce a stronger political consensus within the Netherlands.
The German poet Heinrich Heine reportedly once said “When the world ends I will go to Holland, because everything there happens fifty years later.” Not this time. Elections in the Netherlands are making waves in the English-speaking press: “Will the ‘Dutch Trump’ win next week’s election in the Netherlands?” asked The Washington Post. “Geert Wilders, reclusive provocateur, rises before Dutch vote,” warned the New York Times, referring to the firebrand leader of the Dutch far right. The Guardian asked “Can Geert Wilders be more than the Netherlands’ agitator-in-chief?” Such fears, subtly suggesting contagion from U.K. and U.S. populism, are doubly unfounded. There is hardly any perceptible ripple effect from Brexit or Trump, and Wilders, like other European populists, will fail to gain power even if he were to win the election.
First, the impact of Brexit and Trump on the Dutch appears to be negligible. To be sure, there is a large segment of pro-Wilders voters, but their presence in the political landscape is nothing new. Critics of multiculturalism have played a prominent role in Dutch politics since the early 2000s, long before Brexit or Trump. Indeed, indications are that anti-establishment sentiment came to the fore in the Netherlands long before it made itself felt in many of the other places where it is now making headlines. Even so, a poll by respected Dutch polling organization I&O last week found that only 6 percent of Dutch voters will let Donald Trump’s election influence their vote, be it for or against populist candidates.
Second, even if the far right scores a victory, this will actually change very little. Dutch society, with its 17 million people living cheek-by-jowl in a space half the size of Maine, is epitomized by an equally crowded political landscape. In this system, Wilders’ Party for Freedom could become the largest party with as little as 16 percent of the vote (he is currently polling at around 14 percent, according to the most reliable polling organization), well short of the 50 percent majority needed to form a governing coalition. As in France and Germany, Dutch mainstream parties have ruled out collaborating with the far right, making it almost impossible for Wilders to aspire to anything more than his country’s “agitator-in-chief.”
To be sure, there will be a “Wilders effect” in Dutch politics – but perhaps not in the way many overseas commentators are describing it. Paradoxically, given the country’s polarized political landscape, the result will be more, not less, consensus politics. By excluding the far right, Dutch mainstream parties have reduced the cake from which to slice majority coalitions. Together with an increased splintering of the party landscape – 28 parties are participating in these elections – the Dutch will now need a four- or five-party monster coalition to form a majority. This mutual dependence helps to explain why election campaign rhetoric – aside from that of Wilders – has thus far been mild.
If any ripple effect is therefore to emerge in Europe, it will come from the Dutch elections, not the British or American ones – and it will likely follow a similar pattern to the one just described. As in the Netherlands, the French and German electoral systems make it unlikely that populists will govern. And just as in the Netherlands, splintered party landscapes in both Germany and France will prompt greater cross-party collaboration. After all, new parties such as the social liberal Forward Party of Emmanuel Macron and the far-right Alternative for Germany have chipped away significant electoral shares from the old establishment. No party is therefore likely to gain majorities alone. This is obvious in Germany, where coalition governments are a historical reality and Merkel and Schultz are polling neck-and-neck. But it may also happen in France if the upstart leader Macron wins the presidency but his inexperienced movement fails to win a majority of the National Assembly’s 577 districts. He would have to rely on the left and the right in parliament to pass his reform agenda.
Last, European politics will face a greater leadership deficit. A Dutch prime minister who commands only 16 percent of the vote and is responsible for holding together five almost equally large parties will spend much of his time moderating and compromising. In France and Germany, parties at the center are also polling equal numbers. All political protagonists in France and Germany have worked in governments that depended on complex multiparty support and know the game of compromise. But this inevitably comes at the cost of strong policymaking, which in turn plays right into the hands of the populists. Therefore, expect to see more European compromisers-in-chief, and a backlash of even greater citizen frustration.
With populists neutralized, Frexit, Nexit or withdrawals from the euro are off the table. But the large coalitions under weaker leadership in the Netherlands, France and Germany – three of the founding members of the European Union – will further paralyze E.U. decision-making. In the months to come, observers should focus not on the doings of Europe’s populists, but on the maneuverings of the political mainstream.