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As Dutch vote splinters, Greens rise with youthful leader

Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders of the PVV, left, and Jesse Klaver of the Green Left party look for their seat during a meeting at the House of Representatives in The Hague on March 16. (Michael Kooren/Reuters)
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AMSTERDAM — The Dutch Justin Trudeau. The Dutch Barack Obama.

A perceived resemblance to heroes of the global liberal left lifted the ambitious and charismatic leader of the Green Left Party to new prominence in Wednesday’s election in the Netherlands, the first in a series of decisive European contests this year. As a populist, anti-immigrant message gained favor among many voters, others were searching for an alternative. They found one in Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old son of a Moroccan father and a mother of Indonesian descent.

Geert Wilders vows to remain key player in forming new Dutch government despite 2nd-place finish

Klaver asked voters to embrace immigrants and refugees, and to look toward European institutions as a solution to the continent’s ills.

Those who were willing to do so, mainly in the country’s bigger cities and immigrant communities, rewarded him with about 10 percent of the vote, according to election returns. A sizable share of that came from the capital, where Green Left was the favored party. The fifth-place finish overall will increase the Greens' clout in the Dutch parliament, where they are expected to go from having four seats to 14. The ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) will remain the largest party, though it suffered some losses, and will need the cooperation of several additional groups to form a government, which requires a simple majority of 76 seats.

Klaver’s success was a bright spot for progressives in an election that otherwise ratified a conservative platform, most notably dealing a decimating blow to the Labor Party. Currently the second-largest party and a governing partner of the VVD's Mark Rutte, Labor will see its power contract, probably to fewer than 10 seats.

Populists were dealt a blow in the Dutch elections. Here's what it means for the country and Europe. (Video: Michael Birnbaum, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

“Klaver did really well among a minority group — a group of progressive young people who are optimistic about the future,” said Wouter van der Brug, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam. “But the majority is conservative, and the big story here is a shift to the right.”

Van der Brug predicted that the Greens would not enter government in partnership with the VVD, saying disagreements over the environment and egalitarian social policy were too severe. He suggested that Rutte might look instead to the Christian Democrats and the left-leaning Democrats 66, as well as to several smaller parties.

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Bram van Ojik, a former leader of the Greens poised to return to parliament after Wednesday’s strong showing, celebrated the victory as he made his way to The Hague, where party leaders were beginning coalition talks.

“We are the big winner of the election,” van Ojik said. “There’s no other party that gained so many seats as we did, so we will certainty be ready to engage in dialogue with the others.”

Meanwhile, some of Klaver’s supporters said they did not want to see him compromise his ideals for the sake of a coalition. They fear the same fate as Labor, a long-standing social-democratic party punished for countenancing a conservative governing mandate.

The Green Left Party emerged three decades ago in an affiliation of communists, pacifists, radicals and evangelicals. Klaver took control in 2015, just five years after entering national politics as a Green candidate for parliament. Before that he was involved in youth politics, focused on green issues.

“I think they would be better in the opposition,” said Veerle de Jong, a Green voter and a literature student at Utrecht University.

Jos de Groot, a journalism student at the University of Amsterdam, said Klaver would “think twice” before partnering with Rutte, “seeing what it has done for the Labor Party to rule with him.”

The students said they were drawn to Klaver’s inclusive and optimistic message, though de Jong did not need to be persuaded not to fear immigrants, she said: “I already think that way."

They were equally admiring of Klaver’s personal charisma and the attention he gave to speaking directly to voters.

“It was a bit cute and maybe awkward as well, but it worked,” de Groot said. “He clearly looked at the way of campaigning of Obama and Justin Trudeau in Canada and tried to imitate with the meetups they organized, and with big events combining politics with rappers and music and poets. I think that’s really modern and good, to make politics popular.”

Klaver cultivated a mass following. One event in Amsterdam, a rally in the model of a rock concert, drew 5,000 people, an irregularity in an otherwise relatively restrained political landscape. He also took advantage of social media to reach millions more.

He spoke out on contentious questions of international politics. He used a pejorative Dutch term, best translated as “buffoon” or “git,” to describe President Trump, and urged Rutte, the prime minister, to rebuke the populist U.S. president more forcefully for his executive order suspending immigration from numerous majority-Muslim countries.

Trump’s victory gave confidence to Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom, which gained seats Wednesday but fell short of expectations.

Eva Kristel, 23, said she had chosen to remain loyal to the Labor Party, even though she was impressed by Klaver's message of hope. " 'Yes we can,' and all that,” she said. She worried that the Green Left emphasis on environmental sustainability might overshadow problems of wages and inequality, which have been mainstays of left-wing parties. She cautioned, too, that Klaver's popularity might have peaked with Wednesday's high-stakes contest.

“It's hard to live up to expectations,” she said, “especially when you're not in a position of real power.”

But van Ojik, whose departure from the leadership position gave the party a fresher face, said his successor has a long future ahead of him. He chuckled at the comparison to Trudeau, Canada’s progressive prime minister, but did not deny it, relishing what it suggests about Klaver’s future.

“He's always stressing that this is a long-term process,” van Ojik said. “It is an investment in a movement, in a political movement, which only just started. This election is only a starting point. We see it as a first step — our result yesterday.”

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