BERLIN — After Donald Trump’s presidential victory, energized European nationalists hailed the start of a “new world order.” But when it faced a key electoral test in the Netherlands, the outcome showed the true, long-shot chances of a populist sweep in Europe.
The Dutch vote on Wednesday — to the relief of centrist politicians across the region — amounted to a political reality check. Like many Americans, Europeans remain deeply concerned about immigration and security, and are frustrated by traditional politicians. More of them are indeed prepared to vote for rhetoric-wielding firebrands, such as the anti-Muslim Geert Wilders.
Yet, as the Netherlands vote indicated, such parties are still significantly short of the support needed to rise to power.
Next up are two bigger electoral showdowns. In France, a centrist candidate has gained ground heading into next month’s vote. And in Germany, a far-right surge appears to have tapered off ahead of elections in September.
The trend further suggests that Western Europe may not be as close to a nationalist tipping point as some had predicted after Trump’s November surprise.
For the Trump administration, meanwhile, it rolls back the prospect of a new generation of powerful allies on this side of the Atlantic. At the same time, it heightens the odds that the White House will become an international outlier on issues as diverse as climate change and foreign trade.
In fact, the biggest gainers in the Dutch vote were the progressive forces of the Green Green-Left Party — whose fresh-faced, Justin Trudeau-look-alike leader, Jesse Klaver, could emerge as the future of Dutch politics.
The main centrist candidate, Prime Minister Mark Rutte, held onto power and now will try to build a government coalition that snubs Wilders — despite his party’s second-place showing.
“The Netherlands shows us that the breakthrough of the extreme right is not inevitable and that European progressives are growing stronger,” Emmanuel Macron, the leading centrist candidate for the French presidency, wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning.
One subtle factor in the far-right fizzle may be Trump himself.
In the Netherlands, voters seemed largely swayed by domestic issues. Yet doubts about the temperament and true governing skills of politicians such as Wilders have long stood as some of the strongest barriers holding back Europe’s nationalist tide.
Witnessing the erratic start of Trump’s tenure in Washington may only be reinforcing those fears, analysts say.
Trump’s tumultuous beginning, for instance, appears to have taken its toll on the appeal of populism in France. According to opinion polls, nearly 80 percent of French voters have a negative opinion of the new American president, who insisted that “France is no longer France” in the wake of terrorist attacks that have killed 230 people since 2015.
This, analysts say, presents a challenge for French nationalist Marine Le Pen, who has aligned herself with Trump to try to ride his momentum. In the Netherlands, Klaver, the Green-Left Party leader, repeatedly cited Trump as a disquieting harbinger in the event of a win by Wilders — who was once the front-runner before fading.
“Trump’s election victory was frenetically celebrated by Europe’s radical right. Wilders himself tried to adapt the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ for the Netherlands,” said Alexander Häusler, an analyst of the far right at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, Germany. But the Dutch results, he said, showed how “walking in Trump’s footsteps can potentially backfire.”
It would be wrong, however, to dismiss the chances of major far-right victories to come.
In France, Le Pen is still leading the pack ahead of the first round of voting on April 23. But polls have shown a narrowing in recent weeks between Le Pen and her closest rival, the independent Macron. And even if she comes out on top at first, virtually all polls — although perhaps not as reliable as they once were in the light of Trump’s win and vote in favor of Brexit — still show her being easily crushed in a second and decisive round on May 7.
In Germany, meanwhile, the once-surging Alternative for Germany (AfD) party also has stumbled in recent weeks. That may in part be a reflection on Trump — who polls show is as deeply unpopular in Germany as he is in France. But it also reflects a scandal involving a leading AfD politician who seemed to defend Adolf Hitler and stood accused of playing down the Holocaust. One recent poll showed the AfD slipping to only 8 percent support — its lowest level in 14 months.
Should such trends continue, it would reduce the party’s chances of even playing a spoiler role in September’s national elections.
Speaking in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the Dutch outcome, calling it “a good day for democracy.”
Said Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel: “We have seen that more than 80 percent of the Dutch took a stand against the enemies of Europe and Islam. . . . It is a clear pro-European signal at a time when many had expected something else.”
Yet far-right forces could find some solace in the Dutch vote, too.
Wilders’s far-right party gained five seats in parliament and is now the second-largest party in the body. Although nowhere near earlier predictions of a first-place finish, it was not an insignificant bounce.
Perhaps more important, Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, moved resoundingly to the right on a host of issues including immigration in a bid to fend off the right-wing challenge.
That strategy is being adopted throughout Europe.
Ahead of elections in Germany, Merkel — accused by her critics of being soft on Muslim immigration — has floated a partial ban on full Islamic face coverings known as the burqa.
“If other parties take over our agenda, this is nothing negative per se,” said Marcus Pretzell, head of the Alternative for Germany party in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Merkel’s party “is already doing it, so far only in terms of its rhetoric. The next step is that they will also implement practical policies that we have pushed. I would welcome that.”
And while Muslims in Europe celebrated the tempered far-right performance in the Netherlands, they nevertheless warned that the issues brought to the surface have created a new and worrying atmosphere of xenophobia and hate.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” said Aiman Mazyek, chairman of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims. He continued, “The danger in Holland, but also in other parts of Europe, is that the narrative of fear and hatred will piece by piece erode liberal rights.”
McAuley reported from Paris. Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.