What Did the Dutch Election Really Prove?

One vote and the perils of over-interpretation

Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders
Far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders (Yves Herman / Reuters)

In January, as Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherlands, campaigned to stave off a challenge from Geert Wilders and the anti-Muslim, far-right Party for Freedom, he wrote an open letter that ran as full-page ads in several newspapers. In it, Rutte rang up mentions of “the silent majority” and castigated immigrants who “abuse our freedom.” He later added, “If you reject our country so fundamentally, I’d prefer you leave. … Act normal or leave.”

On Wednesday, Rutte and his center-right party outperformed Wilders in Dutch elections, prompting some celebration across Europe. France’s foreign minister praised the Dutch for “stemming the rise of the far-right.”

“Far-right populism in Europe failed its first test of 2017,” read a lede from CNN that symbolized how the election was framed. “Dutch vote in test of populism in Europe” went a Financial Times headline. Ahead of Wednesday’s contest The New York Times offered that “In Dutch Election, European Populism Faces a Big Test.”

But the fact Rutte won after having absorbed parts of Wilders’s populist message isn’t the only reason the results are more complicated than “populism failed.” Wilders, who made efforts to connect himself to Donald Trump by showing up at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last fall, can be seen as less a Trumpian phenomenon or an outgrowth of a populist wave in European politics more broadly, than as a decades-old local institution. As one Cornell University professor told Reuters, “[Wilders] is part of the political landscape and how his party fares does not tell us much about European populism.”

Despite a disappointing showing, the news wasn’t entirely bad for Wilders. Unlike Rutte’s, Wilders’s party actually gained seats to finish as the country’s second-largest party. The Dutch results were also historic on two fronts: The voter turnout—81 percent— was the highest in 30 years, and the most dramatic result was the routing of the center-left Labor Party, previously the country’s second-largest party, which saw its representation drop from 38 seats to an expected 9. One upshot is that many expect that Rutte’s to-be-formed governing coalition will be largely composed of parties from the center and center-right, perhaps not the ultimate rejection of populism after all. “The Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said ‘Whoa’ to the wrong kind of populism,” Rutte said in his victory speech on Wednesday.

As France, Germany, and Italy go to the polls in the coming months, with far-right populist factions threatening to surge, it’s tempting to see grand connecting narratives between what has happened in the United States, Britain, and now the Netherlands as some kind of guide to future results. But the truth is that the differences may outstrip the similarities. It’s difficult to compare parliamentary election results in the Netherlands, which boasts multiple parties and the most proportional electoral system in the world, with those of the United States, a country with a two-party system, where a president was recently elected, despite losing the popular count by nearly 3 million votes.

As my colleague Yasmeen Serhan noted earlier this month week, Wilders may have run on a nativist platform that included a British-style exit from the European Union, but the Dutch elections were not a referendum on the country’s position within the EU. If anything unites the results of the Dutch vote with the Brexit referendum or the American election, it’s that they just as easily could have turned out differently.