To the relief of most everyone (except his supporters), the far-right politician Geert Wilders lost in the Dutch elections. Or at least he didn’t win, which, by the world’s increasingly low standards for celebration, was seemingly good enough. Wilders’s Party for Freedom, which had made anti-Muslim bigotry its defining message, won around 13 percent of the seats, making it the second-largest party in parliament. The populists may be losing steam, but the bigger, and rather unsexy, lesson is that one of the most effective bulwarks against ethno-nationalists holding power is having the right kind of electoral system.
The fears of Wilders “winning” were somewhat overblown. Even if his party had come in first, it would have been almost impossible to form a coalition government, considering the level of party fragmentation. In a 150-seat parliament, a simple majority of 76 is required to form a government. A first-place finish of, say, 35 seats would have still been more than 40 seats short. The mainstream parties would have almost certainly imposed a cordon sanitaire on the Party for Freedom. As the Dutch analyst Anno Bunnik wrote in frustration over the fixation on Wilders: “In a system in which several parties must form a coalition government such a size of the pie is useless if no one wants to work with you.” In other words, in a parliamentary system, it is possible to win without winning.