The far right Party for Freedom came second in last week’s Dutch general election, but lessons should be taken from their last minute collapse.
The often euphoric reaction from moderates to a far right political party with one member and no government funding coming a distant second in an election in a Benelux country – just over ten years after the aforementioned party was founded – seems out-of-place. There are now resilient far right movements in many European nations, and the fact that one of them has now become the second largest party isn’t something to celebrate – even if there was a chance they might have become the largest. The rise of the PVV is a sign that mainstream parties need to sit up and take notice of the far right, and ask themselves why these movements are gaining so much traction.
The first thing to note about these parties, is that their rise can be partially explained by the fact that we keep talking about them. Most casual observers of the Dutch elections probably couldn’t tell you what Mark Rutte stood for, or who any of the other party leaders are, but they would be able to tell you that Geert Wilders’ platform was Eurosceptic, anti-immigration, and anti-Islam. There is a need to talk about these parties to an extent, but in ruling out coalitions with Wilders and attacking his party, all mainstream Dutch parties served to do was generate more headlines for him.
Ultimately, not talking about these parties is only a potential solution in a world where the issues they discuss are not on the table. That is not the case, as the Dutch election perfectly demonstrates. The other two options are clear: either oppose or engage.
If you oppose these parties and promote alternative policies, that might go some way towards lessening support for the key issues on which they stand. However, it risks polarising the election between the mainstream and the outsider on a key election issue, which could drive all the voters who share a policy position with that outsider group to them. Furthermore, it intensifies the ‘Us vs Them’ narrative that extreme parties need to legitimise their movements. Mobilisation of support is much easier if a party can credibly claim to be the alternative to the mainstream and that they’re being attacked by elites.
It’s worth noting that the parties which took the second strategy were able to have mixed success. D66 and GL increased their support massively by following a pro-immigration line of campaigning; while the Labour Party lost credibility on immigration and were crushingly defeated, losing 29 seats. Clearly then, if parties can credibly oppose extremists on important election issues, then this is a potentially successful election strategy. However, established mainstream parties should be careful that this strategy doesn’t increase the support of extreme parties, and be aware that they may not have the credibility to capitalise on possible gains.
The final option is the most interesting one, in that it has been singularly the most successful way to deal with right wing populists in 2016 and 2017. The way that Rutte’s VVD won and the third placed CDA improved was by countering Wilders through adopting some of his less extreme positions. By taking on some of the Wilders platform that fitted with their own, these two parties were able to pull back some of the PVV’s voters and thus prevent the far right party from winning the election.
Rutte may have lost seats, but his party’s impressive gain in the polls in recent weeks shouldn’t go unnoticed. The fact that parties adopting these sorts of platforms came in the top three, however, should serve as a warning to the forthcoming Rutte administration that failure to deliver on key parts of the adopted platform will cause voters to reject mainstream attempts to siphon off PVV votes in the long term.
The Dutch election should act as a blueprint for both new and established parties in elections featuring strong far right and populist parties. While the far right have been able to capitalise in the Netherlands by rising to second, that reflects a lack of credible policy and debate on immigration that has been common amongst mainstream parties across Europe, as opposed to any prevalent support for the far right as an entity – they have simply been the only parties to discuss the issue. Mainstream parties need to offer credible policies on immigration if they are to remain popular.
The German and French elections will offer another good opportunity to analyse how parties’ attitudes to immigration affects their electoral performance, but we would expect to see a similar theme. If the results are similar, then it offers some explanation for the polling patterns that we are seeing in the UK.
The Conservatives taking control of the immigration issue with their support for controlled immigration has seen them take massive gains; while UKIP’s decline directly correlates with a mainstream party taking a position similar to their own. The Lib Dem bounce could be reflected in their perceived credibility as a pro-immigration option. Labour’s dramatic decline seems to indicate that they lack a clear immigration policy and lack credibility on the issue in general. Of course, it would be simplistic to say that there are no other factors at play, but with immigration an election-defining issue in 2017, it would be remiss to overlook its importance.
Celebrating the fact that Geert Wilders’ party came second, rather than first, is the reaction of a group destined not to learn from this result. The job for mainstream parties is to use the Dutch result as a guide to how to fight populist parties, and to take the one lesson that no one seems to have gleaned for the Netherlands: if parties had started to tackle immigration issues earlier and with more credibility, PVV would have finished much lower than 2nd.