These European elections were supposed to prove three things. That the Netherlands is fed up with the European Union and ‘Brussels’ meddling with their national affairs. That the Dutch are through with the Euro and want their guilder back. And that the nation is rising against the influx of asylum seekers and Eastern European immigrants, across their open borders. All these assumptions were made by Dutch populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV).
But instead of triggering the ‘political revolution’ Wilders had predicted to break out all over Europe, the first exit poll of the European Parliament elections shows that the bleached blond nationalist lost almost 30 percent of the support he had five years ago. While he remains the most famous Dutch politician, the xenophobe who hopes to join forces with France’s Front National and far right parties in Italy, Austria, Sweden and Belgium in Europe, was humbled by the Dutch support for pro-European parties on Thursday.
Four questions about the European election results in the Netherlands.
1) European election results? Aren’t we supposed to learn about this on Sunday?
While most of the EU’s 28 member states go to the polls on Sunday, the (secular) Dutch never vote on that day. Along with the Brits, the Dutch elected their members for the European Parliament on Thursday. A European rule dictates that the results should be kept secret until the polls close in all EU countries, on Sunday evening. But the Dutch are too impatient to wait that long. National broadcaster NOS issued exit polls at 44 voting stations which usually represents the national results most adequately.
All Dutch politicians were careful in drawing definite conclusions from Thursday’s exit polls, but the polls clearly show a close call between the left-wing liberals (D66) and the conservative Christian democrats (CDA). Wilders, the tipped front runner, came fourth, behind the right-wing liberals (VVD). According to the exit polls, Wilders earned 12.2 percent of the votes, which adds up to three seats in the European Parliament. The Netherlands, with a population of 17 million, is entitled to a total of 26 seats of the total 751 seats in the European parliament.
2) So, has Wilders lost his mojo?
Not a day goes by that Geert Wilders doesn’t make headlines in the Netherlands. Since breaking away from the VVD party ten years ago, Wilders has developed a political program based on xenophobia, populism and controversy. He combines right-wing ideas on immigration with left leaning politics when it comes to maintaining the Dutch welfare state, upholding state funded pensions and health care.
He is most famous for targeting Islam. Just last week there were rumors of Saudi Arabia wanting to impose a trade boycott on the Netherlands after Wilders spread stickers resembling the Saudi flag that read “Islam is a lie, Mohammad is a criminal, the Koran is poison”.
But although his public persona is larger than life, Wilders’ political backing has been dwindling for quite some time. He reached the height of his power in 2010, when a government of right wing liberals and Christian democrats needed his support for a majority in Dutch parliament. But he blew up that coalition over budget negotiations after only eighteen months.
Since then Wilders has lost significantly in both the national and local elections. And on top of diminishing electoral support, infighting within his own Freedom Party has caused several representatives (Wilders doesn’t allow members in his ‘movement’) to break away from him and/or leave the party while taking their seats with them.
After banking on anti-immigration and anti-elitist sentiments of the disgruntled lower classes in the Netherlands who feel squeezed between cheap immigrant labor and government budget cuts, Wilders hoped to reap the fruits of Euroscepticism. He ran a campaign that conjured up visions of the low countries as an independent nation that would shut its borders against negative influences from abroad while maintaining trade relations with the rest of the continent it so depends on for its wealth.
The exit polls don’t explain why Wilders failed to reap the anti-EU sentiments that clearly do exist in the Netherlands. Wilders himself blamed the low election turnout of 37 percent. He said “the Netherlands has not become a country of Europhiles”, but that would not explain why his result was so much better in 2009 when the turnout was even a bit lower.
3) But who did win?
The race remains too close to call between the Christian democrats and the left-wing liberals. D66, part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the European Parliament, is slightly ahead in the exit polls. The party achieved its biggest success ever, with an expected 15.6 percent of the votes, after having a strong ‘pro-European’ campaign. CDA, the old Dutch powerhouse that was diminished in the last national election, remains a force in the European People’s Party in Brussels. The party is set for 15.2 percent of the votes.
But not just the parties that want to move the EU ahead to a more political Union, won last night. The Socialist Party (SP) and the Eurocritical fundamentalist Christians also performed well. Also two one issue parties are set to obtain a seat in parliament: the Party for Animals (Partij voor de Dieren) and the Senior Party (50Plus) will make their debut. If anything, the results show a strong trend of the Dutch electorate being more fragmented than ever. The 26 seats in European Parliament are divided between no less than 10 parties, none of these earned more than 4 seats.
4) Does this have any international significance?
Some think it might. D66’s top candidate, Sophie in ‘t Veld told NRC Handelsblad in an interview after the exit polls she hopes the Dutch result will “bring an about-face throughout Europe”. As the Netherlands went against the expectation that anti-EU parties would slam dunk the elections in several countries.
It remains to be seen whether voters in France, Austria, Sweden and Italy will be impressed by the Dutch result. But it is a fact that Wilders’ poor performance will change his position within the Eurosceptic group that he hopes to form with the likes of Marine Le Pen (Front National) and other nationalist parties.