Published:  12:00 AM, 19 March 2017

Dutch elections belie tide of populism in Europe

Fears that the tide of populism would sweep relentlessly across Europe have been somewhat belied by the result of the election in the Netherlands. Prime Minister Mark Rutte's centre-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) retained its primacy by winning 33 seats, ahead of Geert Wilders's anti-European Union, anti-Islam and anti-migrant far-right Party for Freedom (PVV).

The proportional representation system, with 28 parties competing for 150 seats in the lower House of a bicameral legislature, means that a coalition government is inevitable. Until a week or so before the elections, Mr. Wilders was leading the opinion polls. The Prime Minister's pre-election gains have now translated into an electoral victory.

This is being attributed in part to his tough stand against the Turkish government's attempts to campaign in the Netherlands for its President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's upcoming referendum to consolidate power.

The spectacle of clashes between the police and people of Turkish origin in Rotterdam, following bans on Turkish ministers addressing crowds, could have also worked in favor of Mr. Wilders, who argues that migrants and Muslims do not fit into Dutch society.

Mr. Wilders, who wants to ban the Koran, 'de-Islamise' the Netherlands, and pull out of the EU, has however won 20 seats, five more than last time. The most notable gains on Wednesday, however, were for pro-EU parties, the liberal D66 and the GreenLeft, led by 30-year-old Jesse Klaver who is pro-refugee, opposes populism and speaks of tolerance and empathy.

This may have cost the PvdA (Labour) party, which suffered a precipitous decline in seats from 38 to nine, losing voters to other parties on the left.

Overall, the election results have, at least for now, stemmed the growth of populism and given the EU a much-needed shot in the arm.

The first task for Mr. Rutte will be to stitch together a coalition, which is likely to consist of other centrist parties. The government will then have to navigate what is a turbulent period in Europe.

This will involve protecting the rights of refugees and treating those displaced with compassion and respect, while at the same time addressing the legitimate concerns and needs of those who have been hit by austerity and are feeling left behind by globalization. It will require having meaningful and fair conversations about immigrant integration and Dutch values without giving in to Islamophobia and the scapegoating of minorities.

 The far right in France and Germany - which go to the polls this year - will not find it easy to capitalize on Dutch populism, thanks to how people have voted.

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