Peter Dejong/AP
A man poses as crying firebrand anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders during a small demonstration outside parliament, rear, in The Hague, Netherlands, on March 16, 2017. Dutch incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte easily won national elections, defying polls that suggested a close race with anti-Islam populist Mr. Wilders.

European leaders breathe sigh of relief over Dutch election results

Co-opting of far-right sentiments, combined with an aggressive police dispersal of a protest by Turkish-Dutch, could have buoyed the centrist candidate. But European leaders are very relieved Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte won reelection.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte won reelection by a wide margin on Wednesday, defeating anti-Islam and Euroskeptic candidate Geert Wilders in a vote that was seen across Europe as a crucial test of democratic liberalism.

With turnout at 78 percent, the highest in a decade, Mr. Rutte’s center-right VVD Party captured 33 of the 150 parliamentary seats – down from 41 in 2012 – while Mr. Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) took 20 seats and centrist Christian Democrats and D66 parties won 19 each, giving shape to what will likely become the governing coalition.

Wilders said that while he had fallen short of the victory predicted by many polls for weeks leading up to the election, his was “not a party that has lost.”

“We gained seats. That’s a result to be proud of,” he said, according to Reuters.

The results triggered an outpouring of relief and congratulations from European leaders, many of whom echoed Rutte’s declaration of an “evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism.” European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker called the outcome “an inspiration.” German chancellor Angela Merkel said it was “a good day for democracy.” And leaders from Sweden, Norway, Estonia, and Lithuania also offered congratulations.

But others may see plenty of reason for sobriety, as the election run-up saw Rutte and other mainstream politicians take what some saw as a worrisome turn, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana reported this week:

[N]ow the mainstream politicians have been criticized for adopting an “us versus them” sentiment to pander to far-right voters. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte penned in a national newspaper in January: “People who refuse to adapt, criticize our customs, and reject our values. Who harass gays, yell at women in short skirts, or call regular Dutch people racists. I completely understand that people would think: ‘If you reject our country so fundamentally, I’d prefer you’d leave.’ Because I feel the same way. Act normally, or get out.”

Cas Mudde, a Dutch expert on far-right populism at the University of Georgia, says this language and media coverage of it keep Islamophobia a central issue, even though polling shows Dutch Islamophobia is average for Europe. He sees a mismatch between Wilders’s rhetoric and public attitudes. And almost no politicians offer an alternative narrative today, he says, “or actually point out that overall the multicultural society works pretty well, that the vast, vast majority of Muslims are integrated.”

Others raised questions about whether the outcome should be read as a signal of Europe’s direction.

Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University, told Reuters that Wilders, who has served in parliament for two decades, “does not represent a populist wave.”

“Rather, he is part of the political landscape and how his party fares does not tell us much about European populism,” she told the news agency. “The real bellwether election will be Marine Le Pen's quest for the French presidency, starting April 23 – that is where the populist action is and that is what we should be focusing upon.” 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who was blocked from entering the Netherlands last week in what quickly turned into a fierce war of words with Dutch authorities, issued dark predictions about the results.

“There is no difference between the social democrat [party] and the fascist [Geert] Wilders. They are of the same mentality,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

The Islamophobia of European parties, he added, was taking the continent “toward an abyss.”

“Soon religious wars will break out in Europe. That's the way it's going,” the foreign minister said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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