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Dutch Voters Rebuff Anti-Immigration Candidate

Posted by hkarner - 16. März 2017

Date: 16-03-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Prime Minister Mark Rutte achieved goal of finishing ahead of anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders

Preliminary results published after Wednesday’s Dutch election put the anti-immigration Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders, shown, behind Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservatives.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands—The Dutch political establishment held on to power Wednesday, despite losing votes to anti-immigrant nationalists and other upstart parties, according to preliminary results published after the country’s most closely watched election in recent times.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy won the most seats, putting Mr. Rutte in a strong position to form a new ruling coalition.

Mr. Rutte achieved his goal of finishing ahead of anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders , whose Party for Freedom wants to halt Muslim immigration and leave the European Union. The key to Mr. Rutte’s win was offering his own, gentler version of anti-immigrant populism during the campaign.

Preliminary results based on counting 94% of votes put the premier’s center-right party on track to win 33 seats, an 8-seat drop compared with 2012 elections but still ahead of Mr. Wilders’s group, which came second with 20 seats, followed closely by the conservative Christian Democratic Appeal and the centrist D66, both with 19 seats. Turnout was at 77.6%.


Voters line up to cast ballots in the Netherlands’ general elections. Exit polls pointed to a highly fragmented parliament.

The Dutch contest has drawn unusually high global attention as a bellwether for Europe’s string of major elections this year, including in France, Germany and potentially Italy. Across the continent, mainstream political parties are facing challenges from populist and antiestablishment forces, many of them opposed to immigration and the EU.

While results in one country are unlikely to influence another’s voters, similar themes are echoing around the region including migration, security, and alienation from traditional governing parties.

Although Mr. Rutte’s party lost ground compared with 2012, its losses are smaller than expected as his party performed better than opinion polls indicated.

Many observers believe a diplomatic row with Turkey in recent days boosted Mr. Rutte, who firmly defended his country against Turkish criticism.

During the campaign, Mr. Rutte took a harder tone on immigration, a tactic that appears to have helped him ward off the challenge from Mr. Wilders, whose party was ranked first in opinion polls for much of the winter.

Mr. Rutte late Wednesday held a victory speech to the cheers of a crowd gathered at The Hague’s World Trade Center, saying his party’s performance was a victory “against the wrong sort of populism” seen in the U.K. referendum to leave the European Union and the U.S. election.

The outcome suggests that Dutch voters have elected a highly fragmented lower house of parliament, containing numerous midsize parties but no big ones. This could mean lengthy negotiations on forming a new coalition government. To stay on as premier, Mr. Rutte may have to woo at least three other parties. His last coalition partner, the Labor Party, suffered heavy losses.

The Dutch premier has portrayed the election as the quarterfinal round in Europe’s effort to stem a populist tide, with the French presidential elections in April and May the semifinal and the German parliamentary elections in September the finals. Polls in France suggest that anti-Islam right-wing politician Marine Le Pen will win next month’s first round of voting, qualifying her for a two-candidate runoff. In Germany, where the influx of more than a million refugees and migrants since 2015, has rattled the country’s political scene, the nationalist Alternative for Germany is projected to enter the national parliament for the first time.

In a sign of the Netherlands’ growing political fragmentation, several niche or single-issue parties also made gains, including the pensioners’ party 50Plus and the animal-welfare movement Party for the Animals to Denk, an upstart pro-Muslim party seeking to counter Mr. Wilders.

Any new coalition government is likely to enact stricter rules on migrants’ benefits and rights, as parties across most of the political spectrum campaigned on such promises. Although Mr. Wilders’s party made only small gains, his challenge appears to have shifted much of Dutch politics to the right.

“I understand Wilders’s adversity toward Islam,” said Xander Sebrechts, a 41-year-old who cast his ballot for the Socialists and expressed discomfort with immigration. “I am an atheist, so I equally don’t want Catholics interfering too much with the state.”

Mr. Wilders, who was dubbed the “Dutch Trump” due to his anti-Muslim stance and his blonde-dyed hair, has declined steadily in recent opinion polls. He tweeted on Wednesday night that “we won seats!” and that Mr. Rutte “hasn’t seen the last of me.”

For some Muslims, who find themselves a central election issue, the campaign has just brought to the fore what they felt was already there. “Wilders is just saying what others don’t dare to say. But deep down, Dutch people agree with him,” said Karima Talhaoui, a 31-year-old of Moroccan descent who was born in the Netherlands and wears a head scarf.

Her friend, Samira Bouhbasse, a 33-year-old who trained as a teacher’s assistant and currently works as a cleaner, said she didn’t trust Mr. Rutte. After 16 years in the Netherlands with little interest in politics, Ms. Bouhbasse said she would vote for Denk. “This is not about preventing Wilders, it’s about letting someone better rise,” she said. “It’s my first time voting and my hope is big.”

Arie De Jong, a 67-year-old retiree, said he voted for 50Plus because it promises better pensions and health care for the elderly.

“Wilders is making too much noise,” he said. “The Netherlands is a quiet place and it should stay quiet.”

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