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Open up: The Dutch election suggests a new kind of identity politics

Posted by hkarner - 16. März 2017

Date: 16-03-2017
Source: The Economist: Charlemagne

Identity does not have to be the exclusive preserve of the far right

WILL no one stand up for the Dutch cosmopolitan elite? For many observers of this week’s election in the Netherlands there was only one story: the fate of Geert Wilders, the bottle-blond nativist who wants to ban the Koran and exit the European Union. Rare was the bar in Limburg, Mr Wilders’s home province, left unmolested by journalists expecting Dutch voters to deliver a populist hat-trick, following the triumphs of Brexit and Donald Trump. The young, educated urbanites of Amsterdam’s Canal District or Haarlem barely got a look-in. And yet in an election with many subplots, theirs was among the more arresting.

Though Mr Wilders disappointed on election day, he remains more than an irritant. With 20 seats in the new 150-seat parliament, he may well lead the opposition to whatever government emerges from the electoral mélange produced on March 15th. His vicious brand of anti-Islam populism is no less shocking for its familiarity (Mr Wilders founded his Freedom Party in 2006, and he is not the first peddler of xenophobia to Dutch voters). And opposition presents no impediment to his influence. Before the election Mr Wilders told an interviewer that by tugging other parties in his direction, he had already won. In a way, he was right.

But his influence extends in other directions. Until now, the politics of identity across Europe has been largely ceded to the likes of Mr Wilders. Mainstream parties of left and right often struggle to find the vocabulary to discuss culture, nation, race and immigration; some change the subject, others meekly ape the far right. But in the Netherlands the two parties that performed most strongly compared to the 2012 election—D66, a collection of earnest pro-European liberals, and GreenLeft, a once-fringe amalgam of radicals and environmentalists—succeeded by taking Mr Wilders on directly. GreenLeft at least tripled its number of seats. D66 won 19 seats and runs strong in every Dutch city.

One of the campaign’s most telling moments came during a debate of party leaders on March 5th. Asked whether they agreed that the Netherlands was failing to “protect its own culture”, most muttered about the decline of values or the national anthem. But Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old GreenLeft leader, said he agreed with the proposition, and went on to describe a vision of national identity centred on tolerance, openness and internationalism that he claimed was under siege from the right. Viewers declared his performance the best of the night. “It’s a new kind of patriotism,” says Marjolein Meijer, the GreenLeft chair. As for D66, no other party has so strongly stood up to Mr Wilders’s calumnies.

Dutch politics is too complex and fragmented to provide straightforward lessons. Thirteen parties won seats this week; the coalition that eventually emerges may well resemble the centrist governments that have run the Netherlands for decades (although with four or five parties it will struggle for coherence). If a cosmopolitan-nationalist divide has emerged, it has not so much supplanted the old left-right axis as complemented it, suggests Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

Yet the Dutch have often served as political bellwethers for other parts of Europe. Without the roadblocks of parliamentary thresholds or complex voting systems, social changes can find political expression quicker than in other countries. GreenLeft and D66 have exploited the political space opened up by the collapse of the traditional centre-left—the Labour Party, the junior coalition partner, lost three-quarters of its seats this week—and the right’s failure to resist the populist temptation. Brexit and Mr Trump presented them with cautionary tales almost as potent as the threat from Mr Wilders.

The Dutch may have avoided a serious rupture. But the politics of identity still has the power to divide. Two years ago “Separate Worlds”, a report by two government think-tanks, warned of a drift to American-style polarisation between an educated elite that is enthusiastic over globalisation and a remaining class of poorer Dutch rooted in place and tradition. Those parties that sit firmly inside one or other of these bubbles were among the big winners this week (only 14% of those with little education went for D66 or GreenLeft; Mr Wilders hoovered up this group’s votes).

And Dutch identity politics has found a third, more worrying dimension in the emergence of Denk, a party catering specifically to Dutch Muslims. Karina, a young Moroccan Dutchwoman buttonholed by Charlemagne as she emerged from a mosque serving as a polling station in Amsterdam, explained that she used to vote Labour before Messrs Wilders and Trump left her fearing for her freedom to don the headscarf. Thanks to her vote, and many thousands more, Denk netted three seats.

That’s not me
An electoral landscape increasingly marked by identity politics is a recipe for national unease. For the parties that are on the rise, one response is to explore fresh policy terrain vacated by the exhaustion of the traditional left. Changing labour markets and job insecurity provide an obvious example: unemployment is low in the Netherlands, but it has Europe’s highest share of temporary workers. Crafting asylum rules that combine generosity for outsiders with reassurance on borders for anxious Dutch is another. D66 may have given some thought to these issues; it is less clear that GreenLeft has. Mr Klaver’s critics charge that his speeches are often heavier on inspiration than insight. If his party signs up to government, he has a chance to prove them wrong.

If so, like-minded parties elsewhere in Europe will take heart. Last year Alexander van der Bellen, a former Green, defeated a far-right challenger for the Austrian presidency on an avowedly pro-European platform. The untested Emmanuel Macron is seeking to do the same against the far-right Marine Le Pen in France. Liberals have started to win votes in such unlikely places as Spain and Poland. This is hardly the beginning of the end for the anti-immigrant, identity-politicking right. But it is worth watching.

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