Stemming the tide
Netherlands shows the way, rejects rising tide of populism.
The victory of centre-right Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Netherlands' general election overcoming the challenge of the anti-Islam and anti-EU by far-right populist Geert Wilders, has come as much relief for European governments facing a rising tide of populism.
Also encouraging is the fact that unlike the United Kingdom, voters showed little interest in quitting the European Union with pro-EU parties doing well in the elections. The Euro gained as the election results went in favour of Rutt, albeit with fewer seats than in the last Parliament.
After Britain's vote to leave the EU and Donald Trump's dramatic victory in the US Presidential polls, the defeat of Wilders, who had pledged to "de-Islamicise" the Netherlands and take the country out of the EU if he won, would have created ripples across Europe.
The year is seen as critical for Europe, mainly because in France the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has pledged a referendum on EU membership, is expected to run for the Presidential elections in May, while Germany's Eurosceptic Alternative Fiir Deutschland (AfD) is on target to win its first federal Parliament seats later in the year.
A win for Wilders would have boosted the prospects of Pen, running second in opinion polls, and for populist parties elsewhere that want to curb immigration and weaken or break up the European Union.
Immigration remains the most troublesome issue. The Netherlands used to be considered as a model for multiculturalism, but not any more. Like many other EU countries, the Netherlands has failed to assimilate its immigrants.
Nearly all votes have been counted, and the final results will be declared on Tuesday. With no significant changes expected, Rutt's centre-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) has won 33 seats, by far the largest party in the 150-member Parliament, the national news agency ANP said. It is, however, down by eight seats in the outgoing House.
Rutte, 50, is virtually guaranteed to head a coalition government for the third term.
Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV) looked certain to retain its second place having won 20 seats, well below a high of 24 seats in 2010, a long way behind and only just ahead of the Christian Democrats (CD) and the liberal-progressive party D66, both of which ended third with 19 seats.
The PvdA (Labour) party, one of the coalition partners in the outgoing Rutte government, suffered a precipitous decline from 38 to nine seats. The big winners were the pro-European leftwing ecologists GorenLinks (GreenLeft), who leapt from four seats to 14 and could join the ruling coalitions.
Thirteen out of 28 parties are set to enter in the lower House under the proportional Dutch voting system.
After his party's victory Rutte declared "After Brexit, after the US elections, the (Dutch) people have said no to another country where the domino stone of the wrong side of populism would topple over."
Putting a brave face, Wilders, who led the polls for nearly two years and was at one stage credited with a 25 per cent share of the vote before slumping to barely half that figure on polling day, said "We would have preferred to be the first…We have gained seats. And Rutte is certainly not rid of me yet."
Wilders ended up with fewer seats than his highest previous total in 2010—and met his third successive defeat at the hands of Rutte.
Rutte, who was trailing in the opinion polls initially, adopted some of Wilders' rhetoric during the campaign, telling immigrants to respect Dutch norms and values "or leave."
He also got a last-minute boost from a diplomatic showdown with Turkey when he prevented two Turkish ministers from addressing rallies of expats before a referendum next month on plans to grant Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sweeping new power, from campaigning.
The turnout was high at 80.2 per cent in the election seen as a test whether the Dutch wanted to end decades of openness and centrist politics and opt instead for anti-immigration nationalism.
The results seemed to have stemmed the growth of populism and given the EU a much-needed shot in the arm. The outcome was hailed across Europe by governments facing a rising wave of nationalism. The sense of relief among European leaders was palpable.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among many EU leaders to congratulate voters and described the outcome "a good day for democracy."
"The Netherlands are our partners, friends, neighbours. Therefore, I was very happy that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result, a clear signal," she said.
French President Francois Hollande described the result as "a clear victory against extremism" while French Presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron said: "The Netherlands is showing us that a breakthrough for the extreme right is not a foregone conclusion and that progressives are gaining momentum."
EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said the vote was for "free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe" and that it would be "an inspiration for many."
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Dutch voters had "made a show of responsibility and maturity…. in a key moment for Europe as a whole. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway felt that Netherlands had opted for "serious politics", "responsible leadership", and "a rejection of populism."
The Rutte government has tough tasks ahead. It will not only have to navigate the turbulent period in Europe but will also have to protect the rights of refugees and to treat the displaced with dignity, compassion, and respect, besides working on immigrant integration, tackling Islamophobia and promoting Dutch values.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor. He has also served asWest Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988-1995. The views expressed are personal.)