Dutch election: anti-rights rhetoric goes mainstream despite Wilders’ defeat

Photo: HRW
Photo: HRW

Last week’s general election in the Netherlands was one of the most closely watched in years. But the fact that Geert Wilders’ radical right party failed to make major gains does not mean he has not had an impact, writes Anna Timmerman of Human Rights Watch.

While most of the world was focused only on one party, the radical right populist Party for Freedom (PVV) and its leader Geert Wilders, the Dutch cast their votes widely across 13 parties, two of them winning seats for the first time. No party got more than 22% of the vote.

For the rest of the world, the fact that the PVV fared less well than many polls had predicted and was soundly beaten by the centre-right Liberal party (VVD, 21.3% of the vote and 33 seats) is an understandable cause for celebration.

Populism failed its first big test since Trump’s election and Brexit. While its share of the vote (13.1%) and seats (20) are an increase from 2012, they are lower than the party garnered in 2010, when this brand of radical populism was on few people’s radar.

People are also heartened by the share of the vote won by the centrist D66 party (19 seats and 12% of vote) and GroenLinks (Green party), which scored its best result ever (14 seats, and 8.9%).

Dirty campaign

But the news is not all good. While a mainstream party won, the Liberal party’s triumph was tarnished by a dirty campaign where it emulated the PVV’s rhetoric, lashing out against Islam and telling Dutch-born citizens whose families came from other countries to integrate or ‘get out’. These citizens could not be blamed for thinking the party likely to lead the next government won’t govern for them.

It was a similar story with the Christian Democrats (CDA), who ran on an anti-refugee agenda. They were rewarded with 12.5% of the vote and 19 seats. The Christian Orthodox SGP party ran a campaign along similar lines and won 3 seats with 2.1%.

It remains to be seen who will join the ruling coalition. The main parties have all eschewed a coalition with PVV, and it’s important they honor that pledge.

Political expediency

Before the elections, Human Rights Watch spoke to candidates from most of the parties. Those interviews made clear that the VVD, PVV, and CDA – parties that make up almost half the seats in the new parliament – are willing to set aside human rights for the sake of political expediency.

Indeed, a Dutch lawyers group concluded that all three parties’ election manifestos include measures that are contrary to human rights or are openly discriminatory toward certain groups.

In short, the worry is that Wilders’s ideas will prevail even though his party did not.

The Netherlands’ civil society will need to work with those parties supporting human rights. And they should call it out when mainstream parties set aside core values for political gain.

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