The sigh of relief in European capitals was audible this morning as the incumbent Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, claimed victory in the Dutch elections, with Geert Wilders’s far-right PVV party a distant second. With nearly one hundred percent of votes counted Rutte’s VVD look to have secured 33 seats, marking a loss of eight from the previous parliament, but still leaving them in a comfortable position to lead the new government. Campaigning on an anti-immigration and anti-EU platform the PVV took 20 seats, five more than it held before but falling short of earlier predictions that at one point had seen the party topping the poll.
Arguably the biggest story of the night, however, was the strong performance of GroenLinks, a Left-Green party which nearly quadrupled its representation from four to 14 seats. Led by Jesse Klaver, a telegenic 30-year-old of Moroccan and Indonesian descent, the pro-EU, pro-immigration Groenlinks is now the biggest party on the Dutch left following the collapse of Labour from 38 seats to a projected 9 in the new parliament.
As Rutte turns his attention to building a governing coalition, the VVD’s preferred partners will likely be the centre-right Christian Democrats and socially liberal Democrats 66 party, both of whom are set to win 19 seats. As all the major parties have ruled out the PVV as a possible coalition partner, Rutte will still need the help of one or two more parties to form a government, which could place Klavers in the position of Kingmaker. Negotiations are expected to last weeks if not months before a new government is formed.
Widely characterised as a litmus test for the strength of populist sentiment in the EU following the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, the election result has been welcomed by establishment parties especially in Germany and France where elections are due this year and far-right populism has been on the rise. Martin Schulz, the Social Democrat candidate running against Angela Merkel for Chancellor tweeted that he was ‘relieved’ that Geert Wilders did not win, before warning that: “we must continue to fight for an open and free Europe.” Outgoing French President François Hollande tweeted: I warmly congratulate Mark Rutte for his clear victory against extremism.”
As with the Dutch election, the German and French votes are taking place against a backdrop of deteriorating EU-Turkish relations following the decision by a number of European capitals to bar entry to Turkish politicians wanting to bring their referendum campaign to Turks living in Europe. Likewise, this week’s decision by the European Court of Justice allowing employers to prohibit the wearing of Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols while at work is seen as adding further tension to elections where the debate is being dominated by questions around immigration and the place of Islam in Europe.