Rutte courted Wilders' voters, now he must deliver
On 15 March, the Dutch voted in their parliamentary elections in favour of the ruling Liberal party and against their own version of the alt-right.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won 33 seats compared to insurgent candidate Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party’s (PVV) 20 seats.
Although this triumph will act as a speed-bump for ethnic and economic nationalism, it is a temporary effect. The election was mostly about immigration, particularly of Muslims, and how to integrate them into Dutch society.
Now that they have won, centrist parties must learn that without incorporating some of the more legitimate and palatable concerns of voters concerned with immigration, they will be unable to maintain power.
During the lead up to the election, Rutte warned of the need to integrate ethnic non-Dutch people to ensure every citizen shared the same basic secular and liberal values.
Rutte said everyone needed to know that the Netherlands wasn’t for people who “litter,” “spit,” “attack gay people”, or “shout at women in short skirts.” All of this was declared in a full-page advertisement which said people should “act normal or go away.”
By doing this, the VVD was able to steal some of the PVV’s rhetoric and, in turn, some of their voters. While such language from an establishment leader rattled the liberal and centrist press, it worked well and was copied by other parties.
Finally, Rutte benefited from taking a firm stance on a visceral row with the Muslim-majority country, Turkey.
The problem facing centrists is how to stop nativist parties that thrive on marginalising others without alienating increasing numbers of nativist voters.
On one hand, many voters knew that Rutte’s tough domestic and international rhetoric was just that — rhetoric, meant to attract the less radical Wilders supporters.
Other than one legally dubious proposal to take away citizenship from anyone who joins a terrorist organisation, the VVD has few substantial plans to actually integrate immigrants or fight terror.
After all, many of the Dutch, including Rutte, are largely, and rightly, pro-immigrant and the Netherlands has not experienced a terror attack like France or Germany.
On the other hand, there is a small, but sizeable number of immigrants who feel Muslim or Turkish first, and Dutch second (if they feel Dutch at all) — even into the second and third generation. Part of this is due to historical discrimination and a lack of governmental support that has contributed to housing and wealth disparities.
A bigger factor is decades of failed multiculturalism that deliberately kept immigrants separate, instead of encouraging them to learn the Dutch language or Dutch values in addition to their own.
These roadblocks to building a healthy national community and identity have come at a high cost. For example, it is estimated that from 2012 to 2015, about 220 Dutch citizens or immigrants left to become Jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq.
There are legitimate issues with immigration and integration, and centrists should seek to address them in a reasonable manner instead of ceding these issues to the alt-right.
Therefore, Rutte’s conservative pivot was the correct decision, but only if it is followed up by actions to improve integration of Muslim immigrants while reducing hostility towards them.
Immigration policies in the Netherlands are already fairly strict and focus on positive ways to help immigrants succeed economically and learn Dutch.
Among those initiatives are community-police and interfaith organisations, as well as an emphasis on tax and labour market reforms. The positive and inclusive aspects of those programs should be built upon.
The danger here is that inaction makes Rutte’s campaign promises on immigration and integration ring hollow, which is exactly what Wilders wants.
Rutte should not forget that, although the VVD beat the PVV, they still lost five seats whereas the PVV gained eight. The PVV managed this despite Wilders being the only official party member and while operating on a shoestring budget.
Like Trump, Wilders’ tactics to steal the spotlight proved incredibly powerful. The election was close enough that 60 percent of the electorate were undecided until the vote.
Furthermore, about 60 percent of the Dutch parliament was split between 11 different parties, reflecting the shrinkage of centrist parties, on both the left and right. Wilders is defeated but not gone.
Politics is the art of the possible. Rutte’s move further to the right may seem unacceptably tough on liberals or libertarians.
Harsh rhetoric should rightly upset good sensibilities but they pale in comparison to Wilders’ own incoherent plan, which called for “preventative detention of radical Muslims,” forbidding “Islamic expressions which violate public order,” and banning all copies of the Koran and all mosques.
If the formula for success against far-right populists is to be optimistic, in favour of an inclusive but traditional national identity, and tough on immigration, then that is what centrist parties must do.
In the Netherlands, Rutte has shown that this approach can win elections, but now he must put such a vision into action or else play right into Wilders’ hands.
The VVD has begun that process, but it must finish it.
John Dale Grover is a member of Young Voices and a graduate student at George Mason University’s Conflict Analysis and Resolution Program.