NZ Herald Editorial: Hard right made gains in Holland but did not win

Geert Wilders casts his vote for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands last week. Photo / AP
Geert Wilders casts his vote for the Dutch general election in The Hague, Netherlands last week. Photo / AP

Dutch voters have given cause for hope that immigration and terrorism might not have completely destabilised Western democracies at the moment. The anti-Muslim extremist party of Gert Wilders was beaten by the incumbent party led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. It is a result that augurs particularly hopefully for elections to follow in France and Germany this year but it may also have resonance for New Zealand, where the same resentments provide fertile ground for Winston Peters.

The Dutch result is not being overstated. Commentaries over the weekend have noted that while Rutte won, he had moved his party some way towards Wilders' positions on immigration and refugees. And he will need to form a coalition with smaller parties of the right whose main source of unity may be their dislike of Wilders. He has lifted his party to second place among no fewer than 13 parties to win seats. He will lead the Opposition and be seen as the alternative Prime Minister, so he and his followers have much to celebrate.

In fact he has done well enough to maintain the momentum of the mood that has produced Brexit and Donald Trump and has made Marine Le Pen the front-runner for the first round of the French presidential elections next month. But the Dutch result shows that the mood is not overwhelming. A good proportion of voters are aware of the social and economic damage that this sort of politics can do.

Their misgivings have probably been deepened by Trump's first month in power. Those who enjoyed Trump's campaign last year and assured themselves he was just an outrageous demagogue who would not do half the reckless things he promised, are wiser now.

His remaining supporters demand that the media give him credit for doing exactly what he promised and, unfortunately, they are right. He is undermining trade, climate change and nuclear arms limitation treaties. He is going to blow the federal budget on superfluous military spending. He really does intend to build a US$4 billion barrier against Mexico.

In Britain, which has just begun to put Brexit into action, the prospects of retaining the benefits of Europe's common Customs border while leaving the European Union look dimmer than ever. The likelihood the United Kingdom will fracture the next time Scotland gets a vote, looks beyond doubt. It may turn out the British want another referendum when they see the terms negotiated for Brexit in a year or two, but it is probably already too late. The EU will not want to be bothered by Britain's equivocal membership again. The die has been cast.

Voters in Britain and the US threw caution to the winds last year. This year may be the morning-after, when more of them realise politics is not mere entertainment or peripheral to their lives, that voting has consequences. Even in the mood of last year, Trump did not win the popular vote.

It is easy to exaggerate the momentum of the mood he represents. It is disturbing and it is newsworthy but it is not necessarily going to win. As the Dutch have demonstrated, and polls suggest the French will demonstrate in the presidential run-off in May, common sense can still prevail.

- NZ Herald

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