The far right failed its first major test in Europe

Italian Lega Nord (Northern League) secretary, Matteo Salvini, French far-right Front National party president Marine Le Pen and Dutch far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders. Picture: Getty Images

With far-right politician Geert Wilders’ disappointing showing in the Netherlands election on Wednesday, populism might have just failed its first test in Europe.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is set to win the most seats in the Dutch parliament for the third time in a row, dealing a blow to populist leader Wilders, who wanted to pull the Netherlands from the European Union and curb Muslim immigration.

Rutte said the win is in part a reaction to the Dutch witnessing the fallout from Britain’s vote to leave the EU and America’s election of Donald Trump as president.

“The Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said ‘whoa’ to the wrong kind of populism,” Rutte said after as election results rolled in. “Today was a celebration of democracy. We saw rows of people queuing to cast their vote all over the Netherlands — how long has it been since we’ve seen that?”

Election turnout was the highest the Netherlands has seen in decades, The New York Times reported. This year’s election was especially prominent as geopolitical observers watched the sentiment in the Netherlands for signs of what’s to come for the rest of Western Europe, where far-right parties threaten the establishment in some countries.

“During this election campaign, the whole world was watching us,” Alexander Pechtold, leader of the left-leaning Democrats 66 party, said. “They were looking at Europe to see if this continent would follow the call of the populists, but it has now become clear that call stopped here in the Netherlands.”

Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, also praised the result of the election, which he said was “a vote for Europe, a vote against extremists.”

German’s foreign office echoed this message on Twitter.

“Large majority of Dutch voters have rejected anti European populists,” the office tweeted. “That’s good news. We need you for a strong #Europe!”

Germany is facing its own election this year, with far-right parties on the rise there as well. France’s political establishment is also contending with far-right insurgents in its election this year.

Some political observers have suggested that an anti-Trump wave has overtaken the populist wave that has swept Europe.

“Is there an anti-Trump wave in Europe?” Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden, tweeted Wednesday. “Yes, that seems to be the case. Saw it in Austria. Stronger in Netherlands.”

Martin Schulz, the German leader of the Social Democrats party, also took Wilders’ loss in the Netherlands as a sign of what could come in Germany’s elections later this year.

“I am relieved,” he tweeted. “But we have to continue fighting for an open and free Europe.”

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, a centrist who will face right-wing Marine Le Pen in France’s coming elections, also seemed relieved at the Dutch result.

“The Netherlands is showing us that a breakthrough for the extreme right is not a foregone conclusion and that progressives are gaining momentum,” he tweeted.

The establishment’s victory in the Netherlands doesn’t mean that the populist wave has been completely beaten back — Rutte’s VVD is projected to win 33 seats, eight fewer than in the 2012 election, while Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) is set to grab 20 seats, a gain of five on the 2012 election, in a second-place finish.

Wilders, meanwhile, is vowing to remain relevant in Dutch politics.

“We were the 3rd largest party of the Netherlands,” he tweeted Wednesday night. “Now we are the 2nd largest party. Next time we will be nr. 1!”

The tweet contained an image of Wilders’ face next to the phrase “stop Islam.”

Wilders has enjoyed some crossover appeal in the US and has been referred to as the “Dutch Donald Trump.”

He was a featured speaker at a right-wing event during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. During his speech, he decried European immigration policies and said Europe was “imploding” under the threat of Islamist terrorism.

And, more recently, Rep. Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, tweeted in favour of Wilders, linking to a cartoon of Wilders plugging a cracked wall with “Western civilisation” written on it.

“Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,” King wrote. “We can’t restore our civilisation with somebody else’s babies.”

The tweet prompted backlash from both sides of the aisle, but King stood firm in his support of Wilders’ politics.

Wilders doesn’t seem to see this election as a loss. Earlier in the evening, he celebrated the results in another tweet, saying, “The first victory is in! And Rutte has not seen the last of me yet!!”

Barbara Tasch contributed to this report.

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