Populist politics and the Dutch elections

Le Pen

“All politicians should be populists”

Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte

A leading Dutch politician declares in an open letter to the Dutch population that immigrants who don’t integrate should “act normal or go away”. You, the reader, may think that this is just one more incendiary statement from the populist firebrand politician Gert Wilders, except, your wrong. The open letter was in fact signed by the current centre-right Prime Minister of Netherlands, Mark Rutte, who won the most seats in the elections, held this week.

The media and political elites of Europe, the Pundocracy, have hailed Gert Wilders failure to come first as a defeat of populism. Gert Wilder’s is a highly provocative right-wing populist politician who advocates, in a one page manifesto, the banning of the Koran, the shutting down of mosques and the withdrawal from the European Union (“EU”).  Wilders shows little interest in actually taking power or accepting the inevitable compromises which come from governing a nation. Comparisons between Wilders and Marine Le Pen should thus be treated with caution. Even Le Pen’s harshest critics accept that she is a formidable, charming and intelligent foe with a ruthless hunger for power.

The real story of the Dutch elections was the embracing of nativist, nationalist and populist rhetoric and policies by the centre-right parties, including most notably, the Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The key to Rutte’s electoral success was his hard-line position with Turkey in the days running up to the election which was intrinsically populist and played well with the voters.

What we are actually seeing is the start of the mainstream-isation of populism in centrist politics, which is why populist politicians are struggling, in both the UK and parts of the Continent. UKIP has seen its vote share drop in by-elections since the centre-right governing Conservatives embraced whole chunks of their manifesto, including grammar schools, immigration controls and exiting the EU.

The Telegraph notes that the anti-immigrant parties of the Right now command 45% of the overall vote, almost half of the Dutch electorate. Yet the Netherlands, despite issues with the integration of a growing Muslim minority, has a successful economy, low unemployment and no recent history of jihadi terrorism. If anti-immigrant and populist politics can enjoy such success in the Netherlands, one must wonder how Le Pen will perform in the up-coming presidential elections as the metrics are far worse in France. A series of horrific jihadi terror atrocities, high youth unemployment, a stagnating economy and a deep national malaise provides fertile territory for her goal of becoming the next occupant of the presidential Élysée Palace.

I have written before that the key to the French elections will be how the French “silver vote” swings in the second round. Polls show that Le Pen is equal or ahead in every age bracket, from the ages of 18 to 64, and only falls of a political cliff with the over-65’s, as shown in the FT graphic.

The older French voter still associates Le Pen with the dark days of her fascistic father Jean-Marie Le Pen and a stigma remains regarding voting for the National Front. If Le Pen can persuade sufficient numbers of these grey voters that she is not an extremist, she will likely win the French presidential election, as I have predicted at the beginning of this year.

The conservative Republican candidate Francois Fillon enjoys solid support from the elderly with his traditional social views and hard-line worldview on the perceived growing threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Fillon, like his political peers Theresa May and Mark Rutte, belongs to a new breed of European political leaders who have combined populist language and policies despite emerging from the traditional political establishment. One can call them and their voters the “soft populists”.

Should Macron embrace a strongly liberal, open border and pro-immigration/European stance in a Le Pen versus Macron clash in the second round, the question remains whether “soft populist” voters on the centre-right will vote for Macron or go for the “hard populist” option of Le Pen in the absence of Fillon.

Whilst it is certainly plausible that Macron will win the French presidential election, the chances of a shock Le Pen victory is more likely then the political pundits and markets assume, and will have profound implications for Europe if the unthinkable does indeed happen.

Populist politics and the Dutch elections