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

7 thoughts on “Populist politics and the Dutch elections

  1. Richard says:

    I have also read that the “silver voters”, the 64+ who were polled are more in favour of Macron (being an Establishment creature) because he is perceived as a safe pair of hands. They believe he won’t rock the boat and upset the status quo. The “cotton tops” are worried that if Le Pen gets in, and causes Frexit, it will effect their pensions. Basically, the older generation favour Macron to safeguard their pensions.

    You also did not mention the elephant in the room. The recent polls favouring Macron with an outright victory in the second round. What was it again.. 60/40 to Macron. How do explain the polls if you suspect/predict a Le Pen win?

    I know she is the most popular candidate amongst the young and the unemployed. The most popular candidate in the rural and agricultural areas. And she’s the most popular candidate amongst the blue collar working classes and in the industrial regions of France. I have also heard say that many in the old communist base will be voting HEAVILY for her too. But Macron is just a couple of points behind in the polls, and there is all this talk of a blocking motion in the second round. Everyone gangs up on Le Pen in the second round state the polls and media pundits. Anyone but Le Pen they say. Again, how do explain the disparity between your predicted Le Pen victory and the numerous polls heavily in favour of a Macron win?


    1. Hi Richard

      The reason I think that Le Pen has a reasonable chance of winning is the following:

      1) It is true that the silver voters, as you state, are concerned about her position on the euro and the fact that they tend to associate the National Front with the fascist politics of her father. I have a feeling that faced with Macron, who has no real connection with the socially conservative, patriotic and traditional older voters; enough of them will switch to MLP due to their fears about the future of the country. These voters are highly concerned about the growing rise of fundamentalist Islam in society, the terror threat and look to a strong leader to take stand on this issue. This is the prime reason Fillon does so well. If MLP can persuade sufficient numbers of the Fillon voting base to vote for her she can win the election. The bottom line is that should older voters prioritize the future of the country (e.g. Islamification fears) over concerns about her economic policy on the euro, then Le Pen can win.

      2) It is true that Macron is ahead in the polls but these are not set in stone. Nearly half the French population (43%) are unsure who to vote so the polls could shift significantly by the time the actual voting happens. I’ll remind you that not a single poll suggested that the Conservatives would win a majority in the May 2015 election yet they did. I placed a bet, a year and a half before the 2015 GE, on the basis of the underlying polling of Cameron’s versus Miliband’s economic competence and leadership ratings. Polls aren’t always accurate. This is also noted by Goldman Sachs in this article which covers similar points to mine (http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/24/marine-le-pen-can-win-france-says-goldman-sachs.html).

      3) Turnout is also important. Polls show that Le Pen’s voters are far more committed to their candidate then Macron voters. The pollsters and pundits are assuming that the Republican Front will turn out this election but I am not so certain. Should Le Pen portray herself as a populist nationalist within the mainstream of politics, sufficient voters may decide to give her a chance, others who planned to vote tactically against her may not turn up and the anti-Le Pen vote could be depressed as she turns out new voters among the young, unemployed, industrial working class and the ex-Communist strongholds on Election Day.

      Right now, it is too early to say with any confidence that she will win but I do think that MLP has a good chance if she plays her cards right, gets lucky with her opponents and performs well in the presidential debates.

      My hunch, and it is only that, is that I will have a sense if she has the momentum to win after the 1st round is over and the French electorate are forced to choose between the likely candidates of Le Pen and Macron.


  2. Richard says:

    Firstly. Thank you for replying to my post. Much appreciated. Just been looking at the polls age breakdown (via Wikipedia) of the Macron v Fillon v Le Pen in round 1. Over 65+ are major Fillon/Republican supporters. In this particular 65+ poll, Macron and Le Pen are way down from Fillon in support, but neck and neck even.

    A recent look at the ifop French Election polls suggest that Fillon supporters will split into three sections in the second round. 42% will vote for Macron, 31% abstention, and 27% will vote for Le Pen.

    Now of course, some could be lying to the pollsters (the shy voter effect). It is plausible, but how many are holding back their true intentions? Right-wing and conservative voters are known to be very reticent about telling who they are voting for. But from this recent poll, it looks like Macron could hoover up a lot of Fillon’s voters in the second round. I know Le Pen’s problem is Fillon-style conservatives don’t like her, and it is said they are unlikely to switch. But are they being disingenuous to the pollsters? I find it a little hard to believe so many would choose to vote for Emmanuel Macron. Many Fillon supporters believe the Left and Macron’s people in particular, (in cahoots with the mainstream liberal media), were behind the Penelopegate revelations. They have no proof, but blame Macron’s people for nobbling the presidential chances of their man. They suspect the Liberal Elite have cleared the path for THEIR chosen candidate… Emmanuel Macron. Even Fillon has recently come out and publically accused Hollande’s government of “dirty tricks”.

    Who has gained most from Francois Fillon’s fall from grace? Why Macron of course. Macron was nowhere until Fillon fell. He was hardly talked about. Now he is the media’s “Golden Boy”.

    So the question has to be asked… Why would Fillon’s supporters in the second round then vote for the very man, who they strongly suspect of destroying their candidate’s chances of presidential success? Why would they help Macron gain power after they suspect has done the “dirty” on them? Do they hate Le Pen that much? Or are they lying?

    And yes, you are right. The conservative/republican vote, so popular with the 65+ voters, will be absolutely KEY to this election. Which way they vote in the final round will decide who wins and who loses. They will be the King or Queen Makers in this election.

    If she cannot win these particular voters over. Macron will be the one sitting on the Iron Throne.


  3. Hi Richard

    Fully agree with your analysis.

    I would add that the hard Left are another key voting block where untapped Le Pen support could be found. Currently only 10% have outed themselves as voting for Le Pen but I suspect that others will end up voting for her against Macron.

    This NYT article explains the strategy of the Le Pen inner circle and how they intend to paint Macron as a liberal elitist in the second round. I have a hunch that they could succeed but we will see.

    From a political betting perspective, I would wait until after the 1st round to place significant trades on Le Pen as the picture should be starting to become clearer if the silver vote is starting to swing her away.

    Interesting that so many are already refusing to vote for Le Pen and Macron. That suggests to me that some of the silver vote could end up voting for Le Pen. As one elderly lady voter was quoted in a FT piece, “Le Pen has some good ideas but I can’t vote for an extremist. It will have to be the other one”. People like her could be turned around if MLP succeeds in de-toxifying herself over the next month or so.


  4. Richard says:

    A short extract from Daily Express – How Marine Le Pen could win the French election: Market fear as victory path spelled out

    Ken Odeluga, market analyst at City Index, said: “A potential ‘Shy voter’ effect, combined with a more dynamic view of second-round scenarios—when drop-out candidates can be expected to barter their support—suggests higher Le Pen risk.”

    Supporters of Francois Fillion and Gaullist Eurosceptic Nicolas Dupont-Aignan are likely to get behind Ms Le Pen in the second-round, as well as a smaller portion of people who vote in the first-round for far-left candidates Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou, according to Mr Odeluga.

    He said: “Under these ultra-cautious scenarios, Le Pen hits more than 50 per cent, even without the unpredictable alliances that ‘soft Eurosceptic’ Mélenchon might forge.

    “We can see how the Front National candidate could get close to, though would remain below Macron’s current 58 per cent assessment, which itself is likely to rise, should he progress to the run-off.

    “As per Donald Trump and Brexit though, her opponents and markets should be more concerned that higher levels of commitment among her confirmed support, together with an unusually high ‘free-floating’ electorate, may again combine to increase the chances of a result that appears improbable.” – Daily Express, Apr 11, 2017

    Interestingly Mr. Odeluga believes Fillon’s supporters are going to vote for Le Pen in the second round. And not for Macron. We shall see.

    It’s also worth noting the late rise in support of the dark horse Hard-Left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, (the once distant no-hoper) now closing in on Fillon. Interestingly both Le Pen and Melenchon have proposed leaving NATO and want a referendum on leaving the EU. It looks like Euroscepticism is alive and well in France, on the left and the right. Perhaps the Frexiteers are already in the majority. I imagine all this electoral unpredictability is spooking the markets.

    If and when Mélenchon falls in the race, and does not make it into the second round. I wonder which way the pro-Mélenchon left-wing Eurosceptic voters are going to vote? For the pro-Euro globalist Establishment plant, or the anti-Euro anti-globalist nationalist protectionist candidate?

    And French physicist Serge Galam’s recent comments on the chances of a Le Pen victory in the elections are also worth a read. Galam says unlike other candidates, Le Pen can count on a loyal and committed voter base. And states that conservative voters might refrain from voting for Macron because they regard him as a natural heir to President Francois Hollande. Serge Galam also notes that lack of commitment of other candidates and apathy within people could lead to significant amounts of voter abstention playing into the hands of Le Pen.


  5. Hi

    Agree with your points.

    I have read Serge Galam’s paper on turnout and agree that higher turnout from Le Pen’s base could lead to victory despite the fact that the surface polling suggests she will lose in the second round.

    I also agree that if Fillon gets knocked out, a significant section of the Fillon Catholic Right vote will vote for Le Pen, in some cases holding their noses, to stop Macron or the hard left getting in.

    The bigger picture is the old Left-versus-Right divide, which the media still overwhelmingly use, is increasingly useless in analyzing elections. The media call Le pen “far-right” but in many ways she is very left-wing, in terms of her economic policy.

    A better understanding of politics is through the prism of “open” versus “closed” politics with Le Pen very much on the anti-globalization/nationalist/protectionist end of the spectrum and Macron as the other end, pro-European, pro-mass migration, pro-refugee and pro-globalization.

    I recommend reading up on David Goodhart’s work on the divide between somewheres and anywheres as a similar divide is apparent in France, as well as other countries.


    What we are seeing is an historic re-alignment of politics in the developed world and the question is whether Le Pen can pull of a shock victory this year or whether she will have to wait to 2021 (as she originally expected until the Brexit/Trump victories).

    I will be covering these themes in my post-1st round blog post once we know who the final candidates are in the French election.


  6. Richard says:

    Andrew Marr’s article on David Goodhart’s opinions is enlightening. The old take on the politics of Right and Left that has dominated for decades is changing. I have felt this for some time now. I think I became aware of these changing attitudes around Brexit. It’s becoming the Elites vs. Everyone Else. As a quick analogy, you could say the top 20% have been in the fancy restaurant dining on lobster and champagne for years now. Whilst the rest of us have had to make do with fish and chips. But the other 80% are rebelling and about to burn the restaurant down, and the buggers will learn to eat fish and chips with the rest of us. I think that’s what is happening here. People are getting wise, and the fight is on. And the Establishment isn’t having it’s own way any more.

    The David Goodhart piece reminds me of something the economist Mark Blyth said.


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