LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Dutch voters have delivered a conventional kind of protest. The country’s ruling coalition suffered losses in Wednesday’s election as the electorate turned to opposition parties. But right-wing firebrand Geert Wilders picked up fewer seats than forecast. The setback for extremism leaves mainstream politics in the Netherlands more fragmented than ever.
It’s a strange election when losing a fifth of your parliamentary seats is hailed as a resounding victory. Yet that’s what Prime Minister Mark Rutte was celebrating after his VVD emerged as the country’s largest party for the third time running with a projected 21 percent of the vote. The centre-left Labour Party, the junior partner in the coalition, had less to smile about: it is set to lose a staggering 29 of its 38 seats in the lower house.
However, anti-establishment sentiment did not translate into meaningful new support for Wilders, whose attacks on Islam and the European Union invited inevitable comparisons with U.S. President Donald Trump and Britain’s Brexit campaign. Though his Party for Freedom (PVV) is set to end up in second place, it received a lower share of the vote than in 2010, when it finished third.
It’s tempting to view the result as a rejection of the extremist forms of politics that are on the rise across the developed world. Yet Wilders is hardly a new face: he has been in parliament for almost two decades and was contesting his fourth election as head of the PVV. Moreover, mainstream Dutch parties have co-opted parts of his anti-immigrant stance. When the government sparked a diplomatic row by blocking two Turkish ministers from speaking at a rally in Rotterdam last weekend, none of the main political leaders objected.
Meanwhile, political support has splintered. For the first time in recent history, the top three parties combined received less than 50 percent of the vote. This complicates the process of forming a government. Though Rutte should be able to pull together a coalition, he will need the help of at least three partners to secure a majority. They will have to overcome serious differences about the tax burden, healthcare costs and the rise of part-time work. The risk is that the Netherlands enters an extended period of political limbo and emerges with a fragile coalition. Though most voters rejected extremism, their conventional protest is hardly a recipe for stable government.