Letter from Europe: The Little Dutch Boy

By Stan Persky | March 23, 2017

When voters in the Netherlands flocked to the polls in record numbers last week (turnout: 80 per cent) for their March 15, 2017 parliamentary elections, I found myself thinking about “the little Dutch boy.” He’s the legendary child-hero who, on his way to school one morning, noticed that the dike that keeps the sea from inundating his low-land nation had sprung a dangerous leak. According to the national fable, the little Dutch boy stuck his finger in the dike and bravely kept it there for hours until some local villagers noticed and were able to make the necessary repairs. While the citizens of Holland were busy casting their ballots last week, I – and a lot of other people in Europe – were hoping that the little Dutch boy would turn up and stick his finger in the dike to stop the floodwaters of right-wing populism from washing over the continent.

The little Dutch boy at work.

Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that, both the story and the election. First, the provenance of the legend is not quite known by Dutch scholars (or even omniscient Wikipedia), though statues of the little Dutch boy, finger-in-the-dike, are scattered throughout Holland. What we do know is that in American author Mary Mapes Dodge’s 19th century young adult novel, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates (1865), she recounts the story — as a kind of sidebar to the main plotline about speed skating in the Netherlands — of the young “Hero of Haarlem,” which popularized the folktale in North America. (I still remember possessing a copy of Dodge’s YA tale at some point in my childhood.) What’s also not known, in this Anthropocene era of climate change, is whether plugging the leak by sticking your finger in the hole will still do the job — whether of holding back floodwaters or turning the tide of right-wing populism. *(See cultural footnote below.)

Geert Wilders (l), Mark Rutte (r).

Like the story of the little Dutch boy, the recent Dutch election is also a bit more complicated than it first appears, even though much of the visiting media treated it as a referendum on rising populism. Dozens of international reporters turned up at the parliamentary seat of government in The Hague, and also in Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, not so much because of the Dutch election itself (or to look at the Rembrandt paintings in the Rijksmuseum), as to gauge the success or failure of a far right-wing Dutch politician, Geert Wilders. The 53-year-old leader of the right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) wants to stop future Muslim immigration, shut down mosques, ban the Quran, and pull Holland out of the European Union (EU). He likes to equate the Islamic holy book with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and he refers to would-be and present Moroccan-Dutch citizens as “scum.” The Wilders phenomenon is pointedly ironic in a country once noted for its social liberalism as the first European state to endorse same-sex marriage, recognize a right to assisted-death, and respond to contentious matters like drugs, prostitution, and porn without provoking a moral panic from either conservatives or liberals.

Last year’s surprise victories for the populist right in both the Brexit referendum (to end Britain’s membership in the EU) and the 2016 U.S. presidential election that brought New York businessman and neophyte politician Donald Trump to the White House set the stage for this year’s events. Europe, since the inauguration of Trump in the U.S., and the parliamentary Brexit debate in the UK, has  been nervously anticipating a string of 2017 elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany, all of which will determine whether the rise of newly-prominent populists of the right will continue or if the populist movements have reached their high-water mark and will recede.

A good deal hangs on the answer, possibly including the fate of the EU itself. The anticipation is that if the populists win, Europe may return to authoritarian nationalism, anti-immigration policies (encapsulated in slogans about “taking back our country”), a reduction of social tolerance, indifference to war refugees, and the further expression of the anger and resentment of sizable segments of the population (often, older white males with little education, who live in rural areas). If the populist wave can be pushed back, that will not save the EU from its many contradictions – which range from widespread alienation from the Brussels bureaucracy to the problems of the Euro monetary system and the economic austerity policies (a.k.a. “neoliberalism”) that have devastated the economies of several EU members, especially Greece – but it will at least keep open the space for public conversation.

By the way, if you haven’t already noticed, I’m taking it as a given that “right-wing populism” — whatever that phrase actually means (and I’ll skip attempting to add another slippery definition to the stack that already exists) – is not a good thing, and that its rollback is desirable. People seeking other perspectives and/or the advocacy of unrestrained “cowboy” capitalism are advised to turn to Breitbart “news” and similarly cranky websites.

Mark Rutte (f.); Wilders (in back).

Okay, we’re on our way to the overflowing ballot boxes and the results. But first, let’s dispel a couple of Dutch election myths. First, Wilders was, from the outset, unlikely to gain control of Holland’s government. Even at the height of “the Dutch Trump’s” polling popularity in this election cycle – and notwithstanding his rather Trump-like, weird, blondish hairdo — Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) only commanded about 15 per cent of the vote (and, in the event, scored even less than that). Since there are 28 parties (!) in the multi-party Dutch political landscape — which means that in a setting of proportional representation gone wild, the Netherlands is almost always governed by a coalition — and since all the other major parties had already declared that they wouldn’t participate in a coalition that included Wilders, that meant that his right-wing populists were very unlikely to gain control of the government or even secure a place within the governing coalition.

So, the danger of Wilders was somewhat exaggerated from the start, mainly driven by the over-enthusiasm of an international press and punditry seeking a sensational story. At the same time, overly-calm observers who insisted that there was really nothing to see here, let’s move on, were also wrong.

In the very fragmented Dutch political situation, Wilders and his supporters were at one point the leading party in the polls, on the verge of eclipsing the incumbent main government party, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s (similarly named) People’s Party for Freedom snd Democracy (VVD), a right-of-centre grouping also known as the Liberals. (By the way, you’re not required to remember any of the party names or their acronyms. The only thing needed to orient yourself is a political GPS, which will let you know that Wilders is on the far right, and incumbent PM Rutte is centre-right. Nor will there be a test at the end of this article.)

If Wilders ended up on top as the party with the biggest percentage of the vote or the largest share of the 150 parliamentary seats up for grabs, even though it wouldn’t bring the populists to power, it would be seen throughout Europe as a significant symbolic victory that could portend further worries down the road in the upcoming French, German (and maybe even Italian) elections. This would be one of those relatively rare cases where a symbolic victory is more than just a bit of flag-waving moral satisfaction. As some analysts had noted even before a vote was cast, Wilders’ prominence in a landscape of rising populism has already succeeded in pushing politics in the Netherlands to the right, in terms of both agendas and policies.

Minutes after the polls closed in the Ides of March election contest, the Netherlands’ usually reliable exit polls had pretty much called it, and everyone could relax. This was not going to be a nail-biter electoral contest running late into the evening.

Wilders (l), Rutte (r).

Although Mark Rutte’s center-right VVD lost seats and a chunk of their previous vote, they still topped the polls with 21 per cent of the ballots, yielding it a leading share of 33 parliamentary seats (down 8 seats from the previous election). That means that incumbent Prime Minister Rutte is likely to remain in his post as the head of the next coalition government.

During the campaign, Rutte got a lucky, if ominous break, when the President of Turkey, Recep Erdogan, sent Turkish  government officials to the Netherlands to hold political rallies among Dutch-Turkish residents in support of an upcoming Turkish referendum designed to increase the powers of Erdogan’s presidential office. Although the legalities of the issue are murky (can foreign governments carry out political activities among their dual-citizenship expatriates in other countries?), the move (which was also resisted by other European governments) provided Rutte with a timely opportunity to “stand up to” foreigners and thus demonstrate to the electorate that he was as “tough” on the threat of the “Islamisation” of Holland as Wilders. Erdogan didn’t help himself when he accused the Dutch of residual “Nazism,” thus increasing the magnitude of the fuss and, intentionally or not, boosting Rutte’s chances.

Correspondingly, Wilders’ far-right populist PVV, far from leading the polls, barely managed a second-place finish amid a pack of competing parties. Wilders increased his vote percentage and seats moderaterly, but still only came out with 13.1 per cent of the votes, and 20 parliamentary seats, significantly trailing Rutte. What’s more, the Christian Democratic CDA party, also a centre-right formation, with its 12.5 per cent of the ballots and 19 seats, came within a hair of Wilders’ totals, as did the left-of-centre Democrats 66 (D66) party, one of the evening’s bigger winners with 12 per cent of the vote and also 19 seats. So, even though Wilders, technically speaking, improved his position, for international observers he was actually a loser. First, he disappointed expectations of a populist surge, and his placement in a neck-and-neck pack of other parties, clearly signalled that right-wing populism in the Netherlands was no more prominent than the progressive “elites” that were supposed to be overwhelmed in the backwash of a Wilders’ surge. Although a story about something that didn’t happen is not especially sexy in the media world, the news, for Europe and elsewhere, was simply that the possible populist surge didn’t materialize.

Green Left leader Jesse Klaver.

For the Dutch themselves, the election story was somewhat different from the international version. While the centre-left D66 clearly gained ground (as noted above, with 19 seats and a 12 per cent vote share – a marked increase on their previous election results), the really prominent success story of the night was Jesse Klaver, the 30-year-old leader of the Green Left party (GL) who bears a resemblance and is often compared to the charismatic Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau (who’s become a pop celebrity in Europe since his 2015 election). The Greens topped the polls in Amsterdam and among young voters generally, and in overall terms, even though they won only 8.9 per cent of the vote and 14 parliamentary seats, they increased their vote percentage and seats by a larger margin than any of the 28 parties (13 of whom will be represented in the next parliament). So Klaver, who may regarded as something of a left-populist, was definitely a winner, and even more, a charming one.

Klaver (l.); Trudeau (r.)

The youthful Klaver – who has a Moroccan father and a mother of Indonesian descent – attributed his success to standing up for left principles rather than succumbing to the usual mealy-mouthed political rhetoric. “What I would say to all my leftwing friends in Europe: don’t try to fake the populace,” Klaver told supporters on election day.

“Stand for your principles. Be straight-forward. Be pro-refugee. Be pro-European. We’re gaining momentum in the polls. And I think that’s the message we have to send to Europe. You can stop populism,” he insisted. If the message might be a bit over-hopeful, nonetheless, for a lot of voters, it was refreshing. Klaver also reminded Dutch voters that “the values the Netherlands stands for – for many, many decades, centuries actually – its freedom, its tolerance, its empathy,” are being destroyed by Wilders-style populism. “It’s terrible when people who are born in the Netherlands have the feeling they are not part of this society and it is not something to be proud of, but to be ashamed of. And I want to change that.” (Jon Henley, “Dutch elections: big winner proves to be Green Left,” The Guardian, March 16, 207.)

The other big story of the night for Dutch participants was the near-total collapse of the social democratic Labour party (PvdA), a major coalition partner in the former government. Their vote dramatically fell from a quarter of the ballots and 38 seats only 5 years ago, in 2012 (making them the country’s second largest formation), to a mere 5.7 per cent of the vote (a 19 per cent plunge) and only 9 seats (a loss of 29 seats). Most inside observers attributed the Labour Party catastrophe to their participation in the governing coalition. European Parliament MP Marietta Schaake said their failure in the coalition was “a big disappointment for their constituencies,” adding, “The story of the Labour Party is one of a 4-year-long coalition with the party [namely, Rutte’s VVD] they said they would never govern with in the previous campaign.”

Further, as some Dutch pundits noted, although the “establishment” parties in Holland (as elsewhere in Europe) were punished by voters, and fragmentation increased, the balance of left and right didn’t change much. Right of centre parties (if you include the extreme Wilders grouping) together have about 47 per cent of the vote, compared to about 36 per cent among the bigger left-of-centre parties. As well, there are smaller groups whose exact position is hard to locate even with a political GPS. An animal rights party secured 5 parliamentary seats, and a new ethnic-based party in Rotterdam, the country’s third largest city, led by former Labour politicians, gained a couple of seats in their debut electoral outing. If one excludes Wilders from the calculations, as being outside the conservative norm, then left and right in the Netherlands are split fairly evenly at about a base vote of 35 per cent each.

One of the leading experts on right-wing populism, University of Georgia politics professor, Cas Mudde (he’s the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, 2017), was quick to puncture the pretensions of observers prematurely announcing the demise of populist politics. In his analysis of the outcome Mudde mocks the international media that suggested that “the brave Dutch electorate defeated populism” by denying Wilders’ bid to become the biggest party in parliament. “The Dutch  elections,” says Mudde, “were never about the defeat or victory of populism.” He points out that it’s been known for years that the largest party in parliament “would at best get a quarter of the votes,” necessitating a coalition requiring four or five parties. In Mudde’s view, since Wilders could at most only become a minor player in the government (and even that was unlikely), such an outcome would be “hardly a victory for the [populist] phenomenon.” So, the populism test, in his view, was grossly exxagerated. (Cas Mudde, “’Good’ populism beat ‘bad’ in Dutch election,” The Guardian, March 19, 2017.)

Mudde admits that even in the Dutch media, the Rutte-Wilders race received a disproportionate amount of attention, and that Rutte had relentlessly played on the theme, suggesting that he was the main force standing between the leaky dike and the populist floodwaters. Indeed, Rutte declared in his victory speech that he had put a halt to the “wrong kind of populism,” and hinted that there was a good kind of populism (which he, Rutte, presumably represented).

Mudde is dubious about this sort of argument, and sees it as merely a discussion of degrees of dangerous authoritarianism. “Everyone in the Netherlands knows what Wilders… stands for: nativism, authoritarianism and populism.” It is “roughly the same agenda” shared by Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) in France, the Alternative for Deutschland party (AfD) in Germany, and Trump in the U.S. About the only thing distinctive about Wilders, says Mudde, is that his position on Islam “takes Islamophobia to a whole new level.”

It turns out that the target of Mudde’s analysis is really the centre-right of PM Rutte’s  VVD and the Christian Democrats. They both, like Wilders, defend (or pretend to defend) “Dutch” and “Christian” values against alleged Islamization in the name of a “good” populism. Mudde notes that this is a position popular “within the crisis-ridden social democratic parties of Europe,” and that “in most cases it seems to mean a (slightly) lighter form of not just populism… but also of authoritarianism and nativism.” In short, the conservative parties that will form the next coalition government are not all that different from Wilders himself, and “the question is how much the electoral ‘defeat’ of Wilders will really mean.” If the difference between “good” and “bad” populism is merely a matter of degree, says Mudde, “Wilders might have the last laugh after all.”

Mudde raises interesting points, which is why I’ve reprised his argument at some length. But I think his emphasis on the similarities of right-wing formations (and not only in the Netherlands) is somewhat overdrawn. Remember, there was a similar equivalency argument made about Trump and Hillary Clinton in the American election – an argument often made by U.S. leftists. Less than a hundred days into the Trump presidency, you hear that absurd notion less often than during the campaign. Still, Mudde has a point.

The thing he glosses over, in my view, is the importance of the symbolic win in the Dutch results. Nobody is pretending that there’s been a real defeat of right-wing populism, but the Dutch results not only presented an important instance of something not-happening (namely, a populist surge), but will also act as encouragement to anti-populist forces in the forthcoming French and German elections. Nor does Mudde pay much attention to the fact that the Dutch vote means that the Netherlands will continue to have a clearly pro-European Union government.

A more balanced assessment could be found in the morning-after New York Times lead editorial. The liberal American paper noted that overcoming fears “that the Netherlands would be the next populist domino” after Brexit and Trump, “the Dutch turned out in record numbbers to reject the anti-Muslim platform of the far-right candidate Geert Wilders.” The Times noted that the Dutch election was seen as a “potential bellwether” for other European elections later this year, but cautioned that “it is premature to assume the Dutch result signals the defeat of far-right populism in Europe.” (The Editorial Board, “A Dent in Europe’s Populism,” New York Times, March 16, 2017.)

However the coalition building goes, observed the editorial, “the Netherlands looks set to form a staunchly pro-European government.” That’s a result, added the paper, that cheered other European leaders. It cited German Chancellor Angela Merkel who said she “was very happy that a high turnout led to a very pro-European result, a clear signal.” French President Francois Hollande hailed the outcome as a “clear victory against extremism.” But no one was suggesting that the populist threat is over.

As the headline over Jon Henley’s post-election report in The Guardian cautiously put it, though some of us may be thinking about the finger in the dike, it might be more realistic to see the outcome as “a finger in the wind, not a litmus test.” Leaving aside the melange of mixed metaphors, Henley was directing his attention more to the upcoming French election as a test of populism rather than the Dutch contest. (Jon Henley, “Dutch general election: a finger in the wind, not a litmus test,” The Guardian, March 16, 2017.)

Henley notes that the French presidential election, taking place over two rounds of voting in April and May, more closely resembles the Brexit and U.S. elections – it’s a one-on-one, winner-take-all contest. Nonetheless, even though France’s Front National hailed both Brexit and Trump as omens of a “patriotic revolution,” neither the FN nor their German counterpart, the Alternative for Deutschland, saw significant polling improvements in the wake of those populist victories. And although the FN’s Marine Le Pen is, without doubt, a serious contender in the French presidential race, and likely to win the first round of voting, polling so far shows that her probable opponent in the second round, the centrist independent Emmanuel Macron, is running some 20 points ahead of Le Pen in the face-off.

Still, analysts like Henley are quick to concede that a Le Pen victory is very much within the realm of possibility. If that happened, says Henley, it “would prove a seismic shock, not least to markets,” which fear that Le Pen would try to deliver on her promises to take France out of the Eurozone monetary system and to hold a “Frexit” referendum. However, Henley advises against panic. The French will be holding parliamentary elections in June that may make it difficult even for a Le Pen presidency to organize a referendum.

Since France’s constitution contains the phrase, “The Republic is part of the European Union,” changing the constitution would require the approval of both houses of the French parliament, as well as a referendum on the change. Since the FN is barely represented in France’s national assembly at the moment, it would have to score major victories in this summer’s legislative elections, and even a proposed referendum would have to pass muster with France’s constitutional court, an unlikely prospect.

Still, as Henley admits, “It is difficult to underestimate the strength of the psychological blow a Le Pen victory would deliver to Europe… The bloc would be rocked to its foundations.” But it’s not yet the end of the European Union as we know it. As Henley concludes, “However many – if any – dominoes fall this year, the end of the liberal world order may not quite be nigh.”

A lot turns on that “not quite” in “the end is not quite nigh.” That’s why the symbolism, if nothing else, of the Dutch electorate holding off populism, matters.


*   *   *

* (Cultural footnote: In English, the words “dike,” a barrier to prevent floods, and “dyke,” a slang term for lesbians, are homophones, a sub-category of homonym – words that sound alike, but have different meanings. Homophones are distinguished by sounding alike, having different meanings, and are spelled differently as well. This little coincidence in the English language is the source of schoolboy snickering and countless, frequently anti-lesbian, bad jokes, none of which will be repeated here. Nor should either word be confused with the 17th century Flemish painter from Antwerp, Anthony van Dyck, etc. End of cultural excursus.)


Berlin, March 23, 2017.



  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

More from Stan Persky: