The sigh of relief Thursday morning could be heard across Western Europe. Even though Geert Wilders’ far-right, Muslim-hating Party for Freedom had made gains in the Dutch election the day before, it was still only the second-largest party with 20 seats – much less than some polls had given it during the election campaign. Prime Minister Mark Rutte will form the next coalition government, even though his right-wing liberal party has fallen to 33 from 41 seats. Centrist European leaders were quick to send their congratulations to Rutte for withstanding the populist surge that threatened to flood the Continent’s lowlands.
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It’s very tempting to portray the results as a turning point in what seemed to be a sharp rightward turn in Western politics – the march that began eight months ago with a majority of British voters choosing to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the U.S. presidential election. Doomsayers were predicting an avalanche of populist victories in key European states in 2017 – the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy. Eurosceptic leaders like Wilders, Marine Le Pen in France and Beppe Grillo in Italy would come to power and bring an end to the economic and political union that tied the Continent together in peace and prosperity for six decades.
The Dutch election took place the very week the House of Commons in London voted to allow Prime Minister Theresa May to activate Article 50, officially starting the negotiations on Britain’s departure from the EU. It was a grim gift to the union’s leaders gathering at the end of this month to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which founded what was then known as the European Economic Community.
Wilders’ defeat will at least give EU leaders something to celebrate, and Rutte will be greeted as a victorious champion. But the attempt at festive cheer will be overshadowed by the fact that Rutte was also forced to tack toward the right to ensure his win. He hardened his rhetoric against migrants who refuse to integrate into Dutch society and opposed any new powers and further political integration for the EU member states.
The decline of the left
While attention abroad focused on the clash between Wilders and Rutte, another significant result of the election was the collapse of the center-left. The Dutch Labor Party lost an astonishing three-quarters of its vote, slumping to just nine seats. The decline of social democrats who championed the values of the welfare state is becoming a trend across the Continent.
Two other main examples come from both sides of the English Channel. In France, the Socialist Party’s candidate in next month’s presidential election, Benoit Hamon, is trailing in fourth place behind the right-wing and centrist candidates. In Britain, the Labour Party under the failing leadership of radical left-winger Jeremy Corbyn is at an all-time low in the polls. Last month it suffered a historic defeat in a by-election, losing a seat it held since the 1930s to the ruling Conservative Party. As in the Netherlands, the main battle in British and French politics seems to be taking place between the center, the right and the far-right.
It may be easy to say this with all the votes in, but Wilders never had a real chance of becoming Holland’s new prime minister. Even if his party had received the most seats, he would almost certainly have been incapable of forming a coalition. The same can be said for France, where the two-round system of presidential elections makes the prospect of a Madame Le President Le Pen extremely unlikely as well. For now at least, it seems there is a glass ceiling to the populist-right’s ambitions.
The fears were somewhat exaggerated and premature. In retrospect, even the events of last year are less shocking. There were many reasons 52 percent of British voters chose Brexit, not all of them necessarily connected to populism and xenophobia. In the wake of the vote we have yet to see a rise of a far right, and the Europhobic UK Independence Party, instead of capitalizing on its victory, has been consumed by infighting.
Neither was the defeat that forced the resignation of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in his own referendum for changes in the constitution, a clear-cut victory for populism. It was just as much a vote for stability in the face of Renzi’s hastily planned and badly explained reforms.
Meanwhile, the populist Five Star Movement led by Grillo has failed to make a breakthrough in the polls. Even the greatest victory for populism, that of Trump, was ultimately due to a freak combination of circumstances, the peculiarities of the electoral college and the weakness of the unpopular Hillary Clinton, who actually won the popular vote by nearly 3 million.
The ‘new center’
Instead of a victory for populism on all fronts, we’re seeing in the West a shift from the traditional left versus right to a new divide between a political center that believes in “openness to the world” and what was not long ago the radical fringe on either side supported by those considering themselves “left behind by globalization.”
In the Netherlands this could be seen not only in the growth of the right-wing bloc that includes Wilders on its most radical pole, but in the rise on the left of the GreenLeft party that has surged to 14 from four seats. In France the trend is even more pronounced in the polls, with independent candidate Emmanuel Macron now the front-runner without support of any of the established parties. This relative newcomer to politics and self-proclaimed leader of the “new center” will almost certainly be the one entering the second round against far-right Le Pen.
The tendency is to identify the new wave of populism with the political far-right, but it shares many traits with left-wing politics as well – as can be seen in the limited success of politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the United States, Corbyn in Britain and the Syriza party in Greece. Trump has also included in his turbulent campaign and presidency a number of elements that only recently would been associated mainly with the hard-core left: dismissiveness of NATO, opposition to international trade deals and admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The new centrists share a support of NATO and the EU, an opposition to Putin’s meddling in Western politics and the embrace of globalism both in trade and a relatively positive attitude to migrants. The only dividing line between the populists is that the left is friendly to Muslims while the right rarely hides its hatred of them. The populist right is also vocal in its support of Israel, in many cases cynically using this to detox itself from the taint of historic association with the old European fascism.
Perhaps the greatest irony of this redrawing of political boundaries is the way it has relabeled the most influential conservative and ruthlessly pragmatic politician in the West. On Friday, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now fighting off challenges both from the radical-right and the center-left in her own election campaign, arrived at the White House for her first meeting with Trump, even leftist pundits were calling her “the new leader of the free world.”