Mark Rutte has suffered the same fate as his closest ally in Europe, Angela Merkel. Both center-right leaders moved to the middle in a bid for centrist voters only to leave a gap on the right that the far right has filled.
In midterm elections on Wednesday, the Dutch Freedom Party and Forum for Democracy won a combined 21 percent of the votes, their best result to date.
In Germany, support for the Alternative is down a few points in the polls but still at 11-14 percent. Merkel’s Christian Democrats fell from 41.5 to 33 percent between the 2013 and 2017 elections.
Rutte’s was a relatively late conversion to consensus politics. His first government, from 2010 to 2012, was supported by the far-right Freedom Party and orthodox Calvinist Reformed Political Party, making it the most right-wing in Dutch history. It raised taxes on the arts, reduced the number of government ministries and cut immigration.
Rutte later governed with Labor and made deals with the liberal Democrats and Greens when that government lost its majority in the Senate. He is now in a similar position: his four-party government will need the support of Labor or the Greens to get legislation through the upper chamber.
Merkel has governed as a centrist from the start. Three of her four governments have been grand coalitions with the center-left. The liberal Free Democrats, traditionally the Christian Democrats’ rivals on the right, no longer play a key role in German politics. The Alternative is now the second-largest party on the right.
Far-right voters in Germany and the Netherlands are motivated by the same issues: immigration, the environment and Europe. On all three, the center-right has disappointed them.
The Alternative for Germany and the Freedom Party and Forum for Democracy all agitate against what they describe — in apocalyptic terms — as a record influx of migrants, high birth rates among non-natives and the supposedly feeble reaction to cultural change by the political elite. 38 percent of Dutch voters name immigration and assimilation as their top concern, up from 29 percent a year ago.
Immigration did reach an historic high in the Netherlands in 2017, although that came after years of low immigration owing to the restrictive policies put in place when the populist right first shared power in the early 2000s.
Immigration into Germany almost quadrupled compared to the previous year in 2015. Many of the asylum seekers were refugees from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Merkel famously insisted Germany could “manage”, and on balance the assimilation of hundreds of thousands of non-Westerners into the country has been more successful than many observers (including me) anticipated, but there have been problems. Non-native Germans are more likely to be on welfare, more likely to be suspects in a crime and less likely to share Western values, such as gender equality and the supremacy over secular over religious law.
The Netherlands struggles with similar problems.
Merkel’s haphazard decision in 2011 to shut all of Germany’s nuclear power plants after the disaster in the Fukushima Prefecture of Japan, and her support for an expensive Energiewende that has raised energy prices for businesses and consumers, endeared her to environmentalists on the left, but it alienated more traditional Christian Democratic supporters on the right.
Rutte this year threw his support behind a similar energy-transition plan that was sponsored by the Netherlands’ Green party. Coming only a few years after the center-right leader lamented that wind turbines run on subsidies, not wind, and coming from a party that has traditionally had the interests of industry and motorists at heart, it proved too much for right-wing voters, many of whom defected to Forum for Democracy, which denies human are responsible for climate change.
Rutte’s likely successor, Klaas Dijkhoff, belatedly tried to convince voters the liberals would balance their financial interests against the need to reduce emissions. Rutte himself emphasized that, rather than sharing the costs equally, consumers would pay only one-third of the transition and industry the rest. It was too little, too late.
Shaping public opinion
So is the answer moving to the right? It’s not that simple.
While the Dutch liberals governed with parties in the center, they adopted some of the far right’s rhetoric on Europe and immigration. Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, similarly took a hard line on immigration in an attempt to outflank the Alternative. It didn’t work.
Rejecting multiculturalism and recognizing that integrating large numbers of non-Western migrants into Dutch or German society is not without difficulty may have inadvertently legitimized the anti-immigrant right. Once respectable right-wing politicians admit there are problems, then it’s not such a big leap to argue for closing the border altogether.
Rutte learned this lesson on Europe. In a bid to stem rising Euroskepticism in the Netherlands, he promised in 2012 there would not be a second bailout for Greece. Of course, there was, and Rutte had to renege on his election promise. In more recent years, he has taken to defending the EU instead, without dropping his opposition to transfer union. Dutch support for the EU is back up. (Brexit also helped.)
There is something to be said for politicians shaping public opinion rather than just following it.
Merkel has already stepped down as party leader in favor of the socially more conservative Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. She has wooed the Christian right, but at the expense of goodwill in the center. The expectation is that Merkel will also give up the chancellorship between now and the next election in 2021.
Dutch political commentators know better than to underestimate Rutte, who has more than once managed to turn defeat into triumph. But Wednesday was the first time since he became prime minister nine years ago that the liberals did not place first in an election.
Rutte is rumored to eye the presidency of the European Council, which Donald Tusk will vacate after the European elections in May. That could be a graceful exit for him.