Even though it looks like it gained a win in the United States in 2016, populism has seen comparable setbacks in the rest of the world. Le pen in France, Maduro in Venezuela, and Frauke Petry in Germany, all failed to amass the momentum that Donald Trump did in America. But even when populism doesn’t see an outright victory the rhetoric that is established during the campaign and the platforms that gain traction can have lasting effects on democracy. In the Netherlands Geert Wilders and the Party for Freedom didn’t win a majority but voters saw incumbent Prime Minister Rutte take on some of Wilders’ anti-immigration campaign messages in an effort to cement his lead in the election. In the aftermath Rutte has been considered a ‘good’ populist alternative. In an age where populism seems like the only way to get out the vote and gain support, is there really such a thing as ‘good’ Populism? And, will democracy survive if we allow the ‘good’ populist candidates to defeat the ‘bad’ populist candidates?
The fight against populism is not new, but the classification of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ populism causes complications and hides the actual effects of the election. Populism is typically understood as a candidate or political party that runs on a campaign that claims to speak to the masses while really mobilizing only a subset of the population around anti-establishment and anti-pluralist views (Muller). It is not constructive to separate populism into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because without the bad aspects like an anti-pluralist agenda and exclusive campaign platform the candidate is no longer populist. So nationally recognized, or self-proclaimed, ‘good’ populist candidates like Mark Rutte are more similar to their populist opponents than they care to share. In the United Kingdom ‘good’ populist candidates end up running on campaigns that are less concentrated around populism but still carry authoritarian, nativist, and anti-immigration viewpoints (Mudde). The issue arises when citizens feel too relieved when ‘bad’ populist leaders lose an election. After close elections the actions of the populist candidate are no longer in the public spotlight. This is where the problems arise, and these problems can be clearly identified in the story of the 2017 elections the Netherlands.
In the 2017 Dutch parliamentary election was held because the previous government ended a four-year term. There were 150 members of the House of Representatives up for reelection. Winning another term as Prime Minister, Mark Rutte’s center-right party, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, won 33 seats. This is eight less seats than the previous election. Geert Wilders, the creator of the far-right political party, Party for Freedom, lost the election but the party still received 20 seats in parliament. This is the second largest number of seats won in this election and the party increased their amount from 15 to 20 seats.
Last year, the results of the parliamentary election in the Netherlands was met with international praise that democracy was narrowly saved. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, announced publicly that the results of the election created “a good day for democracy” (Henley). But, the lasting effects of this election have a direct influence on the future of Democracy in the region.
Wilders’ vitriolic campaign in the Netherlands in 2016, demonstrated the lasting effects of populism and a far-right Islamophobia on mainstream political discussion. Wilders didn’t win the majority of the seats, but he did gain seats in the parliament and his party will still be able to influence policy. Although it wasn’t an outright victory, they were still able to make strides to gain power and push forward their policies.
It is common for non-populist leaders take on specific populist agendas when they think that it will be positive for their campaign. The agendas tend to be messages that motivate masses like Rutte’s comments warning citizens that they must “respect Dutch norms and values “or leave” (Henley). Rutte was anti-populist, but still adopted Wilders’ nationalist rhetoric about strict immigration. Throughout the campaigned Rutte stressed that he was the only candidate that could “keep Wilders from power, although emphasizing his “irresponsible” or “unserious” politics rather than his populism” (Mudde). Rutte used the aspects of the populist campaign to secure his own win while simultaneously stressing that Wilders needed to be stopped and that he was the only person that could do it successfully.
There is a rise and Islamophobic trends in the Netherlands, and the sentiment wasn’t completely silenced when Wilders lost the election. The anti-Islam manifesto of Wilders’ party, that was used as a political platform, includes efforts to close mosques, make the Quran and wearing a headscarf in public illegal. This would all result in the banning of all Islamic expressions (Bahceli). Rutte’s party does not support the ideas outlined in the manifesto, but there are already laws being past that carry the same anti-Islamic nature as the manifesto. Before the election Rutte’s party passed laws allowing the government to usurp the citizenship of Dutch Muslims who join terrorist organizations without the permission of a court (Bahceli). This is another contradiction of Rutte’s campaign, he openly disagreed with Wilders’ politics for the election but policies that align with Wilders’ views were already being passed by a government with Rutte as the prime minister.
After this election it took Rutte a record 208 days to form the coalition of four Dutch parties from all over the political spectrum including Rutte’s party the VVD, the progressive D66 and two Christian parties (Henley). Many parties vowed not to join a coalition with Wilders’ Party for Freedom and this created the need to pull smaller parties into the coalition. This influences the current state of democracy because it gives parties with a small number of seats in parliament a chance to be part of the winning coalition. Without this, it would have been likely that they would not have had much of an influence. This also could put pressure on the effectiveness of the coalition itself. If the parties that make up the coalition are from further apart on the political spectrum then it will be more difficult to make decisions. If the parliament wasn’t effective and the government was voted to dissolve and hold another election it could be dangerous for the Dutch because it would give Wilders another chance to gain even more power.
Although it seems like populism is gaining more and more traction, it is increasingly important to understand the lasting effects of a populist campaign, whether the party wins or not. We cannot continue to be relieved when ‘good’ populists defeat ‘bad’ populists because there is no such thing as a ‘good’ populist. It is much more complicated than that. The Netherlands are now facing trends that could lead to serious democratic erosion including an increase in Islamophobic trends, leaders that claim to be preserving democracy while simultaneously adopting populist traits, and possibly unstable governing coalitions. If democracy is to remain strong we cannot ignore the early warning signs of democratic erosion.
Bahceli, Yoruk. “The erosion of Dutch democracy.” OpenDemocracy, 13 Mar. 2017,
Henley, Jon. “Dutch parties agree coalition government after a record 208 days.” The Guardian,
Guardian News and Media, 9 Oct. 2017.
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Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 16 Mar. 2017.
Mudde, Cas. “’Good’ populism beat ‘bad’ in Dutch election.” The Observer, Guardian News and
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Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: UPenn Press. Introduction, Chapter 1.