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Posted at: Mar 20, 2017, 12:42 AM; last updated: Mar 20, 2017, 12:42 AM (IST)

Best news is from Amsterdam

Ashis Ray
Europhiles are relieved that the victory of Mark Rutte’s centre-right VVD has kept at bay the extreme right-wing party, PVV, led by Geert Wilders. The Dutch vote was closely monitored ahead of elections in mainland Europe's three biggest economies — France, Germany and Italy, later this year.
IN Dutch politics, alliances are imperative to construct an administration. The post-election government formation is, therefore, a slightly time-consuming process. In due course, a coalition led by the incumbent Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, will surface.

Meanwhile, Europhiles across the European Union are relieved that the extreme right wing party, PVV, led by Geert Wilders, were kept at bay in the general election held last week. A record 80 per cent turnout reflected a late determination on the part of moderates and pro-Europeans to maintain the status quo. Rutte's centre-right VVD scored a hat-trick of retaining their position as the largest single party, though down by eight seats from the 41 seats they had captured in 2012. The Dutch parliament comprises of 150 lawmakers.

Rutte has been eager to enhance relations with India. During his visit to Delhi in 2015, the two countries agreed to expand cooperation in defence and security and skill development, build dredgers in Cochin, clean the Ganga and improve infrastructure in Mumbai. 

In the past eight months, the European Union has been buffeting by winds of ultra-nationalism and white or Christian suprematism in the shape of Britain quitting the European Union and the United States electing Donald Trump as President. From the most-powerful European, German Chancellor Angela Merkel to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, personalities committed to the European project and fearful of its fracture, warmly welcomed the Dutch result. There was anxiety about how the xenophobic Wilders would perform.

A PVV victory would certainly have caused concern. Wilders had pledged to take the Netherlands out of the EU, close all mosques and ban the Koran. Only weeks before the election, opinion polls forecast he might secure the highest number of seats, but his lead evaporated as balloting drew near. Of course, even if the PVV had emerged as the largest single party, no party of substance would have supported them.  

In the last lap of the campaign, Rutte probably gained ground from a diplomatic standoff with Muslim-dominated Turkey. He disallowed government ministers from Ankara to canvass with the Turkish community in Amsterdam, in connection with an upcoming referendum on granting more powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The latter is an advocate of Islamic orthodoxy. Earlier, he had tactically toughened his line on immigration. In a letter published in Dutch newspapers, he told immigrants “behave normally or leave”.  

The path to a coalition, though, will not be a straightforward one. Rutte is likely to turn to pro-EU Christian parties and D66. But that would still not be enough to muster an absolute majority.  

That brings into play the Green-Left party, that have quadrupled the tally of seats from four to 16. They are led by an appealing 30-year-old in Jesse Klaver, who has drawn comparisons with Canada's Justin Trudeau. However, whether Klaver wishes to be associated with the centre-right remains to be seen.

He could be concerned about the drubbing the Labour Party, a junior partner in the outgoing government, suffered from such partnership, losing 20 seats from the 29 they held in the previous parliament. 

Wilders' defeat, though, does not mean the challenge from right-wing hardliners will disappear. “Rutte has not seen the back of me,” Wilders threatened. His party are now the second biggest in the house, having boosted their number from 12 to 20. If there's a message that is emanating from the elections it is that the Dutch are against Dexit. However, they have become allergic to non-white immigration and multiculturalism.

The litmus test will be France's two-phase presidential election, which climaxes in May. The far-right National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, is expected to win the multi-cornered first round. She is expected to fall short in a straight contest in the second. 

In Germany, the neo-fascist Alternative for Germany are tipped to win seats for the first time in the Bundestag in September's general election. Their growing electoral support is envisioned as damaging for Merkel's Christian Democrats, with Social Democrats benefiting from it. European populists are agitated about immigration, Islam, the EU and globalisation. Merkel in an act of admirable mercy admitted a million, mostly Muslim Syrian refugees into Germany. This has annoyed a section of her people and dented her popularity. For the first time in her 12 years as Chancellor, she looks vulnerable.  

Last year, Alexander van der Bellen, a pro-European, won the Austrian presidency. Emmanuel Macron, an independent centrist, is promising to do the same in France. Liberals are gaining ground in Poland and Spain. Perhaps, there's hope yet for the EU project. 

The writer is a London-based journalist


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