Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Wilders Won't Win but Mainstream Rhetoric is Already Moving His Way

A surprisingly balanced story this morning about today's Dutch election is "Dutch Vote Watched Across Europe With a Finger in the Wind," by Alissa Rubin and Christopher Schuetze (particularly when compared with Michael Birnbaum's dispatch for WaPo, which is your standard "Wilders is an anti-immigrant bogeyman" story).

A synopsis of the Rubin and Schuetze report goes something like this: The political mainstream is still in trouble, but Europeans in general and the Dutch in particular are becoming more cautious about supporting the far right given Trump's election and Brexit; Geert Wilders' Party of Freedom will not participate in any new government, but Wilders' impact will be felt as the mainstream parties co-opt a portion of his anti-immigrant rhetoric:
Even as support for centrist parties craters nearly everywhere, some analysts see new hints of wariness of the protest and anti-elite votes that aided the rise of recent populist politicians, given the uncertainty and conflict ushered in by the first weeks of the Trump administration and the British vote last year to exit the European Union, or Brexit.
Hajo Funke, a political scientist at the Free University in Berlin, said he had detected early signs in the past several weeks of a backlash against populism.
In Germany, for example, the far-right Alternative for Germany party has slipped in the polls. Mr. Funke said he thought that voters in Europe were looking at Brexit and the Trump presidency not as points of inspiration, but rather with deep concern.
“There is no Trump effect,” he said. “Nothing happened.” On the current moment for populist parties, he said, “I see stagnation, or decline.”
In the Netherlands, Mr. Funke noted, Geert Wilders, one of the most stridently anti-Muslim politicians in Europe, has struggled to improve his standing in recent weeks after climbing quickly in the polls.
“There is a danger that it can go out of control, as far as the voting for Wilders,” he said, “but I doubt that will be the case.”
Even if populists like Mr. Wilders do not prevail, other analysts said, their high profiles and often inflammatory presence had moved much of the political debate to the far right’s turf. The battle in many ways is already won.
“Since the entrance of Geert Wilders into the political arena, he hasn’t had any office but he has exerted influence,” said Bert Bakker, a communications professor at the University of Amsterdam.
Discussions in the Netherlands now often center on restrictions on immigrants, identity politics and nationalism.
Professors, pollsters and others who closely watch elections emphasize that, at least in the Netherlands, the far right is not going to win or control the government — or even come close — not least because the other right-leaning parties have promised publicly not to work with Mr. Wilders in a coalition.
That has not stopped them from adopting somewhat milder versions of the far right’s positions on many issues. One result is that the far right’s views have dominated the debate, crowding out other views and issues.
“Even if these parties are not actually winning or part of the government, everything is moving to a more anti-immigration stance, more pro-nationalist, to try to win voters who are the losers in globalization,” said Jasper Muis, a professor of sociology at the Free University of Amsterdam, who studies populism.
“Immigration and asylum seekers become the focus on the one hand and values and norms on the others,” he said, “but not much is said about economic development or employment and that’s a part of the success story of the populist right: that they’ve been able to make it difficult to talk about other subjects.”
In the most optimistic outlooks, Mr. Wilders, who heads the Freedom Party, will get about 15 percent of the vote. Even if his votes were combined with those of other far-right and anti-establishment parties, the combined number of likely seats in the 150-seat Parliament would not exceed about 30, or 20 percent of the Parliament.
However, the Christian Democratic Appeal party is promoting a line almost as conservative on immigration as that of Mr. Wilders, a change from its more moderate position of several years ago. That party now looks likely to win about as many seats as Mr. Wilders, and if the mainstream right’s seats are added to that, the far-right and center-right parties would have a majority.
Even if the right has dominated the campaign, the reality is that the Netherlands is deeply divided and its centrist parties are losing ground in an increasingly fractured political landscape.
There are 28 parties on the ballot. Only between 10 and 12 will get enough votes to win a seat in Parliament. There are still likely to be four or five parties in the governing coalition — all but guaranteeing it will include both left- and right-leaning parties.
For that reason some experienced observers of European politics say the rightward drift by the Dutch may be more important as a harbinger of trends on the Continent than for its practical impact.
Some analysts are far more worried about the French vote, because the far-right leader of the National Front, the presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, has a bloc of voters that is much more solidified behind her.
“The bloc for Le Pen is very consistent, which is different than the other populists,” said Mr. Funke of the Free University in Berlin.
An even greater concern may be Italy, where the populist Five Star party and the Northern League could win if elections are held, in part on a platform proposing a referendum on whether Italy should continue to use the euro. That could trigger a loss of confidence by foreign investors and capital flight from the Continent. 
“Italy is potentially the worst case because if they are forced by election results to have a euro referendum,” Mr. Funke said, “then there would be a big danger.”
Wilders has been puffed to a certain extent as a charismatic bogeyman. If he under-performs, the prestige press is going to spin it as a blow to Le Pen. But it will be nothing of the sort. Rutte's Punch-&-Judy with Erdogan confirms that the neoliberal center acknowledges it can no longer win elections without co-opting the far right's rhetoric. This is a new development, the latest attempt by the governing corporate elite to buy more time.

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