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End of the Populist Spring?

16 Mar 2017
By Dr Frank Mols

The Dutch conservative party, the VVD, is already negotiating to form a coalition government after this week’s solid defeat of Geert Wilders’ populist PVV. Some have said it means the ‘populist spring’ is over, but closer consideration suggests that may be premature.

The year 2016 will in all likelihood be remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Had Geert Wilders won the 15 March Dutch national elections and become the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament, then this would have undoubtedly been interpreted as consolidating the global surge in populism. Now that he has ended second, with just 5 additional seats, some are inclined to interpret this in an equally dramatic fashion, as the beginning of the end of this global trend.

But can the Dutch election result be treated as the bellwether for global populism? The answer depends on whether this question is looked at from a traditional political science or psephological perspective, focusing on the electoral system and voter turnout, or from a sociological perspective, focusing on changes in norms, attitudes, and values.

Splitting the protest vote

When considering the issue from a political science perspective, the Dutch elections tell us little about what might happen in other countries and jurisdictions. Observers from English speaking countries with a ‘winner takes it all’ electoral system may be inclined to focus too heavily on the party that secured the most seats, at the expense of parties with only slightly lower support levels. However, such interpretations do not do justice to complexity of the Dutch electoral system.

Had Wilders’ PVV become the biggest party, as the polls had suggested in February, the English media would in all likelihood have ran with front page headlines declaring Wilders the big winner, and only the avid reader would have discovered that the party political landscape was rather fragmented, and more importantly here, that the overwhelming majority of voters did not vote PVV.

Instead, the VVD, led by Mark Rutte, won the elections, securing 21 per cent of the vote and up to 33 of the 150 seats. It means that only one in five voters voted for the winning party. Given the result, it makes sense to claim the Dutch elections bucked the populist trend. Not because Wilders party had to concede defeat, but because only 13.1 per cent voted for the PVV.

But what should not be forgotten is that in the Netherlands frustrated voters seeking to cast a protest vote have considerable choice, with the PVV being merely one of several parties disgruntled voters can vote for to punish the incumbent party or the party they voted for previously. While the VVD will have the most seats in the new parliament, forecasts suggest it will lose up to eight of those it held previously.

Also worth considering is the remarkably high voter turnout of 81 per cent in a country in which voting is not compulsory. Although we cannot be sure without further research, it seems plausible that voters may have recalled the Brexit ‘Leave’ vote and the US elections, which in both cases could have produced different results if more voters had bothered to turn out to vote. If this were to be the case, then we would have even more evidence of the Netherlands bucking the trend.

Gauging the zeitgeist

However, when considering the issue from a social psychological and/or sociological perspective, it becomes less clear whether the Netherlands can be said to have bucked the trend. There is the possibility that the power of the populist protest vote may have been limited by the current Dutch electoral system, implying that the potential for populist voting is greater than immediately apparent.

In that case, there is the possibility that a new leader or movement may seek to harness such ‘latent’ sentiments. It’s only necessary to recall the assassination of the populist Pim Fortuyn in 2002, and the rise of Wilders as his successor, to appreciate that populists come and go, and that a new leader may use a different approach and be more effective at arousing and harnessing populist resentment.

When we think of populism we tend to think of political movements and aspirations. However, populism can also be seen as a collective mindset or zeitgeist, in which compassion for the poor gives way to admiration for the wealthy, in which poverty and deprivation become viewed as self-inflicted, and in which sense of entitlement trumps sense of duty of care.

Indeed, seemingly innocent television programs like ‘Judge Judy’, ‘Highway Patrol’, ‘Border Force’, ‘Struggle Street’ and ‘The Apprentice’ may well be manifestations of a harsher zeitgeist. In such a climate, it is only a small step to support a leader with a nativist agenda who claims the autochthonous population is more entitled and deserving than immigrants.

There have been countless studies into the appeal of populist parties, and no shortage of studies seeking to profile the typical populist supporter. However, as Jolanda Jetten and I have reported in our forthcoming book ‘the Wealth Paradox’, there are two persistent myths about the rise and fall of populist parties.

The first myth is the idea that populist parties thrive in times of economic crisis. The second myth is that populist parties only attract people from lower income groups. The counterintuitive evidence we present in our book shows that populist parties can be remarkably successful both in times of economic prosperity and among relatively affluent voters.

So long as this is not fully appreciated, there is the risk of complacency and underestimating the potential for populism in contexts where it is least expected. And from that perspective it certainly seems premature to interpret the Dutch election results as spelling the end of the populist spring.

Frank Mols is a lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. He is co-author of the forthcoming ‘The Wealth Paradox: Economic Prosperity and the Hardening of Attitudes’.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.