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Dutch voters stem populist tide with re-election of PM Rutte

| Thursday, March 16, 2017, 10:18 p.m.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the free-market VVD party speaks to his supporters after exit poll results of the parliamentary elections were announced in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday, March 15, 2017.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Dutch voters showed Europe that populism isn't always inevitable.

The disappointing showing by firebrand Geert Wilders in the Netherlands election has energized traditional parties across Europe from left and right. But it's unlikely to extinguish the anti-immigrant, anti-establishment sentiment that has been blazing throughout Europe.

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister who had pushed the electorate through five years of tough economic measures, emerged victorious in a bruising battle with Wilders, whose relentless invective against all things Muslim and anything from the European Union failed to earn him the breakthrough that many had come to count on as a given.

After boosts in Britain and the United States over the past year and Wednesday's setback in the Netherlands, populism now heads to France for its next test of political viability. It is for Marine Le Pen of the National Front to carry the torch in presidential elections starting next month.

When French, German, Italian and Bulgarian voters cast ballots in the year ahead, they won't be out to mimic Dutch voters. Instead, they'll be driven as much by local issues as global concerns.

The challenge now for candidates such as Le Pen is to keep up the momentum of her gospel against immigrants, the political elite and European unity. It has resonated so widely that she's likely to come out on top of the first round of presidential voting April 23, though is much less likely to win the May 7 final round.

And the challenge for Europe's more moderate candidates — including Le Pen's chief rival, independent Emmanuel Macron — is to reconnect with voters alienated by EU bureaucracy and frustrated by economic stagnation.

They could also take some lessons from the Dutch.

In the wake of the victory of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November, Wilders surged and at one point looked like he could get nearly one in four Dutch voters behind him. Now, instead of becoming the biggest party in the Netherlands, Wilders was a very distance second, with barely 13 percent of the vote.

Instead, Prime Minister Rutte was the toast of most of Europe, relieved there was proof the populist tide could be stopped. Rutte insisted he now wanted to listen to the message of the people who felt disenfranchised in their own nation but said the dominos pushed over by the “wrong kind of populism” had now stopped.

Such was the relief that German Chancellor Angela Merkel called to congratulate him at a time when only exit polls were in. The foreign ministry said in a Twitter message that “the people of the Netherlands have said no to the anti-European populists. This is good.”

Germany holds a general election in September, when the virulent anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party is expected to enter Parliament for the first time. Such is the threat of populism that German Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz immediately looked beyond the historic defeat of his Dutch left-wing political comrades and congratulated Rutte — a paragon of free trade and tough austerity.

“Wilders failed to win the Dutch elections. I am relieved,” Schulz said.

Another socialist did likewise — French President Francois Hollande. He congratulated Rutte for his election success and his “clear victory against extremism.”

He said that “the values of openness, respect for others, and a faith in Europe's future are the only true response to the nationalist impulses and isolationism that are shaking the world.”

There also was relief in the European Union. “The Dutch elections are a perfect start for the electoral year because the populists and the anti-Europeans failed,” said Manfred Weber, the leader of the EU's Christian Democrat EPP group.

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