Green Left party leader Jesse Klaver, right, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte pose for a group photo prior to a meeting of party leaders with the chairwoman of the parliament to discus first steps in forming a new dutch coalition government in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, March 16, 2017. Dutch political parties were preparing Thursday to start what will likely be a long process of coalition talks after Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s right-wing VVD easily won national elections, defying polls that suggested a close race with anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

Did Erdogan, Trump hurt Geert Wilders’ bid for Dutch power?

Diplomatic spat with Turkey weakened chances

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — If far-right Geert Wilders is looking for somebody to blame for his disappointing showing in the Dutch election, he could point to a couple of possible candidates: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump.

That’s the assessment of Matthijs Rooduijn, an assistant professor at Utrecht University who researches the rise of populist radical parties, and other Dutch political experts.

Erdogan’s diplomatic spat with the Netherlands, which erupted over the weekend, allowed Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to portray himself as a tough statesman on the eve of Wednesday’s national vote, Rooduijn said Thursday. In addition, Trump’s early chaotic days in the White House showed potential Wilders voters that putting populist policies into practice can trigger turmoil, he added.

But ultimately, Dutch politicians muscling into Wilders’ traditional far-right territory may have cost the firebrand lawmaker the most votes.

In Wednesday’s election for The Netherland’s 150-seat lower house of Parliament, Wilders’ Party for Freedom, or PVV, got just over 13 per cent of the vote. That was enough for 20 seats and second place behind Rutte’s conservative VVD party, which easily won the election with 21 per cent of the vote and 33 seats.

This means that Rutte almost certainly will lead the next Dutch government. On Thursday, the chairwoman of Parliament’s lower house, Khadija Arib, appointed Edith Schippers of Rutte’s VVD party to investigate possible government coalitions.

Wilders had seen 21 per cent support himself in mid-December before his poll ratings entered a steady decline.

Analysts agree that Rutte likely got a boost in the crucial closing days of campaigning, when he plunged diplomatic relations with NATO ally Turkey into the deep freeze by refusing to allow two Turkish ministers to address gatherings about a Turkish referendum on constitutional reforms that would give Erdogan more power. Turkey’s foreign minister was refused permission to land in the Netherlands while Ankara’s family minister was barred from entering her country’s consulate in Rotterdam and was escorted out of the country to Germany.

“It was a great opportunity for him to present himself as a strong leader, someone who really cares about Dutch pride,” said Rooduijn. “That is something that many potential Wilders voters find really important.”

Andre Krouwel, a political scientist from Amsterdam’s Free University, agreed.

“This is your electoral campaign dream, right? You can’t script this if it was a movie,” Krouwel said of the dispute. “It’s really helped Mark Rutte to take the lead, and a big lead over Geert Wilders.”

But by the time of the Turkey crisis, Wilders already was in decline and the tumultuous start of Trump’s time in office may have taken a toll on a politician who has often been called the Dutch Donald Trump — a comparison that Wilders increasingly backed away from in recent weeks.

“Initially, he wanted to be associated with Trump,” Rooduijn said. “Then the way in which Trump behaved — many Dutch people do not agree with his policies and approach.”

Nico Bolleboom, 66, from the village of Stompwijk near The Hague, was one of them. He decided against voting for Wilders.

“I don’t want it to become the same here as it is now in the United States,” he said. “Because it is going too far over there.”

While political leaders like to portray Wilders as a radical on the far-right fringe because of his fiery anti-Islam, anti-immigrant rhetoric, they increasingly have been seeking to stake a claim to his agenda.

“Many mainstream parties in the Netherlands have embraced his issues,” Rooduijn said. “For instance, our current prime minster and maybe also future prime minister argued that you should ‘act normal or leave the country.’ So that’s pretty tough.”

Rooduijn was referring to a letter Rutte published in newspapers in January in which he said “we have to actively defend our values” against people who refuse to integrate or act anti-socially.

Rutte also may have hurt Wilders by ruling him out as a coalition partner before the election, causing potential voters to question whether a ballot cast for Wilders would be wasted.

Despite the disappointment, Wilders remained defiant Thursday, popping open a bottle of sparkling wine to toast his party’s five-seat gain and firing off a pledge on Twitter to come back even stronger.

“We were the 3rd largest party of the Netherlands. Now we are the 2nd largest party. Next time we will be nr. 1!” he tweeted.

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