Donald Trump casts long shadow over Dutch election

Wave of nationalism could sway European elections
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Story highlights

  • David Andelman: Dutch election will be first test of whether Trump's coattails have lift
  • Trump could prove a drag on Europe as he sinks into the morass of governing, he says

David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal, is the author of "A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today." Follow him @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)The long shadow Donald Trump is casting across Europe is falling first on the Netherlands, where voters go to the polls Wednesday for the first test of whether his political coattails have a real lift, or serve as a dangerous drag on the prospects of Europe's resurgent populist right. It will be evidence as to the appeal of anti-Muslim candidates seeking to ban refugees and reject the concept of a united Europe.

The momentum of far-right populist Geert Wilders has been slipping. Even if he were to win, there are obstacles to his taking over outright leadership of this NATO nation.
David A. Andelman
Wilders' platform is a fun-house mirror of Trump and adviser Stephen Bannon's darkest views -- pushing the bar on all Muslim immigration, shuttering all mosques (Wilders calls them "Nazi temples") and asylum centers, banning the Quran and taking the Netherlands out of the European Union in a move dubbed Nexit, following Britain's ill-considered Brexit vote last year.
    For some time, the Dutch politician found himself with apparently unstoppable momentum. After all, it was Wilders who last April began tweeting, "MAKE THE NETHERLANDS GREAT AGAIN!"
    Wilders has expended some effort trying to emulate Trump's rise in the United States. He even attended the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and in response to Trump's shocking November victory, Wilders tweeted, "The people are taking their country back. So will we."
    These kinds of remarks have enlarged his political appeal, or at least acceptability, to a large number of voters. Now, however, as Trump sinks more deeply into the morass of governing, many may be having some second thoughts.
    Today, Dutch voters, who keep a close watch on events across the pond, are said to be pulling some support from Wilders. And if the American President continues to flounder through a succession of tweetstorms -- promising the moon and delivering little -- the attraction of his European clones could begin to fade.
    The Dutch are considerably less tolerant -- at least legally -- than the United States of the sort of outrageous sentiments that are routine elsewhere. When Wilders compared Islam to Nazism in 2011 and in 2014 pledged to reduce the number of Moroccans in the Netherlands by some unspecified means, he was charged with inciting discrimination -- a criminal offense.
    Although Wilders was found guilty last year, it didn't dissuade him from opening his campaign last month by saying that "the Moroccan scum in the Netherlands -- not all are scum, but there is a lot of scum -- make the streets unsafe." It was reminiscent of Trump's remark about Mexican rapists and the few good people who may be crossing the border when he launched his campaign for the presidency.
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    Support for Wilders' Party for Freedom seems to be peeling away to the more moderate conservative Christian Democrats on one side and, curiously, to the far-left Socialists.
    Much of today's European political spectrum is less a straight right-left line. It's an oval track with candidates running around it in the direction of the popular will at the moment, with both extremes connecting as they round the circle. The challenge for any political candidate, but especially those at the extremes, is to snatch the checkered flag before someone else crosses the finish line going the other way.
    Wilders' real goal in the Netherlands is to touch off a "patriotic spring" across Europe where, in short order, voters in France and Germany will also be heading into some quite contentious national elections of their own. In both those countries, there are viable "patriotic spring" candidates and political parties -- Marine Le Pen and her National Front in France, and Frauke Petry and her Alternative for Germany party, which outflanks even conservative stalwart Angela Merkel, going for her fourth term as chancellor with some real headwinds of her own.
    Each of these far-right candidates has acquired an all but messianic following, though each is beginning to worry their nations' electorates. Le Pen may eventually face a tough race with moderate candidate Emmanuel Macron.
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    Although there are several examples of European populist candidates, Wilders may be the closest to the Trump model. His bleached-white hair is swept back in a Trump-style pompadour, and he often takes his cues from Margaret Thatcher, who some say is Trump's role model. He's often seen to disdain traditional Dutch political tropes, which may ultimately stymie his efforts to move into the ruling prime minister's office, even if he does manage to eke out an election win.
    The curiosity in the Dutch case is that while the Netherlands elects 150 members of the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer), there are no electoral districts. Some 13 million voters will cast their ballots for a national party list, with the winners doled out in proportion to how many votes their party wins. Since the ballot will carry 28 parties, and 11 to 15 could reach the threshold to claim a seat, only rarely does a single party register an outright majority. A ruling coalition will inevitably result from complex political deal-making that could last three months, the longest having lasted 208 days in 1977.
    Electoral quirks, particularly France's two-round system, which allows only the public's popular vote to decide on a winner, could be enough to keep Europe out of the hands of the extreme right. It's in contrast to the American Electoral College system that allowed a candidate who didn't have a majority of the popular votes into the White House.
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    Hopefully, Dutch voters and the politicians they finally send to The Hague will have the good sense to assemble a government without any of the extremes that seem so seductive in the short run, but pose an existential threat to Europe and the peace of democracies. And if Trump continues to surprise and horrify Europeans in the weeks to come, that good sense could sweep across the continent, burying the populist wave before it has a chance to take charge of a major nation.