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Right-wing populism 'passed its peak'

Volker Wagener
March 16, 2017

It was not only a duel between incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte and challenger Geert Wilders. The Dutch election was also influenced by the recent controversy with Turkey, says German political scientist Hajo Funke.

Niederlande Mark Rutte und Geert Wilders in Den Haag
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Nijhuis

DW: Many political leaders in Germany breathed a great sigh of relief after Rutte's election victory against Wilders. Yet the Dutch leader has lost voters while the right-wing populist has gained them.

Hajo Funke: The main message is nonetheless that Rutte has won against Wilders. You have to consider the opinion polls before the elections. For a long time, it looked like Wilders actually had a chance of winning. In short, it is a symbolic victory for Rutte. Overall, the result also shows that the course taken by Rutte and his grand coalition was controversial. Radical austerity was practiced. The Social Democrats were punished for this.

Did Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan make Rutte stronger?

Yes, it is possible. His resoluteness against Erdogan's unreasonable election campaign demands surely mobilized Rutte voters who may otherwise have voted for Wilders.

Can ailing mainstream parties win if they, like Rutte, show strength against Erdogan?

I would not recommend this to other countries. The escalation between Ankara and Den Haag was not good politically. It has caused resentment in the Turkish minority in the Netherlands and not only in Rotterdam - and also the escalation of violence. Now the next level of escalation is foreseeable, especially in light of the election campaign in Turkey.

Neonazis greifen noch öfter zur Waffe
Political scientist Hajo FunkeImage: Nic Frank

Rutte received a few more percentage points than he already would have because it was clear that Wilders had nothing to offer but anger and Islamophobia and - this is probably the most important point - highly destructive economic policies. He wants to leave the eurozone. That would be a disaster for the Dutch economy and furthermore, it would lead to a chain reaction in Europe. In this respect, level-headed Dutch people knew that they had nothing to gain from Wilders' destructive and bitter course.

The price of triumphing over Wilders is a clear, rightward shift of the liberal-conservative government. Is that the remedy for populism?

That is by no means the remedy for populism. We have different circumstances in Germany. Here, we take a clear position on Islamophobia. And now, frustration over social policies is being addressed by [Social Democrat] Martin Schulz much more strongly than the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Has political populism passed its peak in Europe because its consequences have become more noticeable after victories for Brexit and US President Donald Trump?

Definitely. It is surprising that Wilders and Frauke Petry from the AfD were enjoying Trump's election campaign and victory. They were expecting an invitation from him. However, since the middle of last year, Trump has had no positive effect on Germany - not after his election, not at his inauguration and not since then. One sees quite clearly that when right-wing populists take power, they are destructive inside the country and unpredictable outside and that they cause damage that way. I think that is why right-wing populism has passed its peak for the time being. In the Netherlands and in France, there is a slowdown and it is clear in Germany, where AfD ratings have slumped from 10 to 12 percent down to 8 percent in only a few weeks.

München Frauke Petry AfD
Petry and the right-wing populist AfD have seen their poll numbers drop in recent weeksImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Gebert

What are the lessons German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her election opponent Martin Schulz can learn from the Netherlands' elections?

All in all, they must clearly express their opposition to populists. Rutte said there was no chance of a coalition with Wilders - 0.0 percent - and that was decisive. The second point is that the Social Democrats have been punished, as has the entire grand coalition, because of very tough austerity measures and I believe that not only Schulz understands this. Showing social sensitivity, especially with regard to unreasonable German welfare structures, provides credibility.

France is voting for a new president in April. Wilders lost and AfD ratings are plummeting. Is Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front weakening as well?

It already has been for a while. Now, the independent candidate [Emmanuel] Macron is someone who is much more flexible and does not preach tough austerity like [conservative Francois] Fillon, yet he says that the country must be modernized but in a socially acceptable manner. At the moment, he is the star who has even surpassed Le Pen in initial polls and he is Le Pen's main rival in the first ballot.

Hans-Joachim "Hajo" Funke is a German political scientist and retired professor. Between 1993 and 2010, he taught at the Institute of Political Science at the Free University in Berlin. He is considered to be one of the leading researchers in the field of right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism in Germany.

The interview was conducted by Volker Wagener