- - Wednesday, June 5, 2019

THE HAGUE — While the recent European elections boosted the fortunes of anti-EU parties in Britain, Italy, France and Belgium, the Netherlands bucked the trend by triggering speculation over the future of Geert Wilders, once Europe’s flamboyant poster boy for the far right.

Defying pre-election polls last month, Mr. Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) lost all four of the seats it was defending in the 751-member European Parliament and trailed in 10th place among Dutch parties, behind even the pensioners’ 50Plus party, even though Mr. Wilders prominently signed on to a campaign by nationalist and populist parties across the EU to coordinate strategy and boost their representation.

The 3.5% vote share was the PVV’s worst performance in an election since the party was launched 13 years ago and followed a string of losses in local and regional elections over the past 15 months. Mr. Wilders, who once was rarely lacking in confidence in his movement or his message, acknowledged that the PPV’s loyal voters were disappointed in the campaign and vowed to learn his lesson.

“We need to be much more visible, we need to organize meetings and campaigns,” he said after the results were announced. “We need to get back out on the streets.”

Some say Mr. Wilders, one of the longest-serving and well-known far-right leaders in Europe, has taken a back seat to young upstart Thierry Baudet and his far-right Forum for Democracy.

“If you look at voter flows, it’s very clear that former PVV voters voted for Forum,” said Sarah de Lange, a political science professor at the University of Amsterdam.

Mr. Baudet posed a direct challenge to Mr. Wilders unlike other parties, analysts say.

A 36-year-old former newspaper columnist with a penchant for eye-catching stunts — he turned up for a debate about military spending in a combat vest — Mr. Baudet surprised the political establishment in 2017 when his new party won two seats in the national parliament.

Since then, Mr. Baudet has gone from strength to strength and topped the polls in regional elections in March.

Political analysts said his campaign was slicker and smarter than that of the 55-year-old Mr. Wilders and outpointed him on social media, where his proficiency with memes and YouTube clips proved more in tune with younger voters than Mr. Wilders’ one-way Twitter traffic.

Nixing ‘Nexit’

Ms. de Lange said Mr. Wilders’ party ran a surprisingly lackluster campaign.

“In contrast to previous elections, they didn’t do a tour of the country or campaign outside the debates, so their visibility was very low,” she said. “As in previous elections, they campaigned on a ‘Nexit’ ticket, but that stance wasn’t particularly popular” this time.

The problem, observers say, was that “Nexit” — following the United Kingdom’s lead by pulling the Netherlands out of the European Union — didn’t have the populist pull it once did because of Britain’s political difficulties in charting a post-EU future.

While Britain’s Brexit Party scored a stunning plurality win with 30% of the EU parliamentary vote as the government still weighs its options, Mr. Wilders’ fixation on an immediate Nexit did not prove nearly as popular.

By contrast, Mr. Baudet and his supporters demanded a referendum on membership rather than outright withdrawal, allowing EU-skeptical Dutch voters a way to express their disapproval without making a binding commitment.

That worked well for many voters who would like to send Brussels a message.

Mr. Wilders “says what many people here want to hear,” said Andre van Zanten, 39, from Dordrecht, who voted for Mr. Baudet mainly as a protest against Brussels. “We have a good country here, don’t we? I think we can look after ourselves just fine.”

Even though Forum performed slightly below expectations, winning three of the 26 Dutch seats rather than the four or five that opinion polls predicted, the election confirmed Mr. Baudet’s status as the new standard-bearer for the populist right.

Mr. Baudet said the outcome was “a little less than the polls predicted,” but he was looking forward to sending “a strong delegation to Brussels, where we can build a vibrant network of euroskeptic parties.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Wilders’ slump in the polls wasn’t the only way that the Netherlands bucked the European trend of punishing more centrist parties.

The center-left Labor Party (PvdA) emerged from years in the doldrums to top the polls with 18% of the vote and doubled its delegation from three seats to six, to the surprise of pundits. The result was seen as a personal endorsement for Frans Timmermans, a former foreign minister who was the main reason that more than half of the party’s voters supported it in this election, Ms. de Lange said.

Rik Hendriks, a retired information technology worker from Heerlen in the southern province of Limburg, switched to Labor after 15 years supporting the hard-left, euroskeptic Socialist Party.

“This result shows that the silent majority knows we in the Netherlands can’t do without Europe,” he said. “Not many parties dare to say that in public.”

Boost for Timmermans

The strong personal mandate will boost the 58-year-old Mr. Timmermans’ chances of succeeding Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission in November. Mr. Timmermans said he welcomes the chance to take the bloc in a new direction, with more powers to tackle multinational issues such as climate change and cross-border tax avoidance.

“I have seen that all over Europe, in many countries, there is a need for a different Europe,” he said.

As the candidate for the Socialist group, Mr. Timmermans still faces an uphill battle to beat his conservative German rival, Manfred Weber, 46, leader of the European People’s Party and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s choice. In a public division between the EU’s two dominant figures, French President Emmanuel Macron backs Mr. Timmermans.

The “Timmermans effect,” meanwhile, hurt the Dutch Green party, GroenLinks, which made smaller gains than other European green parties. Support for green parties across the continent rose significantly to become the second-largest bloc in the EU Parliament. The GroenLinks won 10.9% of the vote, which meant just three seats.

The Socialists, the main Euro-skeptic voice on the left, lost both their seats, having been criticized during the campaign for running a negative “attack ad” against Mr. Timmermans.

The big questions are what comes next for the Dutch far right and whether Mr. Baudet can build on last month’s results.

“The question is whether Forum is able to sustain its success,” Ms. de Lange said. “It’s a very volatile party. It’s risen quite quickly and struggled with internal conflict.”

“If it does implode, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Forum voters switch back to the PVV,” she said.

Mr. Wilders’ PVV, meanwhile, is set to pick up a seat in Brussels after Brexit, when Britain’s 73 seats will be redistributed. Regardless, Mr. Wilders had a defiant message for those who questioned his future.

“I will never step down,” he said. “Never.’”

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