IT WAS supposed to be the kick-off of Europe’s year of populism. For months, analysts had speculated that Geert Wilders, the platinum-blond rabble-rouser who calls for the Netherlands to shutter its mosques and quit the European Union, might come first in the Dutch election, portending smashing wins for anti-Muslim Eurosceptics across the continent.
It did not happen. On March 15th the Dutch delivered a vote of confidence in the competent centre—despite a last-minute diplomatic clash with Turkey that featured riots in Rotterdam and wild allegations from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president. After the Netherlands blocked Turkish ministers from visiting to campaign for a Turkish referendum among Turkish-Dutch dual citizens, Mr Erdogan called the Netherlands a “Nazi remnant”, barred its ambassador and bizarrely accused the Dutch of the massacres of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.
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Mark Rutte (pictured, third from right), who has been prime minister since 2010, was always the likeliest candidate to form the country’s next government. With 95% of votes counted when The Economist went to press, his Liberal (VVD) party is set to remain the largest, with 33 seats, though it lost eight. In a speech after the exit polls were announced, Mr Rutte hailed the victory as “a feast for democracy”. At a VVD party in Amsterdam young men and women cheered; the result was a “beautiful victory for the liberals”, one ex-banker enthused. Pieter Veldhuizen, a VVD campaigner, said the result showed that the Dutch prefer those who “do things” rather than “tweet on the sofa” (presumably in contrast to Americans).
Mr Wilders’s anti-immigration PVV, which over the past year looked as if it might win the most seats, now looks likely to come second, with 20. Both the Liberals and every other sizeable party have ruled out collaborating with the PVV, and reneging seems neither possible nor desirable.
Mr Rutte will have to negotiate with a handful of parties that emerged from the election much stronger. The Christian Democrats (CDA), who shifted right on issues of national identity and crime in response to Mr Wilders, will be a natural partner. But most of the mid-sized groups are to the VVD’s left: the liberal, pro-European D66 party, the GreenLeft party, the far-left Socialists, and behind them micro-outfits like the Christian Union, 50Plus (a pensioners’ party), the Party for the Animals and Denk, a new ethnic-minority party. The centre-left Labour Party, the junior partner in Mr Rutte’s grand coalition, lost three-quarters of its seats. (Its voters blamed it for abetting Liberal austerity.)
The Netherlands now faces lengthy haggling before a government based on dozens of compromises can take shape. In other words, Dutch politics as usual—just what Mr Wilders and his followers despise. The anti-immigrant right had hoped the row with Turkey would help them reframe the election as a battle between the Netherlands and Islam. Instead, it handed Mr Rutte control of the agenda.
The row with Turkey erupted when the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, attempted to visit Rotterdam to drum up support for a referendum on a new constitution, scheduled for mid-April, that would give Mr Erdogan almost complete control of the government. About 400,000 Dutch have Turkish backgrounds, and their loyalty is a sensitive issue. Most who vote in Turkey back Mr Erdogan and his Islamist AK party—a stance that non-Muslim Dutch find incomprehensible. Mr Wilders often exploits these tensions, calling Muslim Dutch a “fifth column”.
Seeking to avoid pro-Erdogan demonstrations, the Dutch government denied Mr Cavusoglu permission for a rally. After he threatened sanctions if he were not allowed to come, his landing rights were revoked. Hundreds of Turkish-Dutch staged a protest, and the Turkish minister of family affairs drove to Rotterdam to speak to them. Dutch police dispersed the crowd with truncheons, dogs and water-cannons, and forcibly returned the minister to Germany. The reaction in Turkey was furious. Turks declared boycotts, staged protests and vowed sanctions.
The clash, many feared, would play into Mr Wilders’s hands. Instead, it allowed Mr Rutte to show backbone and widen his lead. Nonetheless, it may have helped the PVV to pull Dutch voters yet further to the right. Already, according to Peil, a pollster, 71% of Dutch want to pull out of the EU’s association agreement with Turkey, which prevents the government from forcing Dutch of Turkish origin to take integration courses.
But in the end, domestic issues seem to have trumped international ones. The Netherlands took longer to recover from the euro crisis than some neighbours. Mr Rutte had cut social spending, raised the retirement age and reduced mortgage tax deductions. Populists and moderates alike accused the government of neglecting the elderly and making health care unaffordable. In a debate this week, the only time Mr Rutte looked uncomfortable was when Mr Wilders savaged him over conditions in care homes, and claimed that prisoners were cared for better than the elderly.