Harry Sterling: Dutch election brings sigh of relief

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Doomsday thinkers might describe it as the Donald Trump contagion.


While Europe is far removed from the tense political divisions that are confronting Americans, some fear those same types of antagonisms are festering within European Union countries.


Much of the increasing division is perceived by some as stemming from the rise of non-traditional and authoritarian right-wing political parties, which increasingly promote radical and extremist policies, further dividing society.


This polarization is taking place when Canada itself has been dealing with the issue of whether this country should reform the current first-past-the-post electoral system and instead implement a new system that broadens the likelihood that the specific policies of Canadian political parties are more fully reflected in the number of seats each party is accorded during elections.


The growing appeal and political strength of non-mainstream parties in the European Union could be a significant factor influencing future national policies of key EU countries Germany and France, as well as the Netherlands, which held elections on Wednesday.


No one can say Dutch voters didn’t have a wide choice of political parties during their election.


The 28 parties ranged from the left to far right, the latter headed by the controversial Geert Wilders, who has called for closing the borders to Muslim immigrants, closing mosques and banning the Qu’ran. He recently was on trial for allegedly denigrating Muslims.


Although Wilders’ Freedom Party reportedly came second with about13 per cent of the vote, his party will remain on the sidelines primarily because of his anti-Muslim policies. Holland’s current prime minister, Mark Rutte of the centre-right VVD Party, came first, tentatively winning 33 seats to Wilders’ 20, and is expected to form a new coalition.


Ironically, some believe Rutte’s electoral victory might have been helped by his refusal to allow cabinet ministers from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to attend political rallies in Holland to campaign for support of Turkish emigrés for giving Erdogan greater powers.


While Holland’s Labour Party plunged dramatically from 38 seats to nine, the Green Party jumped from four seats to 14 under its new leader, Jesse Klaver.


What happens in the forthcoming April 23 and Sept. 24 elections in France and Germany will be watched extremely closely by other EU members and the international community, which regard those two nations as pivotal for the future stability of the European Union.


Recent terrorist attacks in France make it uncertain how the French will vote in April.


Although the Conservative presidential candidate, François Fillon, had appeared to be doing well, a scandal involving Fillon hiring family members has cast a shadow over his prospects.


To the distress of many in France and beyond, one politician seemingly finding increasing support is Marine Le Pen, leader of the right-wing National Front, who has benefited from increased racial tension and terrorist acts carried out by self-proclaimed Islamic extremist groups.


Le Pen has stated that if she takes power, France, like Britain, would leave the European Union.


Even Germany’s respected Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel confronts increasing electoral problems, many linked to anti-foreigner and anti-Muslim sentiment. Her efforts to assist the millions fleeing the Middle East and elsewhere haven’t been appreciated by some Germans, with many blaming a rise in crime and sexual attacks on women on Merkel’s open-door policy toward asylum-seekers.


Anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment in Germany could have a negative effect on the Merkel-led coalition government during this spring’s election.


The various problems and social tensions raise concern over the future of the European Union.


While some might question the EU’s future, it’s also important for member countries to recall where they were before the creation of the union — mired in centuries of violence and wars, many of their people living in poverty.


Even now, despite its perceived shortcomings, many other European countries are waiting patiently to join the EU, hoping some day to share in its remarkable achievements.


The challenge confronting current European Union nations is to understand the realities facing them.


Do members of the European Union want to commit themselves collectively to build further on the laudable accomplishments and goals of its member states? Or do they prefer to go their separate ways with divisive protectionist policies that polarize societies, as is happening in the United States?


 


Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator. He served in Italy and the Netherlands.


harry_sterling@hotmail.ca

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